Dropping In On Finisterre: Eco-Technical Surfwear
When we first encountered Finisterre in February we said we’d be back after their even greener collection hit the shelves. Well, this Cornish eco-apparel-for-surfers company has been busy unpacking deliveries the past few weeks, so here we are again. The news is that they aren’t manufacturing in China any more, have introduced beeswax impregnated poly-cotton fabrics, garments of traceable merino wool, and embraced recycled polyester fabrics, whilst simultaneously dropping laminated waterproofs in favour of what they see as a biomimetric alternative. No, not the much vaunted lotus leaf fabric, instead they take their cue from animal fur. After the fold we chew the fat in an extended interview with the guys from Finisterre as they explain in detail just how this all works.Biomimetric waterproofs? Is this a new rendering of the Buffalo clothing concept, like Patagonia did with their Infurno line? If not, what are the differences?
Buffalo uses a fiber pile worn next to the body - a combination of capillary action and thermodynamics keep the wearer warm and relatively dry when working hard.
Biomimetic waterproofs use a fiber pile worn away from the body and then waterproofed [we think they mean water resistant] in a hydrocarbon d.w.r [durable water repellent]. The result is very similar to animal fur and its performance revolves around two points. First the pile is brushed very fine to create a hydrophobic fuzz, the density of the fuzz is so to maximise the waterproofness whilst keeping weight to a minimum.
Second is a fiber density gradient with the highest fiber density closer to the body (again mimicking animal fur) - as you sweat moisture droplets are collected in the face of the fabric, the more you sweat the larger the droplets become. In order to maintain minimum contact with the hydrophobic fibers the larger the droplets become the more they move away from the higher fiber density i.e. away from the body.
All combined gives you an incredibly breathable waterproof fabric that moves more moisture away from your body the harder you work. The current system that we use is made by Nikwax Analogy and represents the first step in our work with this technology.
We are independently working on models that use fiber directionality which will enable us to reduce the weight and increase the moisture transportation away from the body. We have also managed to attach elastic loops around the fiber base in some of the directional faces. Thus having the potential to work in a similar way to the arrector pilli in your skin and would control the loft and warmth of a fabric depending on the body temperature.
What in Finisterre’s view is the lifetime of lamination/coating style waterproofs?
There are two types of lamination based waterproofs that are currently available on the market - Membrane and PU (polyurethane). Membrane based jackets rely upon tiny pores that are big enough to let water vapor out but too small to let water droplets in. Like the original Gore-tex and the current eVent fabrics, these actually do breath (although not very well) in the strictest sense of the word.
The problem is that body oils and dirt, quickly block the pores and reduce the breathability and waterproofness. eVent say, 'they have solved this by making there membrane, oil-phobic' but tests and practical experience have shown that after three years (with regular after care and cleaning) the performance is drastically reduced. Gore-tex solved the durability problem by applying a thin PU layer on the underside to protect the membrane.
Whilst this increased the durability it eliminated the breathability. PU is a non porous layer and so does not actually physically breath - it actually moves moisture across itself which is how it tries to keep you dry when humidity inside your jacket is high. With every wash, PU layers are reduced which is why PU layers claim these incredible hydrostatic heads (30,000mm e.t.c.). This massive statistic does not reflect practical waterproofness but the durability, in the sense that every time you wash or wear the jacket the PU layer will be reduced.
Even if this does last for 10 years, regular use the incredibly energy hungry lamination and gluing techniques that are used to seal them will not last the same length of time.
What then makes the Finisterre alternative last up to three times longer as you’ve suggested?
The performance is based completely on the mechanical structure of the fabric and does not require any pores, laminations, solvents or PU's. After a while the waterproofness will decrease, but after a reproof (can be done in a washing machine @ 30 degrees), it will be as good as it was before. This fact means that the performance of the fabric can be maintained indefinitely with the delicate brushed fiber pile protected by a tuff polyester outer. Polyester does not suffer from UV degradation unlike Nylon and due to the lack of lamination we can use a heavier more durable grade of face fabric whilst maintaining a soft drapeable feel.
The first things likely to need changing are the zips and accessories which highlights the next point of our system. Because there is no seam taping, sonic welding or heat sealing every part of the jacket can be easily unpicked, repaired and re-stitched by either ourselves or anybody with the suitable skills.
We are offering a ten year re-service plan for this very reason and are confident that, if looked after well, the jackets could go on for decades. In order to claim a car as a classic, it has to be older than 25 years, in this day and age how many things have that classic potential ?
If the garments can be recycled at the end of their life, does this mean they are made of recycled materials to begin with?
The garments can be recycled because there is no use of lamination or solvents in any of the manufacturing - just 100% polyester. Polyester is currently one of the easiest textiles to recycle. Whilst the biomimetic jackets are made from virgin polyester the fiber can be reclaimed and recycled at the end of its life time. The quality of the recycled product would not be the same grade of polyester that was used in the first place however. In some of the product range this year we have been working with Teijin and the garments are made from EcoCircle polyester.
I am sure that you are already familiar with this as Patagonia use it in some of their range. The reason that we do not currently use EcoCircle in the biomimetic garments is that the fiber quality and durability are not quite up to the level we require. We are currently working with a used garment/textile supplier to see the likely hood of using 2nd hand textiles as the outer layer of the biomimetic garments - however finding 2nd hand fabrics with the right performance characteristics is easier said than done.
Are there Cradle to Cradle ideas at work here?
With regards to sustainability and cradle to cradle I am very aware that polyester, eco-circle polyester and used textiles are all finite resources and do not offer sustainability in the long term. One of the most exciting aspects of the biomimetic system is that the different components of its functionality could all potentially be made from organic produce. We are not just talking about PLA or Bamboo but genuine organics that are grown and processed with very little environmental detriment.
We are closely working with Hemp Fabric UK and Plymouth University on naturally waterproofing hemp and are developing alpaca yarns with The Natural Fibre Company. Combined with the advances in eco silk and naturally coloured long staple cotton we are working towards a performance clothing system that will not only perform better than any manmade on the market, but will also be completely organic and biodegradable. For us this would represent the pinnacle in performance, design and cradle to cradle sustainability!
In early correspondence there was a suggestion that natural systems were also inspiring your supply chain. Can you elaborate further?
Since those early years playing with pond life to those later years and trophic dynamics, ecosystems have always represented models in industrial ecology and localised industry. One thing we have been working hard on is joining the dots with regards to waste and resource. One of the major steps we had to make with regards to this was transparency in all the processes that are involved with the manufacturing of a jacket.
Whilst the world might seem a local place at times there is still vast communication gaps and differences in cultural agendas. Hence we did not just move out of China through environmental and ethical issues but also in the quest for greater transparency and flexibility in agenda. It is interesting that the place we have been able to meet our agenda to the greatest degree has been closest to home. Working in Cornwall, Devon, UK, Europe is giving us massive advantages in communication, transparency and flexibility.
In all honesty the ongoing development of localised industrial ecologies has not necessarily been bio-mimic, more like a series of accidental bio-similarities as a result of our manufacturing agenda. [The biomimetic waterproofs themselves are sewn under contract in a factory, in the South American city of Bogotá, Columbia,that is also a rehabilitation scheme run by nuns to help provide a livelihood for ‘women at risk.’ This factory has evolved into an award winning, independent, charitable foundation that has gone on to establish a related community centre, a kindergarten for 150 children and a canteen for 400 local children.]
Are you still targeting the surf industry?
We are surf inspired, those are our roots. No core company within this industry with a sincere start in surf, has ever designed good quality technical product. Call it complacency within the hard goods market, poor margins when designing technical products etc, these companies turn over fashion and neglect what surfers actually use.
Is there a cost trade-off in the retail price, due to your ‘biomimetic’ innovations (or the move away from Far East production)?
Whilst we ourselves are taking a financial hit, we are determined not to let that reflect in the price of our garments. We believe that being competitively priced is vital to our growth and that our current investment represents a long term strategy.
Are there other compromises, in maybe product weight, style, colour, home laundering, etc as a result of the changes?
We are currently unable to compete with the super light packable jackets currently available on the market - Weight therefore is potentially the only drawback. Having said that, the compromise is minimal and far outweighed by all the positives.
Thanks to the guys at Finisterre for their time. There are only four of them, (whoops, and let's not forget their dog) so it seems like exciting times ahead, as they roll out their new line, and get invited to conferences and symposia all around the show to discuss their approach to design and environmental ethics. ::Finisterre.