On the Maryland side of the Maryland-Delaware line, within a relatively nondescript building, lies the technological inner-workings of W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of the Gore-Tex fabric, used in over 200 brands for its breathable waterproof properties. Inside this building sits the world’s most sophisticated environmental chamber, able to mimic conditions from the suffocating heat of the harshest dessert to the bitterness of the highest mountain, a rain tower like no other and countless labs designed to ensure the guarantee of Gore-Tex as it adapts to fit coats, pants and even shoes for nearly every single major brand in the outdoor industry.
And while Gore-Tex engineers test rigorously for waterproofing performance, tucked inside these labs in a small room with unique lighting sits another all-important testing ground: color.
The way the manufacturing process works, Gore-Tex pairs its waterproof membrane with a laminate material, creating a fabric. Each brand then cuts, sews and builds that fabric—sometimes pairing it with liners for warmth—into their own design specifications. But even while Gore-Tex is known for the waterproofing technology, that laminate leaving its facility must also meet each brand’s exacting color specifications, a spectrum that puts Brandon Bell, Gore’s regional shade manager for North America, on watch.
Inside the Gore color lab, with walls painted a neutral color, Bell uses a D75 light source, but can switch between natural sunlight, fluorescent lights and many others. “The surroundings effect how we perceive color, so all color decisions are made under the D75,” he tells HOW.
Gore works with raw textile suppliers for color quality, ensuring that each dye lot or printed textile matches perfectly. Any time Gore adds a thermal component to the fabric it can change the way shade comes out. Bell watches for it all.
Bell must manage the quality of color, well beyond a dye lot. He enacts color fastness testing on the multi-fiber materials. He tests sweat against color. He tests color after countless laundry cycles. He uses a UV simulator to speed up the testing process. He tests heat. Steam. Every step of the way is about finding the right technologies to support long-lasting color.
“Some textile mills and dye suppliers uphold more,” he says. “Solution dye holds its shade and color.” This process adds color to a polymer before it enters the extrusion process instead of after, so color impregnates the fibers and doesn’t simply fixate to yarns.
Bell, who must take the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 hue test annually to ensure he really sees what he thinks he sees, also works closely with the brands—and the military, as Gore-Tex supplies camouflage patterns for every branch of the Armed Forces—to find colors and patterns that push the boundaries of previous offerings.
“It is very brand dependent,” he says. “Some brands are cut and dry and some are on the forefront of technology and also on color palette and print designs.” He cites premium outdoor brand Arc’teryx as one of the most progressive in terms of color.
“They are very intense on color palettes and are cutting edge,” he says. “They are very critical of the final shade and often marry two different textiles in the same garment, such as adding fabric at the elbow or shoulders, and it is hard to match colors.” But the challenges don’t limit the possibilities.
“We apply color to reinforce the intent of the product, identify function and empower the user to perform at their highest level during their pursuits in the natural environment,” Kristie Bernie, Arc’teryx color design manager tells HOW. “We balance our brand’s sophisticated, timeless aesthetic with leading-edge color harmonies and contemporary color merchandising concepts.”
As Bell continues to work under his lights with multiple spectrophometers, he’s seen the improvement in color lasting. While darker colors, such as blacks and navy blues, still hold color best and reds and oranges lose color the quickest, especially when exposed to the deteriorating conditions of a UV-filled snow-covered mountain, the solution dye process has served to hold color better, longer.
And with more than 200 brands counting on Gore-Tex fabric as the backbone of their product, designing for color becomes just as technical as the material.
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