How Science is Making Winter
Jackets Warmer than Ever
European cave dwellers later morphed the cape into more of a coat-like garment, but it wasn’t until Canadian Inuits invented the caribou parka that humans began wearing anything resembling the modern winter jacket.
Much of today’s cold-weather apparel has been driven by outdoor athletics. Mountaineering ascents in the early 1920s prompted the first wave of down jackets and, as winter sports went more mainstream with activities like skiing and snowboarding, the demand on textile engineers grew to develop increasingly effective winter apparel.
That is, until about a decade ago.
Around this time, a small team of clothing innovators at Columbia Sportswear began developing a new type of heat-retention technology. It was based on a concept that NASA had been using for years.
In space, there’s no air so you can’t use it to trap warmth. Instead, astronauts rely on the heat that radiates from their own bodies. That’s why the insides of spacesuits contain silver layers—as astronauts’ bodies radiate warmth, the aluminized material directs it back at them.
The announcement marked the first time since Neanderthals wrapped themselves in animal furs that winter jacket technology had advanced beyond simply trapping air.
That said, it wasn’t the first time that NASA technology had inspired uses outside the space agency. Marathon runners had used the shiny metallic material to keep their bodies from cooling off too quickly after races and the emergency blankets in survival kits were often made utilizing similar construction.
The difference was that, up until then, no one had thought to put it inside jackets.
So why the silver dots?
“A [solid] film of aluminum on the inside of your jacket wouldn't let any of your moisture get out and you’d eventually start baking and sweating like crazy,” he said. “What the Columbia innovation team figured out how to do 10 years ago was to take the foil and apply it on a fabric in the form of little dots. The dots themselves reflect the heat and the spaces between the dots have the same properties as the normal fabric, which allows it to breathe.”
And so, the silver dot matrix that you see inside Columbia Sportswear jackets made its grand appearance.
So what's different about Omni-Heat™ Black Dot technology?
According to Beckham, it came from wanting to address the issue of heat loss on the jacket shells. Heat transfer occurs more effectively when there are big temperature differences, he explained, so if your body is warm but the outside air is cold, a lot of heat can be lost from the shell.
Placing Omni-Heat™ dots on the outside of the jacket helps solve this problem by creating a condition on the surface that acts similarly to modern windows.
That’s essentially what the foil does on the outside, he explained, turning the jacket into a low-emissivity heat shield.
When the Columbia innovators began imagining what the coat would look like, however, they realized they might have an aesthetic issue on their hands.
“We recognized that a thin film of aluminum would keep heat from radiating out into the cold environment—but we also recognized that not everyone’s going to want to wear a silver jacket,” he laughed. “So our innovation designer said, ‘Why don't you just make it black?’ And I thought, ‘Well, that's a great idea.’”
The team immediately realized that this would create another added benefit since black absorbs sunlight.
“Because it's black, now we can actually suck in solar heat as well,” he said. “It acts like a little solar collector.”
The team designed a two-layered dot with a heat shield on one side (in the form of aluminum) and a heat magnet on the other (in the form of a black coating).
They tested it against identical dot-free fabrics and—lo and behold—the new material absorbed more solar heat and retained heat for considerably longer periods of time.
In that case, it was gearheads who first adopted the aesthetic due to how well the dots worked and, as word got out, the look slowly branched into the mainstream. Over time, the silver dots have become a visual badge of sorts that indicates you’re wearing a high-tech coat or baselayer.
Similarly, Beckham said he’d like to see Columbia’s new technology become the symbol of a really high-tech jacket.
“I hope they love the look because I’m telling you right now, it works—it works really, really well.”