A behind-the-scenes look at how Gore-Tex apparel is made and tested.
W.L. Gore & Associates is one of those success stories of American ingenuity and innovation. Founded in 1958 by the husband-and-wife team of Wilbert (Bill) Lee — who had spent 16 years with DuPont — and Genevieve Walton Gore, the company got its start making wire and cable insulation before the couple’s son, Bob, made an accidental and extremely fortuitous discovery. In 1969, he was trying to stretch extruded polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE, otherwise known as Teflon) for use in plumbers’ tape, but no matter how gently he pulled it always broke. Frustrated and down to his last few samples of test material, he grabbed one of the heated rods and gave it a hard yank — and to his astonishment it didn’t snap, it expanded. The company called it “expanded PTFE,” or ePTFE.
Today ePTFE is at the heart of Gore’s $3.7 billion-per-year business, with uses in everything from laptop computers to prosthetic arteries to astronaut suits…and, of course, waterproof motorcycle gear. We were invited to tour several of Gore’s facilities near its headquarters in Newark, Delaware, as guests of Idaho-based Klim, a Gore-Tex partner that’s been making motorcycle gear since 2004, and it was a unique opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into creating a piece of Gore-Tex apparel.
Because Gore manufactures technical fabrics for the U.S. military and first responders, security was tight and we were limited as to when and where we could take photos, but in many places Klim gear had been set up so we could witness firsthand the testing and quality control that goes into every piece that carries the Gore or Gore-Tex name.
Gore makes more than 300 different membrane types, and each finished product goes through more than 600 quality control tests — that’s before it goes to the manufacturer, which in the case of Klim means motorcycle-specific testing, including CE certification.
There’s a biophysics lab that tests for comfort and acoustics (important for hunting and military gear), six rain rooms for waterproofness and an environmental room that goes from -50 to 50 degrees C (-58 to 122 F), 5% to 98% humidity and zero to 22 mph wind speed. Upstairs is a huge room full of washing machines that are used for wet flex and abrasion testing; they are stopped and the material tested every eight hours until it fails. (The washing machine brand of choice for durability: Kenmore.)
At the Elk Creek facility we got a look at the glove and boot test labs, where Gore-Tex membrane booties are tested for leaks. A big machine in the corner subjects finished boots to a submerged wet flex test; Klim boots must pass at least 200,000 flexes without a leak before hitting the market.
Gloves are probably the toughest item to waterproof, and every Gore-approved factory (which apparel partners must use) has a whole glove leak test machine. Klim uses a special Gore-Tex membrane insert with glue on one side that bonds it directly to the outer shell, and a soft Trica liner bonded to the other side for optimum control feel. Still, gloves are where most riders will say they’ve experienced waterproofing failure (I’m no different).
The folks at Gore suggested that what we often think is a leak is actually either a lack of breathability causing moisture buildup or the waterlogged outer shell feeling cold against our skin, which our brain interprets as “wet.” (Our sensory system has no “wet” register, only temperature, and if the water is cooler or warmer than our skin we perceive it as “wet.” This is how sensory deprivation chambers work: by floating in saline water that’s exactly our body temperature, our brain registers no contact at all.)
To be comfortable, a piece of waterproof apparel needs to breathe and shed water. “Breathability” doesn’t mean airflow, however; it means the removal of warm, moist air from the body. This is what makes Gore-Tex apparel more comfortable than, say, wearing a plastic bag — it “breathes” while keeping you dry. As our Gore guide put it, “it’s not magic, it’s physics.” But as we noted above, if the fabric outside the Gore-Tex membrane is waterlogged your skin thinks it’s wet, so a DWR (durable water-repellant) coating is important.
Every Gore-Tex-branded item comes from the factory with a DWR coating, and the instructions for keeping it in good shape might surprise you: throw it in the dryer. Yep, you should be washing and tumble-drying your Gore-Tex. The heat reactivates the DWR, so water will bead rather than soaking in. You’ll still need to reapply a new coating every few years, just make sure it’s silicone-free.
When properly cared for — and assuming they don’t have an unfortunate meeting with the pavement — Gore-Tex products should remain waterproof for life, and Gore will replace, repair or refund any of its products that fail. It’s that commitment to quality that’s given Gore its well-earned reputation and made Gore-Tex the gold standard of apparel waterproofing.
And if your Gore-Tex gear is Klim, you can send it back to them after an accident for free replacement (see website for details). Now that’s what we call a commitment to performance.