Design in Life: The Down Parka
In 1935, Eddie Bauer nearly died from hypothermia while fly-fishing on the Olympic Peninsula outside Seattle, WA. The seasoned outdoorsman had done everything right: he knew the area, wore proper garments, and even brought a partner along in case of emergency. On an icy slope by the Skokomish River, then-36 year old Bauer watched his body freeze before his eyes because his heavy wool coat – the standard technical piece of the time – wasn’t able to handle exertion and had left him a sweaty, frost-vulnerable ruin right when he needed it most.
Shaken by his experience, Bauer returned to Seattle to reflect on the paradox that had nearly taken his life: his wool coat was warm, but too heavy to do anything but provide dangerous diminishing returns for high-exertion activities like climbing. A winter outdoorsmen needed both heavy, freeze-ready insulation (traditionally provided by simply adding more and heavier material to a garment) alongside activity-ready weight and maneuverability, both of which are compromised by the “more is more” philosophy of the time.
Inspired by stories his uncle told him about Russian military officers surviving the brutal chill of a Russian winter by stuffing their topcoats with goose down feathers, Bauer envisioned a lightweight garment made exclusively of baffled goose down pockets stitched in a diamond pattern to ensure equal down distribution, even during high activity. One year later, in 1936, the Skyliner down jacket became the world’s first production goose down winter coat. By 1942, Bauer’s jackets had gained him worldwide fame, and the Seattle outdoorsman who had cheated death close to a decade before was designing goose down flight suits for the US Army Air Corps.
Today, especially at the University of Michigan, the goose down parka has taken on a less extreme application: building-to-building winter insulation, with an emphasis on fashion over function. With some notable exceptions at the very top end of the spectrum, one must be compromised for the other – and to the average consumer, being “warm enough,” but looking good, sells more coats than a promise of winter comfort wrapped in neon vinyl. We won’t highlight those pieces here, however – this wouldn’t be Design in Life if we lauded compromise.
Instead, I’ll focus on the features behind two “top end” down parkas that compromise neither form nor function. Both jackets succeed brilliantly as both fashionable outerwear and protection from the Michigan winter; however, their more subtle features are what truly set them apart. I’ll work “outside-in” to break down the design thinking and materials science behind face fabrics, waterproof interior layers, down insulation, and outerwear ergonomics. While their competitors cut corners, these two package cutting-edge technology and considerate design thinking into the elegant, aesthetically-pleasing lines of years gone by.
Without further ado, meet the Canada Goose Trillium Parka and Arc’teryx Camosun.
Starting with the outside, the face fabric of a jacket refers to the fabric surface farthest from your body that will be exposed to the full extent of Mother Nature's forces. Face fabrics are typically the “first defense” surface on a parka, so they are generally made from water-resistant materials like nylon or polyester as opposed to cotton. The plastic “face fabric” shell of a parka is then coated with an incredibly hydrophobic Durable Water Repellent coating, otherwise known as “DWR.” DWR is cheap, easy to reapply at home, and prevents water from even “beading up” on the face fabric. The Arc’teryx Camosun is covered in 80 denier nylon as part of its Gore-Tex Paclite textile, while the Canada Goose Trillium Parka is made of Goose’s own in-house, Teflon-coated “Arctic Tech” cotton/nylon blend. Both are coated with DWR before leaving the factory.
Right behind the face fabric is perhaps the most important part of the parka as a system. Interior waterproof layers, or the “second defense,” ensure that any errant precipitation that slipped the face fabric has no possibility of reaching the vulnerable down insulation just inside. Most technical jackets utilize either a nylon/polyester lining or a passive waterproof membrane. I’ve selected one of both to give you an idea of the trade-offs made between the two waterproofing systems.
First up, the nylon lining: while not nearly as waterproof as a passive membrane, nylon linings provide an apt second line of defense at a typically lower cost. Membrane textiles are expensive, harder to manipulate, and often produce a “crinkly” interior feel as opposed to the smoother, less structured nylon. However, nylon linings contain no way to move halted water – or interior sweat – away from the body, and so can quickly become slimy during activity. For casual comfort, however, it’s hard to beat. The Canada Goose Trillium Parka features a nylon-lined interior between its face fabric and down insulation.
So where do you turn when in need of the ultimate in weather protection? Passive waterproof membranes made of polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. Since the invention of the PTFE membrane by Gore Technologies in 1969, passive waterproof membranes have become the gold standard for waterproof textiles the world over. Membranous fabrics operate on the principle of osmosis; one square inch of GORE-TEX contains 9 billion microscopic pores that are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, yet 700 times larger than a vaporized water molecule. When a water droplet hits the passive membrane, it is physically blocked from entry – meaning no outside water gets in. Gore’s GORE-TEX Pro fabric is considered some of the most waterproof material on the planet, able to withstand 28,000mm of rainfall (~8ft of continuous flowing water) in a day without leaks. Coated nylon, by contrast, is typically rated around 5,000mm/day.
The truly nifty part of a passive membrane, however, originates from the other side of the equation – sweat, evaporated by your body’s heat, can pass easily through the vapor-friendly membrane. Because of the relative pressure difference between your heated jacket interior and the cold air outside, this process (osmosis – thanks, 8th grade science class) happens automatically any time you wear the garment, hence, “passive waterproof membrane." The Arc’teryx Camosun parka features a 2-layer GORE-TEX PacLite textile designed to store easily and feel soft to the touch, while still providing all the benefits of a passive PTFE waterproof membrane.
Finally, the golden goose: down insulation. While synthetic insulation is cheaper to produce and more weather-resistant than down, even down-equivalent rated synthetic insulation (like The North Face’s Thermoball) is simply not as warm. The secret lies in the feathers: a single down plumeule, viewed under a microscope, consists of distinct layers of bulbs that act in tandem to create a “suspension” of down feathers within each stitched pocket. If water penetrates the down layer, feathers clump together and the suspensions collapse. Therefore, a truly “winter-ready” jacket includes both technical waterproof layers and a flocking lot of down. No water and tons of suspensions – as a result of quantity or quality of filling – means a warm jacket, bar none.
Overstuffing a coat with lower quality insulation may cut costs, but it would also violate the sleek lines of the traditional outerwear our two featured coats are designed to emulate. Down feathers are rated by “fill power” (the amount of air, in cubic inches, trapped by an ounce of down) on a scale from 300-900, with dramatic diminishing returns per dollar past 750. Regardless of absolute “fill power” rating, bigger, fuller feathers will always result in more air stabilized without a comparable gain in jacket weight or bulk. To achieve their design goals of both form and function, both Arc’teryx and Canada Goose utilize high fill power down insulation. The Arc’teryx Camosun Parka is filled with a clever blend of 750 fill European duck down alongside a Coreloft synthetic insulation weave that wicks moisture away from down pockets were any water may penetrate. Canada Goose’s Trillium Parka is packed with 625 fill Canadian duck down, but in much higher quantity than the Camosun. The Trillium, then, isn’t as light as the Camosun, but can protect against even colder temperatures of as low as -10 degrees F.
However, all that winter resistance is useless if a parka can’t be worn comfortably. The ergonomics of a winter jacket are arguably as important as the technology behind them – after all, an uncomfortable coat is one that goes unworn, and all those layers of GORE-TEX and high-powered down are useless inside your closet. The two most central components of technical outerwear ergonomics are truly just common sense; pocket placement and bind can make or break even the most technically-sound jacket.
Glove-ready slash pockets are industry standard for any winter coat, but the angle, positioning, and insulation of the pockets are taken into consideration by outerwear designers. High pockets, for example, create uncomfortable arm positions that dissuade wearers from “bundling up” and ultimately, from making a repeat purchase.
While pockets and tactile interaction are certainly a design focus, bind (or the ease of getting in/out of a jacket) is perhaps the designer’s primary priority. The Camosun, a minimalist technical parka, features a single taped-seam zipper running the length of the jacket’s front. The seam tape provides all the waterproofing a superfluous fabric flap could hope without the added interference, making the Camosun an easy parka to shed the moment you step inside. The Canada Goose Trillium Parka, with its two-way zips and snap-front closure, has a much bulkier front than the Camosun, but makes up for it with the adaptability of its double zipper. A two-way zipper means comfortable car rides without removing the jacket – a desirable feature when that 8am Engineering lab sneaks up on you during Winter semester.
What does this all have to do with you? A fly-fisherman’s near-death experience, millions of dollars of materials science research, an intimate knowledge of insulation properties, and endless hours of user interface design have all made sure your walk to class is 70 and sunny while the full force of a Michigan winter howls mere inches away. Warmth, comfort, and style in an environment trying to do anything but. That’s something I can get down with.