Life Saving Measures for Performance Wear

©istockphoto/IsaacLKoval

Taking care of your training, play or adventure garments—whether worn daily or rarely—is not only sound environmentally (fewer used goods quickly ending up in the waste stream) but also financially.

Most activewear and outdoor apparel, especially those made with technical fabrics, are expensive. Some of this is a result of R&D, warranty assurances, and performance design, but some of it is also the increased cost of manufacturing and then marketing (educating consumers). Consider that the next time you look at a price tag and feel like gasping for air. When you consider what this gear allows you to do and how long much of it lasts—when you care for it properly—it’s a worthwhile investment.

Technical fabrics include specialty weaves (synthetic and natural blends), finishes, coatings or imbedded treatments, and specialty construction (different technical fabrics strategically placed throughout the garment). Garments include everything from hats, gloves and apparel to outerwear.

The more technical the fabric, the more attention and special care the garment needs. When technical fabrics get soiled or are rarely laundered, the weave can clog up, and lose efficiency and performance properties. This is especially true of fabrics treated with coatings designed to be breathable. But the performance of waterproof, or odor and stain resistant fabrics can also suffer from caked on sweat, grit and dirt.

Care for it
Technical fabrics perform best when they’re kept clean and odor free. While outwear doesn’t need to be refreshed as often as clothing, it still needs to be cleaned when it gets dirty, especially if it’s insulated with either synthetic or down (particularly waterproof down) fill.

Breathability is the biggest issue of a dirty technical fabric garment. That’s because when water, condensation or perspiration concentrate in the fabric, it gets trapped rather than wicked away. A clean garment allows moisture to evaporate better and faster.

Outwear should never be put away dirty. Wipe off dirt if you don’t have time to clean it, and then hang it to dry. This will go a long way to help jackets and technical pants maintain their performance features, including water, wind and odor resistance.

Wash it
You don’t need to wash performance clothing after every use, but at least wash them every couple of uses. Read care instructions on your garments before you proceed. Not all technical fabric garments are alike. Some can be washed in a machine; some should be hand washed. Some can be tumble dried; some should be line dried. If you can’t find a care label, check the manufacturer’s website or call customer service. Polar fleece (microfleece), for example, can be machine washed in cold or warm water, and tumbled dry, but not with non-fleece items. Plus, you should turn it inside out to reduce pilling.

If you don’t know (or can’t find information about what detergent to use), don’t default to conventional laundry detergents. These will damage or impede many technical fabrics—they typically leave residues that can sabotage the performance characteristics (water-repellency, breathability and wicking properties) of both synthetic fiber compounds and natural fabric blends. Look for specialty detergents designed to thoroughly clean your technical apparel of body oil, sweat and debris. And always thoroughly rinse it after washing to make sure no detergent residue remains.

Some untreated synthetic outwear can be put through normal laundering with normal laundry detergents. Check the label or online instructions. Even so, use powdered rather than liquid detergents. The latter contains compounds that penetrate fabric—it’s designed to do so. But it also ends up clogging the “pores” between technical fibers and will adversely affects breathability or waterproofness.

Always use the gentle setting on your washer, as well as warm water if the garment is exceptional dirty and stinky (although some fabrics still call for washing only in cold—if in doubt, go with cold water). Always close zippers and fasteners on garments before washing.

For mild body odor, in addition to the technical wash detergent, add a half-cup of baking soda to the rinse cycle. For really stinky clothes and socks, add a half-cup to one cup of vinegar to the wash to further help break down oils and extinguish odor-causing bacteria.

©istockphoto/IsaacLKoval

Pre-Treat it
For stains and odor, you’ll need to add another step. There are a number of things you can use to effectively pre-clean clothing and outwear. One of the simplest and most effective is enzymes. You can often find these as stain and odor cleaners in the Pet Section of your local grocery or department store. They’re typically comprised of just water, enzymes and alcohol, and are exceptionally good at dissolving the fatty deposits and bacteria imbedded in synthetic fabrics and hi-tech natural fibers like wool and bamboo. Follow pre-treatments with a regular wash using a technical specific cleaner.

For really stubborn stains, try making a paste of baking soda and water and rubbing it into the stain or odor spots. Let it set for about a half hour before washing. For extra stubborn armpit odors pre-treat that area of your clothing or outwear with a salt paste (the large soft crystals of Kosher salt works best). An even simpler method is to soak the items in a tub or utility sink for a half hour with a few tablespoons of salt mixed in. Salt is a natural anti-bacterial and is very effective on synthetic and natural fibers.

Dry it
In most cases, after cleaning, it’s better to line dry technical clothing or lay it flat on a towel to dry. If you must use a dryer, use the lowest setting (air or gentle, hand washed cycle).

Restore it
DWR (durable water repellent) treatments, a polymer coating applied to the outermost fabric layer of many waterproofed garments, penetrates the fibers and lowers the fabric’s surface tension. This allows water to bead up and roll off, instead of being absorbed. Impurities, however, can shorten this treatment’s efficacy. In addition to regular “wear and tear,” exposure to grime, insect repellants, sunscreen, regular washing detergent can breakdown the coating.

To restore DWR finishes, wash your garment as described in the wash instructions on the garment tag (or check for cleaning instructions online with the manufacturer). Line or tumble dry it on gentle heat cycle. After the garment is dry, tumble dry on low heat for 20 minutes to reactivate the DWR treatment. Alternatively you can iron the dry garment on gentle setting (warm, no steam), placing a towel or cloth between the garment and the iron. The heat from the drier or iron will often restore the DWR. If this does not work, then the next step is to apply a new coating to the garment.

Re-Finish it
When the factory-applied DWR can no longer be revived after several restorations, it is possible to give your garments and outwear a new life with wash-in or spray-on waterproofing or water repellant treatments. You’ll know when it’s time because water won’t bead up on it and will saturate the fabric.

Wash-in DWR treatments are ideal for most clothing, hats, gloves and ultralight outerwear. Pump-sprays will produce a better finish on stiffer more durable outerwear garments. Whether it’s a wash-in or a spray on treatment, Once it’s washed, dry the garment on a line or on the lowest heat setting in your dryer.

Keep in mind that lined garments treated with DWR re-treatments will also result in water-repellent linings. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An absorbent lining gains weight when it becomes moisture laden, and can take longer to dry. It also loses some of its thermal insulating properties. DWR is also designed to allow garments to breath and wick moisture.