The Comfort Test

Mark Newton has made a career being tough on Gore-Tex gear and clothes.

November 16, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

"I wish I knew it was going to be this warm," Mark Newton says in his far-from-home British accent.

The Blue Ridge Mountains have broken out in their seasonal rash of autumnal colors, but the thermometer reads almost sixty today. Newton pauses under a canopy of trees to remove his backpack, then whips off his hiking hat and tucks it inside. He sheds a T-shirt, leaving only his nylon pullover.

He is sweating heavily, something he takes very seriously, as if his skin has sprung a leak. Highly inefficient. A waste of good thermodynamic energy.

"You want your core body temperature to be within a very narrow range," Newton explains. "If you go out with the Special Forces in Antarctica, it's minus-20 degrees, but when they go cross-country hiking, they barely wear underwear."

He slips his backpack on again and walks deeper into the woods. Overheating, he adds, claims more lives than freezing cold. "Most people wear way too many clothes."

W. L. Gore & Associates is responsible for much of the outdoor clothing that people wear way too much of. The company makes Gore-Tex, the Teflon-based miracle fabric that has become the gold standard of all-weather apparel.

Mark Newton - a stocky, 34-year-old with a ponytail of bushy, brown hair - was one of the clothing industry's foremost experts on the human foot (which, incidentally, has more than 1,000 sweat glands per square inch) before coming to work at Gore in 1997. He's an engineer by trade who currently heads up a nine-person "Comfort Core Group" of research-and-development specialists.

As the old foot soldier puts it, "My focus now is overall comfort, on being able to measure heat motion transfer through clothing systems."

(Yes, Gore people talk like that, even at the office Christmas party.)

Gore & Associates is headquartered in Delaware, but has 17 satellite plants scattered in and around Elkton. Gore doesn't manufacture clothing products per se. Rather, it licenses its technology to more than 300 companies while managing to retain extraordinary quality-control clout.

Samples of every clothing item and prototype undergo mandatory in-house "torture tests." Gore-Tex-lined boots get submerged in water in Gore's Boot Lab; get affixed to hyperactive mechanical feet that flex 50,000 times a minute. Air is pumped into Gore-Tex-lined gloves in the Glove Lab to check for microleaks.

Mannequins are swaddled in Gore-Tex jackets and pants and placed inside the Rain Room, where they get hammered by man-made monsoons blowing as hard as 70 mph.

"The mannequin gives you the same results every time," says Newton, "but it can't tell you how it feels."

Therefore, human test dummies - most of them University of Delaware students in need of pizza-and-beer money - are recruited to step inside the Comfort Chamber, a small glass-walled room that looks like it was originally used to isolate TV quiz show contestants.

The kids are wired with electrodes, then asked to spend the night in a sleeping bag or to don a Gore-Tex Windstopper jacket and run a few miles on the treadmill, all at temperatures ranging from 120 degrees to minus-4.

In the spirit of practical research, Mark Newton accepts an invitation to go for a day hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We're doing a six-and-a-half mile squiggle of the Appalachian Trail just below Harper's Ferry, W. Va., heading south from Keys Gap to Blackburn Trail Center.

Last night, Newton heard a weather forecast calling for rain, possibly snow, in the mountains.

He's hoping we will "experience" Gore-Tex product magic under appropriately adverse conditions. Newton is wearing Gore-Tex boots and a Gore-Tex Windstopper shirt. He's carrying Gore-Tex gloves, two Gore-Tex hats, a Gore-Tex "next-to-skin" layer, Gore-Tex rain pants and a Gore-Tex jacket.

I'm wearing the Gore-Tex AirVantage vest, a recent creation of Newton's comfort group. Sandwiched between the vest's inner and outer layers are a series of parallel, test-tube-size, Gore-Tex bladders. There's a plastic valve built into the breast pocket. When you get cold, you blow into the valve and inflate the vest like a lifejacket, creating a buffer zone of insulating air.

Gore has done government-contract work dating back to the Apollo moon-mission space suits, and the AirVantage vest was originally conceived for military use.

So ... what exact role did the U.S. military play in developing AirVantage?

"It's a complicated program," Newton says, cryptically, "and one I'm not able to talk about."

Sometimes happenstance is the mother of invention.

In 1938, a DuPont chemist conducted an experiment with refrigerated gas that went awry. The gas congealed into a white powder that turned out to be slicker than graphite and to have an abnormally high boiling point.

The chemist had accidentally discovered polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, destined to become commonly known as Teflon.

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