Behold! The griddy glory that is ripstop nylon, a staple of the outdoor industry. Nylon has been around since before World War II, when it took off as a replacement for silk parachute cloth.
It’s a favorite fabric of outdoor gear designers and pantyhose fetishists. We’ll cover the former here.
If you own outdoor gear, you own nylon. Because of its strength, abrasion resistance and low weight, it’s used in everything from tents to shell jackets. It’s available in a ton of variations of weight, pattern, coating and surface. When we design a piece of outdoor equipment, we have to sort through hundreds of different kinds of nylons. Here’s a cheat sheet on the fundamentals of nylon-ese.
You’ll see nylon referenced as 160D or 600D. The D stands for denier, a measure of the thickness of the fibers used to weave the fabric. Actually, it’s a measurement of the mass of a given length of nylon thread. But you’re better off thinking of it as an indicator of thickness because trying to think about the weight of a 9,000-yard thread is just going to make your head hurt. Higher D numbers mean tougher stuff. Weights range from super-lightweight 20D nylons used in clothing to beefy 2000+ denier ballistics (see below).
Ballistic is a heavy-grade nylon originally used in aviator flak jackets. After WW II, when they found out it didn’t do a very good job of stopping bullets, they switched to making luggage with the stuff. The term is now widely used for any very high denier, basket-woven nylon. It’s also a favorite of motorcycle clothing companies who seem to think that the term ballistic sounds tough. Bang bang.
Cordura®’s just nylon. It’s a brand name DuPont came up with and was sold with the division that makes the stuff to another textile manufacturer. The brand name is generally used for very durable, heavy weight nylon fabrics and is often coated with a urethane backing for water resistance.
A weaving technique in which heavy-duty threads are woven in at regular intervals to strengthen the fabric and stop tears from spreading. It’s the reason that some packs look like they’re made with graph paper.
Taffeta, Oxford and Satin
Three common nylon weaves. Taffeta looks like a basket weave with every thread crossing over and beneath each perpendicular thread. Oxford is taffetta x 2 with its threads woven in pairs. It’s a little tougher in appearance and often used in applications where abrasion resistance would come in handy. Satin is the smoothest of the three weaves. It’s what you see in those shiny nylon satin jackets favored by MLB managers and the Pink Ladies.
Nylon fabric is often coated with a flexible polymer for water resistance. Most common is a polyurethane (PU) on the back of the fabric to fill the gaps between the fibers and make the fabric waterproof—or at least some level of waterproof (actual waterproofness depends on a lot of things, not least of which is the marketer writing the sales pitch). PU is great, mostly. It will eventually peel off like sunburned skin and can have the effect of stiffening and making more brittle the fabric it’s applied to.
Nylon fabric faces (the side that faces out) are often coated with a durable water repellency (DWR) finish. This is the stuff that makes water bead off a new nylon rain jacket. Most DWR finishes eventually wear off (despite their names) and have to be reapplied with treatments like Nikwax.
Boreas packs take advantage of a new kind of coating called UTS (you knew we’d get to it sooner or later). UTS is a silicone based coating used on the fabric back instead of PU. We like it because it makes the fabrics waterproof without making them brittle. It’s also a more permanent coating since it does a much better job of bonding with the fabric’s fibers instead of just sticking to the top of them.
As you may have guessed by now, nylon’s good stuff but it’s not the wonder-fabric. One of its shortcomings is that it degrades in sunlight. It’s not unique in this. Lots of materials are affected by UV rays. It’s the same reason old people’s hair turns white. OK we made that part up. At any rate, one way to protect nylon is with a UV resistant coating to help minimize sun damage.
You smell. See “Coatings” above.
We could go on, but you probably have things to do. Don’t even get us started about polyester.