Compass: Charting the Evolution of Outdoor Gear

Helly Hansen Profile

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Many companies prattle on about how they have developed the so-called layering system for clothing. But only one company can really claim to have

been at the forefront of the major innovation in the three key garments that constitute those oft quoted layers of: waterproof outer layer, insulative mid

layer and moisture transferring next-to-skin layer.


Helly Hansen was a Norwegian sailor, who is widely credited with created the first commercialised coated waterproof shell clothing, with his oilskins.

These were originally tough linen cloths that were impregnated with linseed (flax) oil. Although sticky and boardy stiff they did offer a degree of weather

protection that had until that time (1877) not been widely available. But some accounts this makes Helly Hansen the world's first mass manufacturer of

coated waterproof garments. A significant feat in itself.

(A full 100 years on and linseed oiled japara cotton was still considered de riguer as the waterproof of choice for Australian bushwalkers and New Zealand

trampers. I know, I wore a oily japara jacket for many years. Gore-Tex only became more pervasive in the late 1980's in the Antipodes.)


But with a strong customer base in marine sports and in work wear Helly Hansen didn't simply rest on their laurels with waterproofs. In the early 1960's

they dabbled with pile fabrics for the insulating layer. By 1979 they had refined this garment into then internationally famous Fibrepile. They had a

patented a knitted process known as 'W' pile, becaue the pile file was wrapped twice around the base knit giving it the profile of the letter W.

Pile garments were originally developed from knitting processes used for making carpets. However carpets are laid flat onto floors and have little wear

and abrasion on the underside. When used in garments this underside was the outside face of the garment. Most pile garments until the advent of

Fibrepile W Pile had relied on external coatings to protect the exposed fibres. This not only made the garments stiff, it would eventually wear off and the

garment would abrade and subsequently lose clumps of insulation fibre from the interior.

Helly Hansen's solution was the aforementioned W pile, which gave their garments a soft (uncoated) long fibre pile on both the inside and outside of

garment. So soft, that for a long time they promoted them as being suitable for use directly against the skin. The fibre used was nylon, although not as

quick drying as polyester, certainly renown for its abrasion resistance and durability. I've been wearing my beloved HH fibrepile for the past 26 years and

it looks like it will easily do another 26.

The company also pioneered a method of binding the raw edges of the pile with a quick drying binding tape. Although a little agriculture in appearance it

was very functional compared to the very slow drying, thick, double knit elastic cuffing commonly used at that time. it was not until Patagonia introduced

their Synchilla pile with Lycra binding some four or five years later that binding became more of an industry standard.


But it is probably for LIFA that Helly Hansen is mostly widely remembered and revered, at least in the outdoor industry. With this product they virtually

invented the performance bodywear category. Ultra-lightweight, body hugging garments that stopped the skin from feeling wet during and immediately

after strenuous exercise. Released in the early 1970's LIFA would propel the fibre it was made from—polypropylene—into being the dominant 'wicking'

underwear fabric for the next 15 to 20 years. Not that at first thought you would imagine people wanting to wear against their skin, a material that was,

at the time, best known for use in water-ski tow ropes and toothbrush bristles. But it did have redeeming features. It was lightweight, relatively cheap to

produce and more importantly it was highly hydrophobic — it repelled water.

Because moisture was not absorbed by LIFA's polypropylene fibres, perspiration or wetness was pushed along them until they found a material they could

soak into. Such as wool (or cotton) outer garment or the capillary gaps in long file pile. Or if worn along the moisture sat on the outside of the garment

where it could more easily evaporate. The thinness of the stretchy, body contouring LIFA meant moisture was rarely left in contact with the skin. This

ensured that the outdoor activist generally felt drier and more comfortable after their exertions. For many this was a revelation, and LIFA was hailed as

all conquering. Soon it's distinctive diagonal stripey shoulders panels  were seen adorning al outdoor types.

Though it was not without it's flaws. Hating it water it was difficult to to get dyestuffs to adhere, so LIFA was mostly only available, in the early years, in

a bright sky blue, navy, white and occasional red. And the inverse of hydrophobic (water-hating) tends to oleophillic (oil-loving), which saw the garments

attracting body oils that would leave a decided pong. Although there  has been some suggestion that the lubrication used in the spinning of polyproylene

wasa contributing factor to the body odour retention issue. Either way, after extensive use this body odour was retained in the garments and not very

effectively removed by laundering. Which was also another of LIFA's and polypropylene's inherent limitations. It had a low melting point. Thrown into a

tumble drier on high garments would emerge shrunken to tiny dolls clothes. Yet these shortcomings were suffered, because nothing else could compete on

performance for decades.

When competition did arrive, (Predominately via Gore-tex, Patagonia's polyester pile/bunting/fleece evolution and Thermstat, Capilene, Coolmax,

Polardry and myriad other underwear materials) Helly Hansen was initially slow to move and adapt to technological change in the marketplace, though

eventually they regained a well deserved standing in the outdoor industry, though more in Europe than elsewhere.