One Tuesday afternoon last fall, Donald Duncan, a vice-president of Nextec Applications Inc., a textiles company near San Diego, California, stood in the middle of his headquarters' conference room wearing a distressed-red organic-cotton canvas jacket while a colleague doused him with a bottle of tap water. Two designers from Patagonia Inc. watched in astonishment as the water hit Duncan, beaded up, rolled off his jacket, and soaked the carpet at his feet. The demonstration highlighted the benefits of a new cotton fabric that Nextec hopes will make current outdoor garments as old-fashioned as oilskin. "Cotton," exclaims Duncan, "is going to be huge!"
Duncan's enthusiasm is understandable, given that cotton in the outdoors has traditionally sucked—literally: The material excels at absorbing moisture, trapping it next to the skin and sapping body heat. "It's known as Ôkiller cotton,'" explains Billy Roos, a medical consultant for the Colorado Outward Bound School. "If you're going into an environment where body heat can't keep you warm and dry, cotton definitely isn't the way to go."
Based on ideas pioneered by a California inventor named Mike Caldwell, the new fabric is created by using high pressure to bond industrial-grade silicone polymers to individual cotton fibers. The process "encapsulates" each fiber within a thin, resinous barrier, sort of like rice noodles coated in sesame oil. Result: a pliant, breathable, and hydrophobic material that is more stylishly versatile than fleece and doesn't feel like cardboard after encapsulation—a pernicious side effect when laminates like Gore-Tex are applied to cotton.
Aficionados of cutting-edge fabrics got their first glimpse of the new material at January's Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, where Nextec unveiled prototype barn jackets and khakis. The company is now finalizing contracts with L.L. Bean and the Asian skiwear maker Phenix. Duncan's vision of mountaineers summiting K2 in his parkas, however, may prove to be a fantasy. Industry pros see the new cotton working best as value-added street clothing, since it isn't as durable or as weatherproof as high-end synthetic performance wear. "I'd love to have a Nextec work shirt or a pair of casual pants," says Joe Walkuski, a fabric engineer at Patagonia. "But would I wear them ice climbing? No."