The 3 F’s – Peeling back layers

Just how crucial is the “layering system” when it comes to sportswear? We’re designing to stabilise the bodies temperature so the athlete (wearer) is comfortable in all conditions right? So read on, find out the details and learn from the expert’s. Thank you Jonn Langan for you deep insights into sportswear design.

Soudi Masouleh

Just how crucial is the “layering system” when it comes to sportswear? We’re designing to stabilise the bodies temperature so the athlete (wearer) is comfortable in all conditions right? So read on, find out the details and learn from the expert’s. Thank you Jonn Langan for you deep insights into sportswear design.

When was the last time you layered up for an activity or just to go outside? We layer up our clothing everyday, for different environments and for different reasons. In the apparel industry we are constantly referencing layering systems and traditionally the 3 layer system is the most often referenced.

This system compromises of a base layer, a warmth layer and a protective layer. These layers are often designed by different designers, focused on the individual needs & requirements of each of the products. Yes, they may have the a styling concept uniting them visually, but do we really take the time to think about the interactions between the layers and make sure they worktogether as a system?

In this article I’m going to explore the specific interactions between these layers. This can include the material choices, the the associated functions and technologies, the features and the fit. Essentially we are going to look at the 3 F’s (Fabric, Function & Fit)

Essentially we are going to look at the 3 F’s (Fabric, Function & Fit)

The key will not to be looking at the garments in isolation but as how they function within a system. How do the interactions between layers and the designs decisions we make affect the overall layering concept we are trying to achieve.

Image: Tommy Lisbin

Fabric (and the space in between)

In my previous article (“Putting the sport back in sportswear”) I wrote about how the needs of an activity can affect how you approach a design. One of the major factors I spoke about was that the material used in the creation of the product needs to be appropriate for the activity. This is even more true when creating a layering system for an activity.

When a person is actively using clothing it doesn’t function in isolation, it functions in collaboration and in connection to the layer next to it (on either side). So looking into how the properties of the fabrics function and interact within a layering system can be fundamental in making sure the user is comfortable and assured the clothing is “doing its job”. Sometime a material can work amazingly in isolation, but when paired with other layers the function is inhibited and fails to perform correctly.

This brings me to the space between layers. When looking at how a layer functions, we also need to look at how the air between these layers acts.

For example air underneath a base layer obviously increase in heat and humidity as we move around and exert energy, so moving this air away from the body is important. A lot of performance fabrics pull the moisture away from inside of the base layer to outer side, but cooling down this air is also vital to stop the user overheating. So in this case the knitted material needs an open structure to make sure air can flow through to the outside, circulating the air and thus cooling the user down.

But where does the moisture and heat go once it has passed through the first layer? Well, obviously to the next layer, which in most cases is the mid layer (or warmth layer). A mid layer is in a tricky position, in most cases it has to both keep the user warm, but also it needs to allow some this moisture and heat out and away from the body. The nature of these materials can vary massively, so looking at systems to help this migration of moisture away is a tricky one. Thinking about ventilation systems, jacquard openings & lighter weight material at key heat zones, or even using material which can continue to pull the moisture away from the body (much like the base layer underneath) are among the directions we can take.

Finally once you get to the outer (protective) layer, the levels of breathability are normally the lowest of all the previous layers. So making sure that we don’t fail in letting the moisture build up pass to the outside seem like something we should pay great attention too. Of course the outer layer is primarily designed to protect the user from the outer elements. So membranes, coatings or high density fabrics are used for this purpose, so once again how do we allow this build up of moisture to be released to the outside without compromising the function of the protective layer?

Aside from the material properties, which are improving all the time, we may also need to look at extreme venting systems. Large openings such as pit zips can be an extremely effective way to release the air, but balancing this system along side the need for protection means often venting systems are placed in sheltered areas of the garment. So looking for alternative ways to dump heat can be a challenge. Its always good to think about how the air flows round the user whilst in activity. Are they moving forward? Are they static? Does the environment expose them in a particular area of the body?

This process looks at moving air and moisture outward through a layering system, but sometimes we want to keep the heat in, so we can stay warm and comfortable. So what should we consider to trap warm inside a layering system?

Image: Nick Dietrich

Function (and the harmony of alignment)

As the design of a layering system is created and the individual garments are designed, we may also need to think about complimentary feature placement. This kind of system allows key features to interact in between individual layers to offer a more streamline and harmonious user experience.

The easiest way to think about this is to look at the features and function you are looking to align and make sure that throughout the different layers they are positioned closely on the body. For example an easy one is making sure the ventilation system lines up through the outer and mid layers to allow direct access to the base layer. But more subtle ideas like making sure pockets are placed in different areas of the body so that they do not overlap when layered up will give the user a sense of the product “linking” or fitting together in harmony.

Of course these ideas only work if the layers are worn together, but encouraging the user to wear these items together through this kind of design thought process can lead to some pretty innovative concepts. If you have certain access points from an outer shell then you will intrinsically know where you can place additional pockets on mid layers to make them easier to access.

Linking these layers together is a way to guarantee that the garments will sit correctly on the body. From tab & loop attachment points on cuffs and collar, to 3-in-1 zip in systems, which communicate to the consumer the advantage of interlinking layers together.

Some believe that linking systems are not “technical” and serve to promote add on sales at the deficit of technicality, but i think it’s both dependant on consumer attitude to this kind of feature, and also not looking at linking systems as a downgrade on technology. The idea of making a linking system easy to understand and use could and should be a positive, so maybe there is a way to improve this kind of feature?

Image: Mauro Paillex

Fit (and pleasure of synergy)

So the last area to think about when putting at layered concept together, is the fit and how the layers fit over one another. A simple and obvious point i’m sure you are saying. But this does not just relate to the measurements of each garment getting larger as you layer up, there is so much more to think about to make sure the experience of wearing all the layers together is easy and comfortable.

Yes of course making sure sleeve and hem lengths fit correctly and feel thought through is important, but looking at how the fit can affect the comfort of a system can be vital to how effective it works.

Take the materials that each layer is made up from, how well do the layers interact together? Do they snag when brushed up against each other? Wool for example can have a rougher texture, which is more susceptible to snagging, whilst a lot of synthetic materials will pass more smoothly over another. So looking at material choices and key snagging areas, to see how these materials interact could help with creating a nicely compatible layering system.

The cut of the layered garment is an important area to pay attention to so that excess material is not bunched up in an area, which may affect the comfort and fit of the garments together. But as well as the cut of a garment, the seaming interactions may lead to irritation when layered.

Sometimes, this can be as simple as using the same type of sleeve construction (i.e. raglan or set-in) but just as importantly ergonomic seaming around the body can be ineffective when the  next layer has an opposing construction. These crossing of seam lines can create uncomfortable ridges and also affect how the garments move together. In extreme cases this can make areas of garment ride up or twist, which feels can horribly uncomfortable.

So this explains a little on why we should always consider a “total look” approach when designing with a layering system in mind. There is a lot more to explore here when some the variables of a layering system is changed, but simply paying attention to the fabric, function and fit is a great starting point from which to explore designing within a layering system.