Thomas Alva Edison never donned an Under Armour HeatGear fitted short-sleeve crew. But the inventor, who famously said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration," might as well have been talking about the brand that started 16 years ago because founder Kevin Plank was sick of sweaty tees.
Since then, the world has recognized that shirts don't have to soak. If they're made with the right fabrics, they can carry moisture away from the skin, keeping the wearer drier and more comfortable. The discovery of these textile advances has completely changed how people view what they wear to exercise — and garden, run errands and even just hang out.
"When you go to dinner, you expect air conditioning. Now when you buy athletic clothes, you expect them to have wicking technology," says Kevin Haley, senior vice president for innovation at Under Armour.
Walking around the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City last month, Doug Browning was impressed by how much sweat protection had seeped into every product people were wearing, from shoes to earbuds. "Everyone dresses as if they're sweating," says Browning, whose wife, Donna, invented Sweaty Bands, the customizable, no-slip hair accessory that's on track to sell more than 6 million units this year.
Part of what's pushing this trend is that consumers are embracing physical activity. But the real driver seems to be the textile technology that's allowing companies to do things never before imaginable.
With each gradual advance, manufacturers are making products longer-lasting and capable of addressing what Haley calls "the laundry issue." (Wicking clothes tend to get smellier than cotton ones.) Fibers have been tweaked so they can pull moisture across a greater surface area. "If we can make evaporation happen faster, that makes you cooler. You work out longer, and you'll be in better shape," Haley says.
Science has even figured out a way to give cotton — formerly the enemy of all exercisers — an edge. Under Armour launched wicking Charged Cotton gear last year, and Sheex Performance Sheets just rolled out a Performance Cotton line. "It might seem anathema to what we do," says Brad Petit, a Sheex spokesman. "But this cotton can absorb excess body heat."
The latest technology from Under Armour is "coldblack," which reflects infrared and heat rays. "In the old days, if you were walking outside on a hot Washington day, you wouldn't think about wearing a black shirt," says Haley, who won't reveal what's coming next down the pipeline but hints at a fascinating future.
Shoppers will get a sense of what lies ahead in 2013, when Under Armour's E39 hits retail. The much-hyped shirt — which is wicking, of course — features an electronic sensor that tracks heart rate, breathing and G-force of acceleration.
But the hottest thing in sweat technology coming next year is Columbia's Omni-Freeze Zero. The development is the result of a process that started five years ago, says Woody Blackford, vice president of global innovation at Columbia, when the company decided to focus on making customers cool.
Omni-Freeze Zero fabric is covered in tiny blue circles that do two things when they get wet. One, their temperature drops. And two, they suck up moisture. "It swells, like pumping up a tire," Blackford says. That action alone keeps you drier, but it also allows air to come into the garment, which speeds up evaporation.
"We're taking advantage of sweat. Moisture wicking is moving it from one place to another, but it's still there. In ours, we use it as an agent," he says.