Friday February 20th, 2015

Cut and sew. Cut and sew. And layer. The North Face wanted to eliminate all that cutting and sewing of fabrics that layer together in order to create a coat with the desired material properties. The company wanted to get those same properties, but do it with fewer layers, fewer seams.

So The North Face needed to build a better textile. The result is FuseForm.

What is it?

FuseForm gives The North Face a completely different textile. By taking multiple yarns, sometimes different fabrics, such as one strand of nylon with another of polyester, and weaving them together, Joe Vernachio, North Face’s vice president of global product, says, you can warp yarns together for different properties in one textile. One layer.

How does it work?

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“Say on the right side we put polyester, which is really light and takes color, but is less durable than nylon,” Vernachio says. “On the left side you put nylon. Now you can engineer to put polyester and nylon in the right spots. You are engineering textile on the garment at the same time.”

As The North Face has started experimenting more and more, the 2015 spring line represents an entirely fresh way of engineering the FuseForm textile. Originally the creations required engineering the textile in a straight line, which made transitions abrupt. The latest version released in February, the dot matrix pattern, enables subtle transitions, which also helps The North Face highlight the technology visually.

“FuseForm is not a thing, it is a way of designing,” Vernachio says. “It is not a specific insulation, it is a way of designing that forces you to think differently and design differently.”

Why’s it significant?

The North Face had to find a new way to construct its textiles. Vernachio compared designing a coat to designing a computer, saying the difference between a Macbook and a Dell is about elegance versus “a bunch of plastic parts smacked together.”

“Most of the garment industry is Dell, parts cut apart and sewn back together, to add material properties, durability, weight or stretch,” he says. “We set out to be able to integrate that into one single textile with as many properties as possible. We can weave in multiple material properties without having to cut and sew and layer on top of each other.”

Looking elegant, though, moved The North Face away from the typical supply chain and machinery. Instead, the California-based company had to enter the furniture industry and spend a couple of years adapting non-garment machines to use smaller, finer yarns and make a more supple textile for garments.

What are the implications in the world of outdoor adventure?

Fewer seams have benefits. Of course, Vernachio believes having fewer layers looks better visually, but it also creates a lighter weight garment. And typically most garments, if they fail or leak, do so at the seams. Fewer seams can mean a more durable product.

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On a traditional garment, expect 15 to 20 yards of seam tape. The FuseForm coats have dropped under 10 yards of seam tape. “If you hold up 20 yards in one hand and nine yards in another hand,” Vernachio says, “you’d be very surprised how much that adds up in weight.”

Using a completely different textile—a less stiff version, as well—on different machines, completely changes how the garment gets created.

“You have to understand different textures, yarns and properties first,” he says. “You have to design a garment and appoint properties where you need them. You have to do that for every size of garment.

“You have to decide before you start designing and start in a completely different way.”

What are the downsides?

As Vernachio points out, the average consumer spends “like three seconds thinking about a jacket purchase.” This impromptu decision making means that The North Face is competing with a variety of other technologies on the market. And while The North Face plans to expand the FuseForm engineering, the style of coat has remained somewhat limited so far. Expect that to change.

Who’s using it already?

The FuseForm project took years to build, from finding the right machines to understanding engineering. This year marks a major leap forward, as The North Face will greatly expand the uses the process will be put to. Even still, we’ve already seen the textile in non-insulated coats and as part of the U.S. Freeskiing Team’s uniform.

What’s the future of it going forward?

Right now The North Face has more than a dozen types of yarns it can mix and match to create a FuseForm coat, each with different sizes. While some of the differences may prove subtle to the average consumer, as the FuseForm complexity grows, The North Face expects the textile creation to end up in all kinds of unexpected places.

By this fall we’ll see FuseForm in insulated garments. We’ll see it in backpacks and shoes.

No longer is creating garments about cutting, sewing and layering. It is about fusing.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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