How Gore-Tex Went From Accident to Outdoor Essential

Before Gore-Tex was invented, there were plenty of materials to protect you from harsh weather, but they all came with trade-offs. Waxed cotton was heavy. Vinyl could drown you in your own sweat. Seal intestine (gut parka!) was favored by the Inuit but hardly made sense for mass production. That said, Bob Gore wasn’t attempting to improve outerwear when he created Gore-Tex. Working in his father’s Teflon factory in the late 1960s, he was simply trying to make more efficient use of the plastic by stretching it. He accidentally found that yanking Teflon filled it with air pockets. And not only that: The micropores that appeared in his “expanded polytetrafluoro­ethylene” were 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule but 20,000 times smaller than a droplet. Gore reasoned that if you made a fabric out of ePTFE, you could block out rain while still venting steamy perspiration—with wind protection as a bonus. The first Gore-Tex jacket was manufactured in 1977 by a small Seattle company called Early Winters and marketed as “possibly the most versatile piece of clothing you’ll ever wear.” Since then, ePTFE has proven much more versatile than that and is now found in everything from space suits to heart patches. It’s certainly better suited to those modern applications than seal intestine ever could be.

This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.

Styling by Pakayla Biehn