One of the joys of my job is the chance to fondle the latest innovations in outdoor equipment – be it a new wonder-fabric, tent design or super-efficient stove. So I was excited to receive a sample of the latest output from the TNF labs – a waterproof jacket made from a single piece of fabric.
The North Face Fuse Uno
Weight: 349g (size M)
Most modern hardshell jackets designed for mountain use contain a mix of fabric panels – breathable at places where you’re likely to get sweaty (eg. under the arms), hardwearing where a pack is likely to rub or it’s likely to come into contact with rock (eg. shoulders), and a ‘normal’ waterproof breathable fabric everywhere else (eg. lower torso). These panels need joining together, which means seams, which means stitching, which means seam-sealing. This process adds weight, bulk and a selection of failure points. The Fuse Uno uses the FuseForm process to weave a single piece of fabric with varying properties – in this case the proprietery three-layer HyVent Alpha waterproof breathable laminate is mixed with Cordura for the top half of the jacket, whereas the lower half remains ‘normal’ 40 denier. There’s no join between the two types of fabric, it just blends, um, seamlessly. HyVent Alpha is a three-layer waterproof breathable laminate, consisting of an outer protective layer treated with a durable water repellent treatment to make water bead and run off, over a membrane in turn protected by an inner scrim. Most lightweight, minimalist jackets use a 2.5 layer fabric, where the inner is printed with a raised pattern to try and prevent clamminess – this is lightweight, but never as pleasant against the skin as a three layer fabric.
Design and Features
Most impressively, the jacket is made from one piece of fabric, cut into an intricate shape and folded together into a jacket shape like origami. There are still seams, but The North Face reckon 40% less than usual, and what seams there are have been beautifully sealed using the minimum tape necessary to keep water out. It’s an alpine cut, so short and cut a bit like a triangle – wide at the shoulders and tapering down to a narrow waist designed to fit under a harness with no excess fabric or hem lift. My size M fits over a microfleece and baselayer, and given the construction method is a remarkably well-tailored jacket. An adjustable hem drawcord helps to keep draughts at bay at the bottom, with the excess cord collected into the two handwarmer pockets. Decent Velcro wrist closures help too. But there are some compromises due to making the jacket this way. First – the zip – it’s full-length and chunky, with is nice for a lightweight jacket, but doesn’t have any kind of storm flap to keep the elements out. Despite being a water-resistant model it has proven to be the first point of failure in driven rain. Second – the hood – it’s a minimalist, helmet-compatible design with a slightly stiffened brim that collapses too easily in the wind. There’s also no adjustment at all – not such a big deal when worn over a helmet, but when worn without there’s just too much fabric flapping around with no means to cinch it in. And the pockets. As someone who prefers to keep kit in my pack rather than distributed about my person I can be quite tolerant of a lack of pockets, but the pockets on the Fuse Uno are particularly annoying. The two handwarmer pockets are located so that they are obscured by a rucksack hipbelt or harness – again not a huge issue if there’s a decent chect pocket – but there isn’t. There’s a chest pocket, but it’s tiny and I can’t work out what to put in it. My mobile phone won’t even fit and I had to fold my chocolate bar in half. The internal zipped pocket on the opposite side is a similar size.
The weight is good – 349g is excellent for a three-layer alpine-specced jacket – no doubt as a result of the seam-reducing techniques employed. Similarly, £340 is expensive (about £1 per gram), but comparable to other mountain hardshells, and given the technology involved is only to be expected. However, the low weight and innovation doesn’t excuse the negative aspects of the jacket design, particularly the hood and zip which are pretty important elements of a waterproof jacket. No doubt the constuction methods precluded a more sensible design, so I consider the Fuse Uno more a ‘showcase’ of the FuseForm technique – future jackets could make use of lessons learned making the Fuse Uno, but combined with the features that make a hardshell more usable in the real world. Imagine a jacket that integrates areas of stretchy fabric with hardwearing protective patches and proper map-friendly pockets and a mountain hood, all with minimal seams and – importantly – reduced production waste. That sounds like progress, right?
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