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Softshell

The all-rounder among functional materials?

© VAUDE

Almost every outdoor fan owns a softshell jacket, and it often becomes a favourite because it is so comfortable and practical. But why is that? We explain below exactly how softshell material differs from hardshell and fleece, what it is made of, how it can best be combined and what type of softshell is best suited for which situation – and where there are limitations.


Since its market launch towards the end of the 1990s, softshell has become an indispensable part of outdoor sports and everyday winter life. However, not all softshells are the same because of their wide range of uses and high wearing comfort. We provide an insight into the now complex world of softshell products.

Definition: What is softshell exactly?

As the term softshell already suggests, this is a material with a soft surface that provides a lot of wearing comfort, and which distinguishes softshell from the firm hardshell.

Nevertheless, softshell is also robust and quite weather-resistant on the outside. However, the material consists of at least two layers that are firmly bonded together. It usually also includes a soft, insulating, moisture-wicking and air-permeable inner layer and usually also a membrane or coating to increase waterproofing and windproofing.

Softshell is usually made of synthetic fibers. © VAUDE

What is softshell made of, and what are its properties?

In most cases, softshells use synthetic fibres such as polyamide (PA), polyester (PES) or polypropylene (PP). Many brands now offer softshell clothing with up to 100% recycled polyester content. Also, many coatings are PFC-free nowadays. If you want to find a product that is as pollutant-free and responsibly produced as possible, then simply use our sustainability filters on the left of the overview page, for example, for softshell jackets .

Softshell keeps you nice and warm because it is insulating and wind- and water-repellent. At the same time, it protects you from overheating during sports activities because it is very breathable and moisture-repellent. It is also quite light and the soft, elastic texture allows you a lot of freedom of movement. This is further enhanced, for example, when a softshell jacket has different zones with precisely adapted material properties. For example, parts under the arms are thinner, more breathable and stretchy, while the shoulder area is more robust – in case you want to carry a backpack. Softshell clothing is not waterproof in most cases, but can withstand a short rain shower or longer drizzle.


How does softshell differ from hardshell and fleece?

While a hardshell jacket or trousers are clearly only suitable as an outer layer, the fleece is designed to be worn underneath for activities in the cold. Clothing made of softshell is more or less in between, because, depending on the weather and material properties, it can be worn as a third layer, i.e. an outer shell, or, if it is very wet and cold, as a middle layer of clothing under a hardshell jacket. With its soft texture and basic weather resistance, it combines the best of both worlds.

Hardshell is usually completely waterproof. It usually consists of a woven outer fabric laminated to a waterproof membrane or microporous coating. In designated hardshell rainwear, the seams and zips are also waterproof sealed. However, the strong fabric and waterproofness come at the expense of breathability and wearing comfort. Although the waterproof membranes and coatings of the hardshell are also breathable, in that they do not let raindrops in but water vapour generated by sweaty activities out. However, if the outside temperature is too high and/or too much sweat is formed due to very intensive activities, the breathability decreases because the sweat drops are too large to penetrate the membrane from the inside to the outside.

Hardshells also lack the warming, soft and moisture-regulating inner layer. The latter is also responsible for the high wearing comfort of softshell, especially directly on the skin. A rain or hardshell jacket causes the skin to feel cold and hard – even if the raindrops are kept out, it feels uncomfortably cold and even wet against the skin. Some people are also bothered by the "rustling" noise that hardshell makes.

Here, on the other hand, softshell scores top marks. In most cases, softshell clothing "only" has a DWR coating (durable water repellent) or a dense fabric on the outside. In addition, there may be a lightweight, windproof membrane, which is much more breathable and elastic than a waterproof membrane, but does not withstand heavy precipitation for long. On the other hand, softshell has a softer surface, which ensures greater comfort and freedom of movement. Due to the elasticity, the material can also be cut closer to the body. In addition, softshell is usually lighter and more compressible than hardshell, so you also save weight and packing volume during your sporting activity. It also warms thanks to the lined inside.

Fleece, on the other hand, is nice and cosy and warm, but it must not be cold and windy in winter or rainy when you wear it as an outer layer. It actually looks best over the functional vest and under the weatherproof outer layer. Fleece, in addition to velour, is also used as an inner layer in softshell garments and is also used in softshell hybrid products, for example, on the back, which makes the garment even more breathable and comfortable.


Structure and layers: What types of softshell are there?

The classic softshell jacket consists of two or three layers of material. Three-layer softshells have a robust, often DWR-coated and, therefore, water-repellent outer fabric on the outside. A water vapour permeable and windproof membrane, for example, GORE Windstopper, The North Face Apex ClimateBlock or Marmot M2, serves as a mid-layer. Fleece or velour acts as the inner layer for warmth insulation and moisture wicking. This type of softshell is not completely waterproof, but it is warm, breathable, windproof and water repellent.

Depending on the nature of the membrane (also known as a laminate, when all the fabrics are bonded together), there are now also waterproof types of softshell; however, this is more or less at the expense of breathability and elasticity. Waterproof membranes include GORE-TEX, Mammut DRYtech, Marmot M1, The North Face Apex WeatherBlock or PolartecPowershield Pro. As you can see, the boundaries between soft and hardshell can become blurred. To make a garment 100 per cent waterproof and windproof, the seams and zips must also be sealed.

Conversely, two-layer soft shells without a membrane have high breathability, with weather protection in the form of a water- and wind-repellent surface coating and/or a very dense weave (e.g. double weave). These can withstand a little drizzle, the odd brief shower and winds that are not too strong, but not, however, strong storms.

Generally speaking, all surface treatments and textures of softshell clothing are robust, abrasion-resistant and dirt-repellent, so you can even come into contact with a bush without tearing your softshell jacket, which can happen with a thin rain or wind jacket.

In this table you can find an overview of the different types and qualities of softshell:
ConstructionThree-layer softshellTwo-layer softshell
UpperFabric: robust, abrasion-resistant, dirt- and water-repellent (DWR)Fabric: robust, abrasion-resistant, dirt- and water-repellent (DWR)
Inner materialFleece/velour, firmly laminated with outer fabric and membraneFleece/velour, firmly laminated with outer fabric
Intermediate layerMembraneNone
PropertiesDepending on the membrane/coating:

  • Waterproof or water-repellent
  • Windproof
  • Breathable
  • Moderately elastic
  • Insulating/warming, also through windproofness
  • Water repellent (DWR)
  • Windproof
  • Breathable and permeable to air
  • Elastic
  • Insulating/warming due to inner material
Intended useOuter layerOuter or middle layer

Softshell is mainly used in jackets, but can also be found in pants, gloves and vests. © VAUDE

What softshell products are there?

The best known and most widely used are softshell jackets, because, generally speaking, this is a product that is well-suited to staying reasonably warm and dry in our latitudes, even in everyday life from autumn to spring, in 80 to 90 per cent of all cases. But softshell can be found just as well in gloves, trousers and waistcoats – with the same properties, of course. These products, especially the trousers, are particularly interesting for hikers and climbing fans, because they spend a lot of time outdoors and also greatly appreciate weatherproof, as well as breathable materials on their legs, which offer them a lot of freedom of movement and wearing comfort.

What is the best way to combine softshell?

Depending on the weather and activity, softshell is best worn as a second or third layer. Two-layer softshell without a membrane is perfect as a mid-layer over a fleece or baselayer and under a waterproof hardshell jacket or rain pants, especially when it's pouring with rain and storming heavily. Three-layer softshell, especially in the waterproof version, can also be worn as an outer layer over several layers of functional materials.


For which activities does which type of softshell score the most points?

The more sweaty the activity, the more likely you are to do without a membrane, or the more wind- and water vapour-permeable your softshell clothing should be. Hybrid softshells are ideal here, which are windproof and waterproof at the front, for example, but more air-permeable and elastic in other places, so that you can move better and release moisture. If it is not too wet, cold and windy outside and the sport, such as cycling or jogging, does not involve too many breaks, two-layer softshell clothing without a membrane is actually better here. This also applies to walking in moderate temperatures and dry weather.

If the weather is unstable and you also have to expect rain, but you only want to have ONE jacket with you, then the three-layer softshell jacket with waterproof membrane is the best choice. However, if you're leaving the house in cold, stormy or rainy weather and there's no chance of the weather changing, choose a waterproof hardshell or rain jacket and maybe a double-layer softshell jacket or fleece underneath.

Our softshell favourites


The advantages and function of softshell clothing at a glance

Are softshell jackets waterproof? In most cases, not one hundred per cent, and that is often not necessary. The task of a softshell jacket is to keep you warm and reasonably dry on the outside in wind and weather – but above all on the inside. Therefore, softshell is usually more breathable than hardshell and, due to the soft inner lining, similarly insulating and moisture-regulating as fleece. The elasticated upper offers you plenty of freedom of movement. The ideal temperature range for a softshell jacket is between 7 and 18 degrees Celsius, depending on how you feel, and that's what we encounter most of the time at our latitude. You get ONE jacket for almost every task, for sudden downpours, there is the rainwear.

Although clothing made of softshell is not one hundred percent waterproof, the material scores with other properties. © VAUDE

Softshell care

If you take proper care of your softshell garments, you can help to preserve the lifespan of the above-mentioned body climate regulating functions of the material. In general, however, only wash as often as necessary and as little as possible. One reason for washing is salt residues or unpleasant odours due to heavy perspiration and very coarse soiling. Small or stubborn stains can be (pre-)treated with a sponge and some special detergent plus water. Airing out is often enough for odours.

Washing softshell

  • Always follow the manufacturer's instructions on the washing instructions inside the garment. In most cases, the gentle wash cycle is recommended.
  • If you can't find washing instructions and want to be one hundred per cent sure, wash in cold water and don't use the spin cycle.
  • Before washing, close all zips and Velcro fasteners, open drawstrings and turn garments inside out.
  • Never use fabric softener.
  • Only use liquid mild detergent or special detergent for softshell, so that the pores of the material do not become clogged and the weather protection and breathability can be restored/maintained.
  • Leave at least one third of space in the drum so that it can be rinsed well
  • Only spin on low speed (see manufacturer's recommendations, usually 800 revolutions) and hang to dry on the line, but not in direct sunlight.
  • Some softshell products can be put in the dryer (check the washing label).

Waterproofing – Reactivation:

If your softshell garment has DWR waterproofing, it will suffer during washing and intensive use. However, the waterproofing can be refreshed after the first few washes by means of heat – provided that the chemical composition of the waterproofing allows this. Again, it is imperative to consult the label. The gentle programme of the dryer, the iron or the hairdryer are suitable for heat treatment.

New waterproofing

At some point, however, even this reactivation possibility of the waterproofing is exhausted and your softshell clothing must be made waterproof again. You recognise this point in time when drops of water no longer roll off the clothing but soak into the outer fabric. At best, you still have a membrane as water protection, but the breathability is then hardly present.

For waterproofing, there are special sprays to apply to the outer layer of the washed garment or agents to use when washing. Many of these products are now PFC-free. Depending on which waterproofing product you choose, simply follow the instructions on the packaging, as the procedure may differ.


Here's what you need to know about softshell:

  • Classic softshell is not 100% waterproof, but only water-repellent, for example, through a DWR coating.
  • Classic softshell is more breathable than hardshell because it is usually only highly wind-resistant and air-permeable, and is, therefore, very suitable for outdoor sports.
  • Classic softshell is more elastic than hardshell because it does without waterproof membranes or these are only windproof and vapour permeable.
  • There are special forms of soft shells, usually in three-layer construction, which are completely windproof and waterproof. However, these lose breathability and stretchability.
  • Classic softshell is lined with fleece or velour on the inside for insulation, comfort and moisture management.
  • Classic softshell is perfectly adequate for outdoor activities in 80-90% of weather conditions in Central Europe.
  • DWR coated softshell needs to be re-treated from time to time and following the care instructions when washing will greatly prolong the functionality of these garments.

Conclusion

Not as inflexible and "quick" as hardshell, and nowhere near as wind and water permeable as fleece. Still warm and soft and in most cases sufficiently weatherproof as well as breathable: This is softshell, the perfect material for your outdoor activities, especially if you are not travelling in extreme weather conditions.