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  • Writer's pictureJonn Langan

The 3 F’s - Peeling back the multiple layers

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine as "The 3 F's - Peeling back the layers". This article expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of

designing within a layering system, to try to find what the optimal number of layers for the the modern active consumer.

When was the last time you layered up for an activity or just to go outside? We layer up our clothing everyday, for different environments and for different reasons. In the apparel industry we are constantly referencing layering systems and traditionally the 3 layer system is the most often referenced.

This system compromises of a base layer, a warmth layer and a protective layer. These layers are often designed by different designers, focused on the individual needs & requirements of each of the products. Yes, they may have the styling concept uniting them visually, but do we really take the time to think about the interactions between the layers and make sure they work together as a system?

In this article I’m going to explore the specific interactions between these layers. This can include the material choices, the associated functions and technologies, the features and the fit. Essentially we are going to look at the 3 F’s (Fabric, Function & Fit)

The key will not to be looking at the garments in isolation but at how they function within a system. How do the interactions between layers and the design decisions we make affect the overall layering concept we are trying to achieve.

Fabric (and the space in between)

In my previous article (Putting the sport back in sportswear) I wrote about how the needs of an activity can affect how you approach a design. One of the major factors I spoke about was that the material used in the creation of the product needs to be appropriate for the activity. This is even more true when creating a layering system for an activity.

When a person is actively using clothing it doesn’t function in isolation, it functions in collaboration and in connection to the layer next to it (on either side). So looking into how the properties of the fabrics function and interact within a layering system can be fundamental in making sure the user is comfortable and assured the clothing is “doing its job”. Sometimes a material can work amazingly in isolation, but when paired with other layers the function is inhibited and fails to perform correctly.

This brings me to the space between layers. When looking at how a layer functions, we also need to look at how the air between these layers acts.

For example air underneath a base layer obviously increases in heat and humidity as we move around and exert energy, so moving this air away from the body is important. A lot of performance fabrics pull the moisture away from inside of the base layer to outer side, but cooling down this air is also vital to stop the user overheating. So in this case the knitted material needs an open structure to make sure air can flow through to the outside, circulating the air and thus cooling the user down.

But where does the moisture and heat go once it has passed through the first layer? Well, obviously to the next layer, which in most cases is the mid layer (or warmth layer). A mid layer is in a tricky position, in most cases it has to both keep the user warm, but also it needs to allow some of this moisture and heat out and away from the body. The nature of these materials can vary massively, so looking at systems to help this migration of moisture away is a tricky one. Thinking about ventilation systems, jacquard openings & lighter weight material at key heat zones, or even using material which can continue to pull the moisture away from the body (much like the base layer underneath) are among the directions we can take.

Finally once you get to the outer (protective) layer, the levels of breathability are normally the lowest of all the previous layers. So making sure that we don’t fail in letting the moisture build up and pass through to the outside seems like something we should pay great attention to. Of course the outer layer is primarily designed to protect the user from the outer elements. So membranes, coatings or high density fabrics are used for this purpose, so once again how do we allow this build up of moisture to be released to the outside without compromising the function of the protective layer?

Aside from the material properties, which are improving all the time, we may also need to look at extreme venting systems. Large openings such as pit zips can be an extremely effective way to release the air, but balancing this system along side the need for protection means often venting systems are placed in sheltered areas of the garment. So looking for alternative ways to dump heat can be a challenge. It’s always good to think about how the air flows round the user whilst in activity. Are they moving forward? Are they static? Does the environment expose them in a particular area of the body?

This process looks at moving air and moisture outward through a layering system, but sometimes we want to keep the heat in, so we can stay warm and comfortable. So what should we consider to help trap warm air inside a layering system?

Trapping air is a little bit easier to achieve. Simply cinching in waist drawcords and adjusting cuff tabs tight is the most conventional way. Other areas to consider are up around the collar or hood and around the rear torso area.

Specifically the rear torso adjustment is one that is often overlooked, but does a great job of separating the torso into an upper and lower half. As the torso adjustment is normally placed just below the rib cage and above the hips it is in an ideal place to keep the users vital organs warm in cold conditions. An added benefit is that the placement of this adjustment point also allows for freedom of movement around the lower section of the jacket.

The collar or hood area is another closure that is hard to make “air-tight” as the adjustments in this area are designed to adjust for hood comfort in multiple situations, not necessarily to contain warm air. For example when the user wears a helmet or beanie and they need to move their head around freely.

Unfortunately this hood or collar area is the largest area for heat to escape from. This is mainly due to the fact that heat rises. But this is also exacerbated by the fact this is the only exposed opening and moving around will create what is called the “chimney effect”. The chimney effect is when pressure from within the jacket is created by movement and the only direction it can go is up and out of the collar or hood area.

It is a tough problem to control, but wind collar gaiters and other adjustments can work or help to create an effective seal in this area and make a nice warm micro climate for the user.

Function (and the harmony of alignment)

As the design of a layering system is created and the individual garments are designed, we may also need to think about complimentary feature placement. This kind of system allows key features to interact in between individual layers to offer a more streamline and harmonious user experience.

The easiest way to think about this is to look at the features and function you are looking to align and make sure that throughout the different layers they are positioned closely to the body. For example an easy one is making sure the ventilation system lines up through the outer and mid layers to allow direct access to the base layer. But more subtle ideas like making sure pockets are placed in different areas of the body so that they do not overlap when layered up will give the user a sense of the product “linking” or fitting together in harmony.

Of course these ideas only work if the layers are worn together, but encouraging the user to wear these items together through this kind of design thought process can lead to some pretty innovative concepts. If you have certain access points from an outer shell then you will intrinsically know where you can place additional pockets on mid layers to make them easier to access.

Linking these layers together is a way to guarantee that the garments will sit correctly on the body. From tab & loop attachment points on cuffs and collar, to 3-in-1 zip in systems, which communicate to the consumer the advantage of

interlinking layers together.

Some believe that linking systems are not “technical” and serve to promote add on sales at the deficit of technicality, but i think it’s both dependant on consumer attitude to this kind of feature, and also not looking at linking systems as a downgrade on technology. The idea of making a linking system easy to understand and use could and should be a positive, so maybe there is a way to improve this kind of feature?

Fit (and pleasure of synergy)

So the last area to think about when putting a layered concept together, is the fit and how the layers fit over one another. A simple and obvious point i’m sure you are saying. But this does not just relate to the measurements of each garment getting larger as you layer up, there is so much more to think about to make sure the experience of wearing all the layers together is easy and comfortable.

Yes of course making sure sleeve and hem lengths fit correctly and feel thought through is important, but looking at how the fit can affect the comfort of a system can be vital to how effective it works.

Take the materials that each layer is made up from, how well do the layers interact together? Do they snag when brushed up against each other? Wool for example can have a rougher texture, which is more susceptible to snagging, whilst a lot of synthetic materials will pass more smoothly over another. So looking at material choices and key snagging areas, to see how these materials interact could help with creating a nicely compatible layering system.

The cut of the layered garment is an important area to pay attention to so that excess material is not bunched up in an area, which may affect the comfort and fit of the garments together. But as well as the cut of a garment, the seaming interactions may lead to irritation when layered.

Sometimes, this can be as simple as using the same type of sleeve construction (i.e. raglan or set-in) but just as importantly ergonomic seaming around the body can be ineffective when the next layer has an opposing construction. These crossing of seam lines can create uncomfortable ridges and also affect how the garments move together. In extreme cases this can make areas of garment ride up or twist, which can feel horribly uncomfortable.

When it comes to cutting a layering stem for activity the user body position and action will of course need to be accounted for. For example shaping a hem well below the bum on cycling wear is common practice, but looking at the riders position and determining where there might be frequent movement and abrasion, and then reducing bulk in that area will make a layering system feel “tailored” for the intended sport.

3 + 7 = 5 (How many layers is too many?)

Now that the principles of a classic 3 layer system has been explained, there is now a chance to explore what other additional layers could be introduced to compliment and enhance this layering system. For a majority of environments and sports, a 3 layer system works just fine but when you are placed in a more extreme, cold or changeable environment there might be some need for additional layers.

One of the most famous cold weather layering systems was developed by the United Army Natick Soldier Research and Engineering Center in Massachusetts for the US Army. It is called the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) and was first created in the 1980’s to protect their soldiers in various extreme weather environments and temperatures ranging from -51 to +4 Celsius.

The kit consists of 12 pieces of clothing, plus headwear and footwear which can be layered up in a seven layer system to offer optimal comfort whilst deployed. In its 3rd generation the current seven layers consist of:

Layer 1 - Lightweight Base Layer and Long-Johns

Made from Polartec Power Dry and specifically designed to wick sweat and moisture away from the body, whilst remaining very breathable.

Layer 2 - Mid-weight Base Layer and Long Johns

Made from Polartec Power Grid which has a slightly warmer aspect to the construction and can be worn as the main base layer in cold climates or as an additional warming layer over layer 1 in milder climates.

Layer 3 - Cold Weather Fleece Jacket

Made from Polartec 300 and designed to be the main warmth mid layer, but can also serve as an outer layer in milder environments. The nature of this type of jacket is to both trap heat, but also be breathable enough to allow some heat through when used as a true mid layer.

Layer 4 - Cold Wind Weather Jacket

Essentially this wind-shell is made from stretchy but highly wind resistant nylon material and designed to offer a barrier to the outside elements, whilst helping to optimise the insulation of the first 3 layers. The outer material is designed to be both durable and water resistant, as this layer is most often used in active situations.

Layer 5 - Cold Weather Jacket & Pants

These mid layer soft-shell garments are designed for moderate to cold weather and offer some more additional insulation as well as an incorporated membrane to keep the soldier dry. Often these are worn over the first 3 layers and instead of layer 4, but in some conditions this layer is worn in addition.

Layer 6 - Extreme Cold & Wet Weather Jacket & Pants

Made form lightweight but highly durable Gore-Tex materials. These are designed to be the ultimate barrier against wind and rain, but due to the technology they still function and aid in the breathability of the entire system. The third generation cut the bulk of this layer by 50%. Added technologies include Infra-Red Stealth Technologies which reduce the heat signature of the soldier, making them harder to detect.

Layer 7 - Extreme Cold Weather Parka & Pants

Made from a combination of synthetic insulation and water resistant outer, this layer functions as the ultimate “boost layer” to keep the user warm in the most extreme cold conditions. The synthetic insulation is used as it performs incredibly well even in wet conditions. Worn as the final layer over all the other layers its sole job is to keep the soldier as warm as possible without a huge amount of bulk.

Obviously this system is designed for the most extreme conditions and the most demanding consumer. But it gives some interesting insights into what might be worth adding into a classic 3 layer system.

Rather than go though all the permutations, i’m going to focus on the 5th layer (Soft-shell) and the 7th layer (Boost Insulation). The reason I’m focusing here is because these product types give the biggest impact when integrated into a traditional 3 layer system and for most active brands a 5 Layer system seems to work best for both product categorisation and creating outfits by activity.

Soft-shell Layer

Traditionally a soft-shell bridges the gap between an insulated layer and a protective layer. There are lots of different types of soft-shell and they can be adapted to focus on different jobs within the layering system. Essentially the soft-shell came about through material development that allowed waterproof and windproof technologies to be applied onto softer material types, effectively making a soft waterproof. But the definition of a soft-shell has changed and adapted over the years.

A soft-shell can be as diverse as a bonded fleece with a breathable membrane, to a fleece with a tightly woven outer face, to even a lightweight woven double weave shell. The main benefit of this type of layer is to either eliminate the need for both a warmth and a shell layer, or is added as an additional level of protection.

So choosing the function of a soft-shell can greatly impact the material choice and usage within a layering system.

Boost Layer

First of all, I want to make something clear. A boost layer is not just another piece of insulation like a down or synthetic jacket that is worn as part of an everyday layer. Those come under the classic warmth layer in my opinion. A boost layer is something at is much more of a (yes you guessed it) boost of insulation. This boost layer needed in extremely cold environments when the level of insulation in the warmth layer is just not enough.

Generally these layers are worn over the top of every other layer so they can be added quickly and easily. Therefore the fit needs to be carefully constructed to work with all the other potential layers. Their sole function is add additional insulation to the user, nothing more. So it is very important to consider the warmth to weight ratio of the material choices, the packability and importantly the adjustability of the garment.

5 is the magic number

So with these additions in mind a 5 layer system for me offers the best and most effective way to create a commercial layering system for the modern active consumer. The definition of what combination of garments & materials are within a layering system is always up for debate and as technologies evolve and consumer trends change, who knows what will happen in the future.

So this explains a little on why we should always consider a “total look” approach when designing with a layering system in mind. There is a lot more to explore here when some of the variables of a layering system are changed, but simply paying attention to the fabric, function and fit is a great starting point from which to explore designing within a layering system.

For more on layering systems and how they can work better for you and your brand contact Jonn at

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