Army to test new moisture-wicking, no-melt T-shirt
Fibers won’t burn skin when exposed to flash fire
By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 19, 2008
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army is getting ready to wear-test a new moisture-wicking T-shirt that eliminates the flaw that got its predecessors banned by the Marine Corps: the clothes won’t melt into skin when exposed to flash-fire conditions.
Beginning in July, about 300 soldiers at the Joint Readiness and Training Center at Fort Polk, La., will test Tac Wear shirts made with INVISTA’s CORDURA Baselayer fabric for the Army’s Material Command.
The test is the second go-around for the Tac Wear tee at Fort Polk, according to Sharon Birk, an INVISTA marketing manager.
A version tested by about 75 soldiers last August "was too heavy for the desert" at 5 ounces per yard, Birk said during a Tuesday telephone interview with Stars and Stripes.
The moisture-wicking shirt that the Army began issuing in 2005 weighs more still, at 5.3 ounces, she said.
But the commercial standard for the most advanced materials is just 4 ounces, Birk said, so 4 ounces is the weight of the material that troops will test in July, as well as the ones Tac Wear will begin selling commercially, beginning June 21.
Getting the weight of its fabric down was just one challenge INVISTA has had to tackle as it works to get its new knit into the military’s inventory, Birk said.
Moisture-wicking underwear, which pulls sweat away from the body to the surface of the material where it can evaporate, is an obvious choice for troops deployed to the Middle East, where temperatures can hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.
But in April 2006, Marine Corps commanders in Iraq banned the wear of all synthetic athletic clothing, including moisture-wicking garments, for Marines conducting operations outside of forward operating bases and camps.
When exposed to extreme heat or flame, the polyester in the material could melt and can fuse to the skin, creating disfiguring burns, Navy Capt. Lynn E. Welling, the 1st Marine Logistics Group head surgeon, was reported as saying in an Defense Department media report about the Marines’ ban.
After the ban, Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va., asked industry for a "no-melt, no-drip" moisture-wicking knit as part of the service’s Flame-Resistant Organizational Gear, or FROG, program.
INVISTA officials believed they had a product that almost fit the bill: the nylon-cotton mix used in their CORDURA blend, which the company was selling to the Army and Marines for their new combat uniforms.
Although nylon, like polyester, is made from flammable petrochemicals, "it has a different molecular structure than polyester, which means it acts differently," Birk said. Instead of melting, when the fibers are exposed to flash fire, the nylon gels around the cotton fibers it is mixed with, she said.
The entire mass "hardens and carbonizes," or turns to ash, she said.
INVISTA engineered a knit version of the previously woven fiber, and Tac Wear made the material into a tee. But when they came back to the Marines earlier this year with their invention, the Marines gave it a thumbs-down, saying it didn’t meet all their requirements.
While the material "meets the no melt and no drip requirements, tests indicate that it does not self-extinguish," so it is not being looked at for the fielding phase of the product, Bill Johnson-Miles, a spokesman for Marine Corps Systems Command, wrote in an e-mail Monday.
The Army is still interested, but for a different reason: the shirt’s performance, which combines the feel of cotton with the wicking of nylon, Birk said.
In fact, the Army has never adopted the Marine’s ban on polyester, said Maj. Clay Williamson, PEO Soldier’s assistant product manager for fire resistant clothing.
Physicians at the Army Institute of Surgical Research at Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, have looked into the issue, and "they have seen no medical evidence that suggests [petroleum-based fibers] melt and cause these kinds of burns," Williamson said.
Meanwhile, Williamson’s Fire Resistant Clothing program "has taken a cursory look" at the Tac Wear tee to inspect its performance, he said. "It’s a nice shirt."
But the Army has been issuing a long-sleeve cotton combat shirt with a fire-resistant coating to deployed soldiers since last year that meets those needs, he said.
Stripes takes new T-shirt to the map — literally
ARLINGTON, Va. — To see how the new fabric fits and performs, I took a short-sleeve crew-neck shirt to the mat — literally — on June 9.
I wore the shirt during a 45-minute drive in a closed Jeep Wrangler with no air conditioning, a 90-minute Krav Maga workout and a return drive home. According to weather reports, the "apparent temperature," or combined heat and humidity, at the start of the test was 105 degrees. I then washed and dried the shirt according to instructions. How did the material perform?
Fit: I asked a male soldier friend who is 6 feet tall and size L to try it on. It tucked neatly into his pants. It looked neither tight, nor sloppy. On me, it came to midthigh.
Appearance: My friend said the tan color would pass muster under his Army Combat Uniform.
Feel: Lightweight, silky-smooth and not too stretchy. The shirt feels like 100 percent cotton, with no stiffness or itch from the man-made nylon fibers. Two irritating, scratchy tags located on an inside seam. They could be cut off but one of them has the laundry instructions. "Tagless" printed labels would be better.
Moisture Wicking: Very fast. By the end of my workout, my bare arms were dripping sweat, my hair was soaked, and my all-cotton sweat pants were thoroughly damp. From neck to waist, however, I looked as tidy as if I had spent the 90 minutes playing chess.
Laundry performance: Minimal shrinkage in the trunk (less than half an inch). The sleeves also shrank half an inch, which was more noticeable. On the plus side: no "pilling" (a problem for many polyester-based knits); no static cling; and no odor retention.
Colors: Black, olive drab and desert tan
Sizes: M to 2XL
Available: June 21