NW Alpine Spectra Review
Our Analysis and Test Results
NW Alpine, based out of Salem, Oregon, is a small company making big waves within the world of technical outdoor clothing with their innovative use of Honeywell's revolutionary textile, Spectra. Ounce-for-ounce, Spectra is tested to be 40% stronger than kevlar. Its ability to withstand abrasion, rips, and tears does not compromise comfort — the 90% polyester, 10% Spectra blend fits, feels, and breathes like a merino wool blend. NW Alpine's clothing is designed and stitched at their factory at the foot of Oregon's Cascade Range, which allows for intensive in-house testing among their cadre of athletes.
As one of the lightest tops in this review — both in terms of fabric weight, and weight by size — it should be no surprise that the Spectra Long Sleeve is not designed to be an insulating option. Rather, this technical base layer was created with the fast-and-light, alpine ethos at the forefront of its design: to move quickly to generate heat, but to operate at maximum efficiency so that you never find yourself either hot or cold. One might call it the "Goldilocks" method of thermal efficiency.
In the wintertime, this slim-fitting, next-to-skin base layer helps to keep you warm by keeping you dry — as long as you layer up properly, the Spectra Long Sleeve will thrive as the base layer of your kit. Throughout the shoulder seasons, this top musters up enough warmth to pair comfortably with a lightweight jacket on all but the chilliest mornings. And during the height of the summer, its airy, breathable fit is exactly what you want when working hard on an equally airy alpine wall.
Like most other ultra-lightweight base layers, the Spectra Long Sleeve excels in terms of breathability. This nearly-sheer, single layer synthetic barely breaks the threshold of 100 g/m² and additionally benefits from the qualities of the included Spectra fibers. Classified as an "ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE)," Spectra is lighter than most other natural, synthetic, or blended fibers. Considering its strength-to-weight ratio, the Spectra top is designed out of an ultra-thin fabric that, not surprisingly, breathes much better than many others.
Even though it is athletically cut, this long sleeve tee has more of an airy fit — very similar to other highly rated, lightweight options included in this review. This is preferable for summertime wear, as positive airflow underneath the shade of the darkly-dyed top helps to keep you cool while on the move. When layered up in the wintertime, moisture is effectively transferred away from your skin, keeping you consistently dry (and thus, warm) no matter how hard you push in the skin track. Though it may not wick-away sweat quite as effectively as Merino wool, it does almost meet the same standard of thermoregulation.
Comfort and Fit
We're more than happily surprised by the feel and comfort of this top. Compared side-by-side with other lightweight, merino wool blend base layers, it is almost unnoticeable that you are wearing a full-synthetic shirt. And compared directly to other full-synthetics, you would think that you are wearing a merino wool blend. Despite its reputation for durability, Spectra is remarkably pliable, and exceptionally soft when woven or knit with other fibers. The next-to-skin comfort of the Spectra Long Sleeve is extraordinary, especially considering that it comes at no cost to its technical performance.
NW Alpine prides itself on simplicity of design. However, this top would certainly benefit from some simple design tweaks in our opinion. The easiest to achieve is a raglan design (or similar) that would eliminate shoulder-top seams — even the flatlock seams can rub as pressure points under the weight of a heavy pack. The collar is stiff — likely a by-product of the Spectra fibers — but doesn't make it difficult to pull on or take off this shirt, and rather keeps the collar from stretching out. It is a bit less comfortable, though. Though the progressive fiber blend successfully overcomes other issues common to lightweight, synthetic base layers — particularly thermoregulation and comfort — it does not solve the issue of stink. Just like all polyester tops we've ever tested, the Spectra Long Sleeve easily accumulates odor after a day of hard activity. Fortunately, top-notch durability means you could wash it every evening without having to worry about it wearing out or losing its shape. But, we do envision a future development with a Merino-Spectra knit that helps resolve the common issues with synthetic fabric's odor retention tendency.
Like most synthetic fibers — including polyester — Spectra is inherently water resistant. This hydrophobia helps to keep moisture from absorbing into the fabric itself, keeping it on the surface where it can more easily be evaporated. This tends to give synthetic layers the advantage over their more natural counterparts when it comes to drying speed and is a major reason why so many lightweight base layers are designed with synthetic fabrics.
That's why we were a bit surprised to find that the Spectra Long Sleeve took a bit longer to dry than its most direct competitors — on average, it takes this top 10 minutes longer to flat dry than other models in the same weight class. This information may be more interesting than consequential — 40 minutes to flat dry in the sun is still a short enough window to hand wash this top during a lunch layover on a multi-day backpacking trip. It is certainly incidental to this layer's moisture management — whether worn individually or under other layers, we never once found evidence of sweat marks, even after serious uphill efforts.
The NW Alpine Spectra line is the first-ever — and so far, only — technical outdoor apparel to use Honeywell's innovative Spectra fiber. This versatile, lightweight, and incredibly durable fiber increases material strength no matter how it is incorporated. To provide some context on the type of strength we're talking about, it is also used to create advanced ballistic vests.
But for our purposes, and the needs of even the most hardened outdoor recreationist, Spectra is best known for its superior resistance to abrasions, rips, and tears. This super-strength is exactly what we found in our overly aggressive abrasion test: consistent rubbing against sandstone hardly left a mark — in fact, it hardly even discolored the fabric. This is exceptional considering that at only 105 g/m², it is one of the lightest tops in this review in terms of fabric weight. Confidently wear the Spectra Long Sleeve on your next off-width climb, and know that at least your torso will be protected from cuts and scrapes.
The lightweight, slim fit and merino wool-like feel make this top an easy favorite to choose as your next-to-skin layer. Even though it is designed to be a base layer, it has a slightly more forgiving cut than other direct competitors, making it more reasonable to wear as a standalone shirt during the warmer months for activities like running, biking, or climbing. Though it definitely falls on the active-wear side of the spectrum as a technical piece of clothing, it's not unreasonable to wear casually — particularly in certain circles where the "guide look" is fashionable.
In our opinion, any layer designed for colder temperatures is only enhanced by thumb loops, both to keep snow and ice out and to improve layering ability. As a top designed for alpine, mixed, and ice climbing, the Spectra Long Sleeve certainly falls into this category. Though they don't tend to bunch up once in place, the looser fitting cuffs must be held while sliding on any sort of mid-layer.
Spectra fiber is simply stronger than other fabrics and therefore is destined to last longer. Not only is the Spectra Long Sleeve offered at an entirely reasonable price point for such a technical top, but you are also likely to see a better return on investment simply based on its unparalleled durability.
From its starting point next-to-skin at the base of your fast-and-light winter kit, to working hard as a standalone top for your next big climbing project, the NW Alpine Spectra Long Sleeve is designed to work as hard as you will on your next adventure. As a part of the world's very first line of technical clothing to incorporate the innovative Spectra fiber, unmatched durability backs the value and performance of this stellar lightweight base layer.
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