It’s pouring out, an NYC monsoon, when a message from my editor pops up on my screen: “This shirt is crazy. Just ran through the rain and my shorts and shoes are soaked, my shirt: essentially dry.” He’s wearing Threadsmiths Cavalier T-shirt, one of three shirts we tested in the studio and the real world. Threadsmiths, Kelby & Co and Vardama all offer various styles of clothing, from the casual white T-shirt to the formal button-up, with one unifying claim — that they repel liquids and the stains they bring.

The demand for waterproof and stainproof clothing isn’t new, but today’s production methods are. Instead of applying chemical coatings to the finished product, these brands use nanotechnology, which works at the level of the molecule. Reactions at the molecular level are different from what they would be on a macro scale, which has significant implications for human safety. As a recent peer-reviewed study signed by over 200 scientists states, some waterproof and stainproof treatments have been found to be harmful to human (and environmental) health. The three purveyors of nanotechnology-enhanced clothing we tested claim that their work at the molecular level is safe. While nanotechnology requires more long-term research (according to ASU), these three brands maintain that their products are effective and free from harmful chemicals. We asked their founders to explain their nuanced iterations of nanotechnology, and then we tested the tech against one of our biggest stain foes: cold-brew coffee.

Threadsmiths Cavalier

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Most Comfortable: Pouring coffee on a white tee is cringe-inducing. But as I watched droplets of coffee roll off the shirt, my jaw dropped. Most of the droplets disappeared, and when we poured water on the rest, all traces of coffee vanished. A very slight brown shade remained, but came out after a wash. And both before and after a wash, this nanotechnology-enhanced fabric felt just like your average cotton T-shirt.
What Makes It Hydrophobic: microscopic silicon particles (100 times smaller than the common virus) that form hill-like structures. Water and dirt particles sit on top of the structures instead of seeping into the fabric.

Kelby & Co Gingham Slim

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Most Versatile: Kelby & Co makes a gingham shirt (among other styles) with nanotechnological updates. While the fabric didn’t repel liquid as visibly as the Threadsmiths shirt, it was slightly more effective; after pouring water on the coffee, no visible sight remained. It felt mostly like a cotton button-up, but slightly paper-y. The only drawback with this shirt is that it can’t yet be dry-cleaned.
What Makes It Hydrophobic: Kelby & Co’s fabric is sourced from a company called Dropel, whose cofounder said to me, “Nanotechnology is only a part of the science.” Their technology is proprietary, but we do know that it involves the addition of a comb polymer and branch copolymer. These polymers form an invisible layer which allow water and particles to sit atop the cotton without staining it.

Vardama Wall Street

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Most Formal: This formal button-up shirt is the most polished of the three options (Vardama also offers more casual styles). With folded detailing on the pocket and a pleat on the back, you’d never guess this was anything other than a nice button-up shirt. But then, the steady stream of coffee that we poured on it almost to evaporate before our eyes. After a splash of water, it was gone completely — and the shirt barely felt wet. If you tend to throw back one too many at weddings, this is the shirt for you.
What Makes It Hydrophobic: a nanotechnology enhancement called Equa-Tek™, which is similar to the technology used in non-iron shirts. It’s a propriety technology, so details aren’t public. However, the formula is free of formaldehyde, PFOA & PFOS. It’s undergone “rigorous testing”, and meets American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists regulations.