Puncture resistant HEMA gear and the 350N/800N labeling problem.
HEMA, 800N, 350N and the EN 13567 standard for fabrics
In this article I will aim at providing a clear explanation of how the standards for penetration resistance work in the field of fabrics for fencing garments. A majority of the questions one may have in regards to that topic is going to be answered throughout the article in separate paragraphs, both strictly relative to HEMA and on the broader spectrum of fencing.
Since we have to start from somewhere, let's begin from the very foundations of the matter.
What is that all about, anyways?
For quite some time there's been a misconception among the community that 800N garments would be more "protective" than 350N garments. While this sentence is fundamentally correct, those numbers ONLY refer to the garment's efficacy at preventing a thrust from penetrating the fabric they are made of. They are by no means indicative of impact protection or padding.
Why do we want penetration resistant garments in HEMA?
First of all, the obvious reason is safety: we are smashing and stabbing each other with steel bars for sport, so we need to make sure that said steel bars do not harm us. While blades are wide-tipped, blunted and flexible, there is the unfortunate chance that a sword could break before or during a thrust without that being noticed, leaving a dangerous jagged surface to be the point of contact against the opponent, posing an enormous threat to their safety.
Preventing an accident like that from happening, on top of avoiding or mitigating the injury itself, also means avoiding a potential danger of being sued for having injured (or even killed) someone.
While this is surely secondary compared to not being injured or killed during sports practice, it's not a worthless point to keep in mind that the use of penetration resistant gear does indeed greatly reduce the risk of both minor and major injuries tied to the penetration of a blade through a fencer's body, and their consequences both in health and legal terms.
But why do we use sport fencing standards for HEMA?
This is due to the need of some sort of objective scale, and the nature of EN 13567, the international standard for fencing equipment.
Differently from what many people think, 350N and 800N is thus not a standard that refers to the garment, and specifically it is not a standard for sport fencing garments. 350N and 800N are the amounts of force (expressed in Newtons) that the regulations for sport fencing prescribe as minimum results for making CEN Level 1 or Level 2 fencing garments, together with many other characteristics.
I just want to make it clear that it's the CEN requirements that are tied to sport fencing, while the EN 13567 penetration test for fabrics is a sound test, with known consistency in results, that gives us a solid idea of how resistant a fabric is to being penetrated by a broken blade.
The reason we use the same "threshold values" in HEMA as in sport fencing is that manufacturers of fabrics, over the years of existence of sport fencing regulations, have adapted to that standard.
A large majority of the EN 13567-certified fabrics available today are tuned to make them qualify for 350N or 800N test results.
So, most HEMA garments are compliant to the EN 13567 norm?
Unfortunately, this is not it.
For several reasons, and with responsibility for this being shared between a several brands playing an unfair game, and some first attempts at regulating certain HEMA circuits that lacked the foresight to counter that, the current "standard" in HEMA is putting a "350N" or "800N" label inside garments without the materials having been actually certified under EN 13567, let alone a CEN homolagation obviously.
This is possible because an "800N" or" "350N" label doesn't have any meaning at all, since it's not quoting the EN 13567 standard norm. There are a few notable exceptions to this practice, but a large majority of the HEMA garments brands use "house tested" fabrics at best, when it's not chinese-made fabrics with no test reference at all.
CLARIFICATION: this does not mean that every manufacturer writing 800N or 350N on their garments is scamming you.
Some (me included) have had to adapt to the current misunderstanding of the community that 800N or 350N were the tags to look for. I am writing this article in part to try educating customers to the real normative and hopefully making those who do things properly able to also identify and label them properly in the future.
HEMA, "350N" and "800N" labels, and the road forward
I do not contest any maker's choice to use cheaper fabrics that are not rated under EN 13567, but it's a dishonest work to exploit the community's misunderstanding in that regard an play the card of "800N" or "350N" meaningless labels in garments made that way, which removes value and meaning to the work of manufacturers and designers who spend their time, energy, money and efforts finding and using actually certified materials, or even getting those custom made for HEMA.
I recall all too well when just a few years ago Gajardoni was first in introducing an 800N jackets range, when the "350N" labels habit was just starting, and in a couple months "800N" labeled jackets started sprouting all over the hemasphere at unjustifiable prices. From there on, "350N" and "800N" labels became a standard way to identify HEMA garments.
As someone who went through it and ended up choosing to have their fabrics custom made (EN 13567 certified), I fully understand the fact that black-colored fabric tested under EN 13567 is costly and rare to find, because sport fencers mostly use white fabrics, but that doesn't make it any more ok to "fake" it, exploiting a misunderstanding.