The fleece jacket is for many still a classic from the 1980s. The material has been repeatedly refined. Bergzeit expert Bela Elbich explains all about the fabric cut and for what purpose it can be worn. A review. Continue reading
Stefan Rehm: Hi Bela, today I'd like to ask you, as our textile expert about fleece jackets. Let's start with the most obvious: What sort of fabric is a fleece?
Bela Elbich: Primarily, a fleece is made from polyester, with a warm, brushed inner polyester. There are several distinctions, however, it's first objective, is that fleece warms.
100, 200 and 300-quality fleece. What does this mean?
Fleeces are commonly categorised by weight to help you differentiate between them, it's an indication of its weight and thickness. It basically refers to grams per square meter for the fabric used. 100 (100 grams) is a low bulk, very lightweight fabric, that is more suited to summer use, high energy activities or as a lightweight second layer. 200 (200 grams) is the most versatile, mid-weight and a 300 (300 grams) is a heavy weight where warmth is the most important priority.
Sounds like an easy way to select a fleece quality depending on the seasons and for what it's required to be used for?
Exactly, and of course it also depends on the physical activity it's being worn for. For those who intensively train in winter even a 200 fleece can be too warm.
What's the meaning of the technical terms that we see for fleece fabric, such as; microfleece, stretch fleece (polyester, lycra, polyamide), coral fleece (plush) or knitted fleece?
These are certain types of processing and their areas of use. Coral fleece has a very deep pile, a good example is the Norrona Lofoten Warm2. A stretch fleece does as the name implys and won't restrict your movements. These usually have a contoured fit to the body and are particularly intended for high physical activity. Microfleece is very fine and is mostly used as a base layer. It is suitable for situations where fast moisture transport is required and less insulation is needed. Knit fleece can be found mainly in leisure wear. It has a pleasant surface, which resembles a knit sweater. These are less suitable for sport.
Meanwhile, blended fabrics have hit the market - a combination of natural and synthetic materials such as wool and fleece, for example by Ortovox. Also Polartec® introduced Power Wool ™ at ISPO 2015. What are the advantages of these hybrids?
Wool primarily yields a very pleasant feeling on the skin. You won't overheat as quickly, and when it's wet, it doesn't feel wet. A polyester outer, which is resistant to abrasion, making it backpack compatible, quick drying and stretchy. Summing it up, it's the best of both worlds - a combination of robustness and fast drying and comfort. Ortovox's fleece jackets with merino wool lining are a perfect example.
What is the advantage of fleece over wool and cotton?
Fleece is indeed a purely synthetic material. What are advantages and disadvantages compared to wool or cotton?
Fleece dries faster. This makes it suitable for any sweat-induced sporting activity. A ski tourer won't grab for wool apparel when ski touring, simply due to its saturation limit. The synthetic fibers are more robust, abrasion-resistant, less susceptible to mechanical stress, for example, from a backpack or climbing harness. They are stretchy and still hold their shape well. The downside is that synthetic fibers get smelly faster. Also, synthetic doesn't have the same comfortable sensation that merino wool leaves on the skin; one quickly realises that it's plastic you are wearing. Fleece can also attracts static.
A question regarding thermal performance and breathability: How does a fleece jacket compare here to other fabrics?
It depends on the type of processing it's gone through. The denser and deeper the pile, the less breathability it will have. Fleece wicks moisture away from the body relatively quickly, but the thicker the material, the less apt this function is. Fleece jackets with a brushed inner lining, tend to dry faster. This works like a blotter and draws moisture away from the body. Cotton can't compete with that. It hardly breathes and basically swells up like a sponge.
Quality variances of fleece jackets
What are the differences between the variety of fleece jackets? If a men's fleece jacket cost 30 euros and another 200 euros, there must be a difference somewhere?
The difference lies in the quality of the polyester. Immediately after purchase the difference in quality won't be detected. After about 5 to 10 washes however, less quality fleece fabrics tend to lose their shape and form small nodules (pilling). High-quality fleece jackets have an unequalled longevity. Brand manufacturers such as Polartec, who practically invented fleece, provide a good quality. One example of a high-quality Polartec Powerstrech fleece is the Power Houdi from Houdini.
The fleece jacket and the layering system
In the outdoor industry, most of us have heard of the so-called layering system. The first layer is a base layer that contours directly to the skin and transports moisture, the object of the second layer lies in the thermal insulation and the third layer protects against wind and rain. What layer is the fleece jacket best suited?
Clearly the second layer and as a first layer only very occasionally. Stretch fleece such as Polartec® Power Stretch can certainly be used as a first layer, say on expeditions when it's extremely cold. Mostly a fleece jacket is worn as a second layer.
Under what circumstances does a fleece jacket do best and when are they best avoided?
That really depends on what type of fleece you have at hand. A technical fleece holds less warmth, compared to say a high-pile fleece jacket. Classic fleece jackets are susceptible to abrasion, such as wear and tear from wearing a backpack. In this case, it's better to throw a light vest over the top or a fleece with a flat, smooth surface. Another downside is when you are gone for longer spouts and there's no chance of washing the fleece jacket - you could find yourself quickly as an unpopular trekking partner!
Men's fleece jacket? Ladies fleece jacket? Where's the difference?
What about the cut? Which fit is more comfortable for what activity?
Men's jackets mostly have wider shoulders. The curvaceous form of the women's jackets requires a corresponding fit. It is particularly important that the jacket doesn't ride up, that the back's cut is sufficiently long enough, and that with every move, the arms aren't hanging near your belly button. All the more important as fleece jackets are worn contoured to the body.
What are some useful and more pleasant details that one can look for in fleece jackets?
For those who wish to have them: Thumb loops. These can be helpful in preventing the sleeves from riding up. Hoods are another very useful detail. It's rare for a fleece jacket to feature a Windstopper membrane. Weather protection these days, mostly comes in the form of outer, hardshell layers. Stretch bindings on collars, cuffs and hem can also be very comfortable. And if you're thinking of using the jacket in a layered system, ask yourself the question: jacket or slip on fleece. Sometimes worn in a layered principle there are multiple zips and this can be quite uncomfortable to wear.
What outdoor brands have been around a long time in the fleece jacket business and bring out particularly innovative or high-quality jackets?
Fleece manufacturers such as Polartec and Pontetorto are the most renowned. You can't go past them for quality, and both are solidly reliable. Larger outdoor manufacturers and brands sometimes have their own patented fleece fabric which can be excellent. Scandinavian companies such as Haglöfs and Peak Performance and other labels such as Arcteryx and Outdoor Research and are known for their high quality fleece jackets as well. Vaude and Mammut are a few of the better know European companies that have also pathed the way with their own version of fleece fabrics. Both of these labels put a strong emphasis on environmental aspects and use recycled polyester.
What should I look out for when buying a fleece jacket?
Finally, one of the most important things: when I'm looking at purchasing a new fleece jacket, what do I need to pay attention to? What should I consider?
The first thing to ask is: For what purpose do I intend to wear the jacket? How warm should it be? Will I wear it as a first or second layer? Do I need a movement-friendly stretch fleece, a thicker, deep pile coral fleece or a functional microfleece? Or perhaps a polyester/merino wool blend. Then of course it's important that the jacket fits well, sleeves and shoulders are not too tight and the back not too short. That's it! Easy!
Thanks Bela for the interview and for your informative explanation on fleece jackets!
Fleece jackets at a glance:
high insulation due to good heat-weight ratio
Unpleasant odors can develop during intensive exertion
Works well as a stretch material and holds its shape well
Doesn't feel as pleasant on the skin as wool
Superb moisture transport
Particularly high-pile surfaces are susceptible to abrasion, such as the rubbing of a backpack
Durable and with the correct outer surface compatible with backpacks