You've probably already seen an advertisement at some point that your latest fleece jacket was made out of soda bottles and wondered how that could be. A soda bottle is hard and plastic, yet your fleece is so soft and cuddly. But in fact, they do come from the same source material, and one can be turned into the other. First, we'll cover a bit of the history and manufacturing of this versatile material.
Synthetic fleece was first created in the late 1970s by an earlier version of the Polartec company. Since then, they have remained one of the leading manufacturers of this fabric and been at the forefront of innovation and design. Most of the fleeces that we tested in this review were made with a Polartec brand fleece (they currently produce around two dozen different types of material, and sell that to the gear manufacturers, like Patagonia and The North Face). The fleece itself is manufactured through a process using petroleum derivatives. A compound called PET is created, and in its liquid state, it can be formed into many different things: either allowed to harden and shaped into soda bottles, or extruded into fibers which make up the final fabric. This PET can be reused again and again — recycled soda bottles are turned back into new bottles, or fabric, and vice versa.
Fleece fabric has some unique properties when compared to natural cotton or wool. The pile has empty space between the threads, creating pockets of air on both sides of the fabric, which is what keeps you warm. It retains a lot of its warmth even when wet, and the material is naturally hydrophobic and repels water. This is good for when you are caught in an unexpected rain without a waterproof jacket, and when the material does get wet, it often dries reasonably quickly. The downside to its hydrophobic properties is that it doesn't typically allow the moisture generated by your body (i.e., sweat) to escape through the fabric and evaporate. Anyone who has ever hiked in an old-school fleece jacket can attest to the rivulets of water that accumulate under the fleece itself! But manufacturing companies have been trying to correct this, and much of the innovation in the last decade has centered around increasing its breathability.
Recent years have also seen the growing popularity of raschel, or hi-loft, silky fleece. This type of material is distinctly different than the original pile. It is so smooth and silky that it makes the old school version feel like sandpaper. It's not for everyone, as it has a distinct Muppet-like look about it, and it is not as breathable as some of the more technical fabrics out there, but it does add a certain style and flair to some models.
We'll break down some of the key material components to look for when purchasing a fleece jacket, including the breathability, weight and also protective barriers.
There are several innovative ways that manufacturing companies have increased the breathability of a normally unbreathable material. One way is to create a grid fabric, as found on the Patagonia R1 Hoody - Women's. The channels between the squares allow moisture to evaporate faster, and it also reduces the overall weight of the product, resulting in a good warmth-to-weight ratio.
Another means of enhancing breathability is by using an open mesh stitching, as found on the lofted fleece material on the Patagonia R2 Jacket - Women's. The thousands of little holes allow vapor to escape, while the lofted fibers keep you warm.
The downside to these breathable fleece jackets is that they tend to offer little wind protection. Breathability should be a key purchasing consideration if you are going to be doing any type of intense cardio activities in your jacket, be that running or hiking in cold weather, or backcountry and cross-country skiing. Even when skiing via chairlift, you should wear a breathable mid-layer, as you will generate vapor when skiing down and need to wick that away so that you stay warm on the chair ride back up the hill.
Fleece jackets come in several different weight options. The weight is what determines the thickness of the material, so a thicker and therefore heavier fleece will be warmer. The weights are determined by how much a 1-meter square block of the material weighs, and generally fall into the following categories:
<100 g/m² = microweight
100 g/m² = lightweight
200 g/m² = midweight
300 g/m² = heavyweight
In general, we recommend the light and midweight categories of fleece, particularly if being active. A heavyweight fleece jacket will keep you warm and toasty, but maybe a little too warm. The North Face Denali Jacket - Women's is an example of a heavyweight piece that works well as a warm outer layer. However, the material is bulkier, and it doesn't layer as well under a shell as a midweight layer or synthetic jacket would.
Choosing between a lightweight and midweight layer can be difficult. Base your decision primarily on the temperature of the environment where you are going to use it most, and how active you will be. Very active and somewhat cold? Go for lightweight, like the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody. Not as high cardio but colder temps? Midweight is a better bet, like the Patagonia Re-Tool Snap-T Pullover.
Fleece jackets can be sprayed with a protective coating to increase their ability to repel water. The Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody - Women's, has a "Hardshell Technology" construction that makes water bead up on the surface of the material and roll. Other models might use a DWR (durable water repellent) coating to achieve the same effect. This is an important feature to consider if you think you will be wearing your fleece in the elements, because once the fabric is wet, it loses its breathability, even if it still retains warmth.
If you plan on using your jacket in a windy environment, you'll want to consider a model with some wind protection as well. The "Hardshell Technology" is a flexible polymer that helps block the wind more than a porous fleece jacket. There are some other options as well, such as Polartec's Wind Pro fabric, whereby the fabric has a tighter construction and will resist penetration by the wind. There is also Gore-Tex's "Windstopper" fabric, which uses a wind-blocking membrane between layers of fleece. While these fabrics are helpful at blocking the wind, note that there is a trade-off and that more wind protective fleeces will likely not be as breathable. And, remember, even when fleeces are wind and water resistant, they are not a replacement for a rain jacket or hardshell in steady or heavy precipitation, but are a good option as an outer layer in windy conditions, say when alpine climbing.
Sometimes gear manufacturers will throw ten different features on a jacket, which most certainly increases the cost, but then leaves you wondering if you even need half of them. Here are some things to consider when examining the features of your next purchase.
Having a hood can be both a positive or negative, depending on what you will be wearing the layer for. If you are going to be using it as an outer layer when ice climbing, having a hood (and it should be a helmet-compatible one) is key to keeping you warmer and preventing snow and ice chunks from falling down your neck. The Patagonia R1 Hoody and Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody both have helmet-compatible hoods that are ideal for those situations. If, however, you plan on wearing this layer under a ski jacket, then a hood is not always the best idea as they tend to bunch up at the base of your neck. That can obstruct your range of motion for your head and can impede your field of view, particularly if you are wearing a ski helmet. Finally, a hood is a nice feature to have on a cozy around-town model, as you can put it up or down depending upon the weather.
Some people love this design element, and others can't stand them, so the first thing you should check out is if you even like the feel of thumb loops or not. If so, they are a nice feature to have as they increase the coverage of the jacket and prevent your wrist from getting exposed if, say, there is a gap between your gloves and your outer layer. Same as with a hood, they prevent snow and ice from entering your jacket the wrong way. They also prevent your sleeves from riding up when putting another layer on, or when swinging your arms overhead, as when ice climbing.
Pockets are an important element. They provide a cozy spot to warm up your hands, a place to stash your keys or phone, and they can also help in ventilation. A jacket with cozy fleece-lined pockets will keep your hands warmer, but it will impede airflow more than a mesh-lined pocket. Some models have extra pockets on the upper chest or arm — we can't say that these are a definite must-have. They are usually small and allow for quick access if you are wearing a climbing harness and can't access the lower hand pockets, or when wearing it under a ski jacket. But having two zippered hand pockets is ideal, except for in cases where you solely plan to wear it under a climbing harness where you can't even access them.
Adjustable hems provide a nice way to seal in warmth. Being able to cinch down the lower hem can prevent the jacket from riding up, reduce heat loss and stop cool updrafts. It's particularly nice to have on your outer layer, but if you are wearing the fleece under a shell, then it's probably not a crucial feature.
As with any piece of outdoor gear and clothing, you should carefully consider what type of activities you will need a fleece jacket for. If you plan on being very active, then choose a technical fleece jacket, but if you are only looking for a cozy layer to lounge around in, then an around-town model should do the trick. Also, keep in mind that there are other types of insulating layers out there. In general, fleeces are bulkier and not as warm as a synthetic or down jacket of a similar weight. So, if you are going to be more sedentary and won't need a very breathable layer, then you would be better off with one of those layers instead. However, fleeces certainly have that coziness factor that you don't get with an insulated or down jacket. Check out The Best Down Jacket for Women Review and The Best Insulated Jacket for Women Review for more information on those options.
We all have different body shapes, and no two gear companies use the same fit or measurements for their products. If you tend to have some measurements that are different from the "norm," try on as many different brands as possible until you find the one that fits you best. There are a few different key criteria that you want to keep in mind when fitting a fleece jacket.
We are not shaped like men, and outdoor gear designers seem to have finally realized that. Most technical models will be cut with a certain amount of tapering at the waist and flaring at the hips. Having a form-fitting silhouette is key to getting a good fit under a harness or pack. Too much extra material at the waist will bunch up and be uncomfortable, so make sure that your technical fleeces are more form fitting.
This might not matter so much for an around-town fleece, but it is crucial if you will be wearing it under a pack or harness. The Arc'teryx Fortrez and Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody were cut a little short on the torso and they tended to ride up under a harness backpack waistbelt. Make sure the model that you choose extends at least three to four inches below your hip bones to avoid this.
The fit on a jacket's arms is the bane of many a lady out there. Shorter arms and you have to roll everything up to get it to fit; longer arms, and you have perpetually cold wrists. A lot of time this fit issue tends to be brand specific. For example, many of The North Face's models that we've tested over the years have shorter arms. When trying on different products, always remember to raise your arms out and then over your head several times to ensure that you have a good fit. No matter how much you may like everything else about it, if it doesn't fit your arms properly, it's not worth buying.
If you have longer arms than "normal" and have trouble finding a layer that fits, look for models with thumb loops. Those jackets will have longer arm lengths and should provide enough coverage, though the thumb loops may not fit.
You have probably been recycling your plastics for decades, and now it's time to start recycling your clothes too. You can mail your used Patagonia clothing to their recycling program. Additionally, the company is asking you to consider whether or not you need a new piece of clothing and encourages you to repair or sell old Patagonia gear that you don't wear anymore.