Is Fleece a Breathable Fabric?


Fleece is often associated with all things cozy. It has a deserved reputation of being a great winter fabric, which leaves many wondering how breathable it is for when temperatures fluctuate. When can it be comfortably worn? Is fleece truly a breathable fabric?

My favorite fleece jacket in action in the High Uinta mountains

100% polyester fleece is 150-300% more breathable (air permeable) than other fabrics when compared to cotton or wool of similar weights. Fabric thickness, material type (cotton vs. polyester vs. rayon) as well as several other factors impact breathability.

So is fleece the magic material that we should always wear? Well, fleece fabrics are pretty amazing, but let’s find out just how much as well as some of the negative side of fleece that you may not have known about.

Is Fleece As Breathable As They Say?

Fleece is an incredible material that’s amazingly hard to define. Scouring so many definitions it’s not easy to come to conclusion of what exactly fleece is. For this discussion I’ll be talking about the fuzzy and soft fabric used in outdoorswear. Very often fleece is made from polyester but can be made from other materials.

The nature of fleece as both warm and breathable makes it the ideal outdoor winter jacket. It can be made perfect for intense cold by being layered under a larger coat. It’s also ideal for a warmer climate as the jacket can be peeled off and worn around the waist when the weather gets too hot.

I can personally attest to this. When I would go snowboarding in Utah I would wear my thick fleece jacket and I consider it the most indispensable part of my cold outdoors wardrobe. In combination with a windbreaker I was able to stay warm on the slopes and although there is some serious sweating going on while snowboarding it wouldn’t sop.

When it’s cold with my fleece, I don’t have issues sweating even though it’s very warm.

In my opinion, the breathability of fleece is not being over exaggerated. In fact, REI proposes that their best warm, yet breathable jacket option is made of fleece.

Fleece is also fast-drying and lightweight, making it an outdoorsman’s best friend. REI’s most lightweight options weigh between 9 and 12 oz., a lightness which adds to the breathability factor and makes it ideal for packing on a camping or hiking trip.

If you’re looking to spend time outdoors in a warmer winter climate, or plan on doing physical activity outdoors during the colder winter months, you know how important it is for your chosen material to be breathable. If breathability is a top priority, you can’t go wrong by choosing a lightweight fleece.

The heavier the fleece, the less breathable it will be. This is, as you might imagine, true for every type of fabric.

Is Micro Fleece Breathable?

Micro fleece is very breathable. Micro fleece is the thinnest, most flexible version of fleece, according to the blog Our Everyday Life, making it the most light-weight, breathable option. But, when it comes to micro fleece, what you gain in breathability, you lose in warmth. Because micro fleece is the thinnest, most breathable fleece option, it’s ideal for those who are doing intense cardio workouts, like long morning jogs or mountain climbing.

Because of its thinness, it’s also ideal for travel, taking up less space in a bag or suitcase. And it’s thinness, breathability and moderate warmth make it good for layering, like most fleece options.

As it is the thinnest version of fleece, it is often used to line other types of clothing. Leggings lined with micro fleece are a good option for a warm winter climate or for layering in a colder atmosphere.

Does Fleece Make You Sweat?

We sweat all the time, especially when we are exercising, but the question is fleece breathable enough to prevent your sweat from being noticable?

In my experience with my own mid-weight fleece jacket, I do get a little sweaty when exercising (when it’s cold–my fleece is very warm). But the important part about synthetic polyester fleeces (which is one of the most common materials used for fleece) is that it’s hydrophobic.

Wool and cotton, on the other hand, absorb sweat, and cotton is the worst of all in the sense that it retains the moisture right next to your skin so the sweat is very noticeable.

Fleece is considered hydrophobic material, and holds less than 1% of its weight in water. This means, even when wet, it keeps moisture out and will stay insulating, keeping the wearer warm. Nothing is worse than exercising in the cold, getting your clothes sweaty and then freezing during your cool down due to the clothes being wet.

So, If you’re looking for a material to keep you warm, without keeping all that sweat on your skin, fleece is a great option.

What Kind Of Fabric Is Fleece?

Wow, who would have though that this would be such a hard question to answer!

I think the most practical way to describe fleece is “fuzzy fabric.” I know sounds crazy, but the reason why a fleece jacket is fuzzy and feels the way it does is much more to do with the way the fabric is brushed and napped rather than its material.

Fleece, at least the way we are most often accustomed for outdoorswear is a knitted material made of polyester. According to a report by The New York Times, fleece began its journey to becoming the most popular winter fabric in the 1970s, when engineers at a Massachusetts textile company Malden Mills (now known as Polartec) began to experiment with polyester as a superfine yarn that they spun into a dense fabric.

Then, in 1981 Patagonia (a little-known brand at the time) got on board the polyester train. According to the report, fleece was first named Synchilla, aka “synthetic chinchilla.”

Uniquely, fleece’s founders didn’t place a patent on the fabric, meaning anyone could create the synthetic material and market it. Thus, fleece boomed and has had continuous popularity since its creation.

Not only has the fabric stayed popular, but it has also improved. Since fleece is synthetically manufactured in a lab, scientists have had the advantage of being able to improve on the quality. As The New York Times reported, now the material of fleece is as fine as cashmere.

Nowadays there are fleeces from different types of fabrics, including cotton or rayon. So the lines definitely blur, and because there’s no standard, really whatever seems like “fuzzy fabric” can be considered fleece.

How’s that for scientific?

Is Fleece Environmentally Friendly?

Yes and no. Certain types of fleece have an environmentally friendly component–they are made with recycled materials. In 1993, Patagonia manufacturers used recycled materials like plastic water bottles to make the polyester that they would turn into fleece. This trash-into-treasure method is a great way to reuse materials that does not include the petroleum involved in making regular fleece.

The controversial ecological impact of fleece in fabric is due to microplastic shedding, according to this study.

Fleece deposits very small fibers of plastic material into oceans and other waterways when it’s washed in household washing machines. According to research done by The Guardian, these tiny plastic fibers are ingested by marine life, thus impacting the food chain, eventually reaching humans and being potentially toxic.

Fleece is a vegan alternative to wool, though, which would give it another point for environmental friendliness. In short, fleece is a very effective man-made outdoor fabric. Like most things, it can have both positive and negative impacts on the planet.

What are the Benefits of Fleece?

Fleece is warm, breathable, water-wicking, layerable, colorful, vegan–the list of fleece benefits goes on. According to Polartec, fleece is not naturally wind-proofed, but it can have wind-proofing added in the form of bonded fleece, where the polyester material is bonded with other elements.

Fleece can also be turned into virtually anything. Fleece jackets, like those of Patagonia and The North Face, are particularly popular. But fleece hats, leggings, mittens, and blankets also make good winter staples.

It’s also notable to mention that fleece is a very affordable fabric. On Amazon, you can get a highly-rated fleece jacket for as low as $20. Of course, a higher end fleece jacket from a brand like Patagonia can cost you upwards of $100. But overall, compared to fabrics like wool and cashmere, fleece is offered at a much lower price point for a comparable quality.

Though fleece is susceptible to a bit of shrinking, it is machine washable–unlike wool and cashmere. It’s generally recommended to not put fleece items in the dryer as heat can be damaging. But, as it is a fast drying material, it is ideal for air drying.

What are the Different Types of Fleece?

Fleece comes in many different shapes of sizes. Items typically come in different scales of thicknesses, starting with the thinnest, micro, to size 300 being the thickest.

It can also be blended with different materials to create different forms of fleece. According to the apparel company Land’s End, fleece can be blended with cotton, french terry and spandex, each giving the fleece a unique feel. These blends give a thinner, softer variety of fleece making them great for outerwear in warmer climates, with spandex being used most often for athletic apparel. 

Another form of fleece is the sherpa variety. The texture is closest to wool, with a fluffy outer appearance and it is a warmer, less breathable style. Polar fleece is another type of thick fleece for winter weather.

There is a reason fleece has maintained such long standing popularity with outdoor enthusiasts. It’s ability to be both warm and breathable makes it the ideal garment for the outdoors. Considering the fact that it layers so well, is waterproof, is affordable, and can be made sustainably (with some concerning environmental tradeoffs), fleece is an obvious favorite. The variety of fleece is well worth mentioning also. Depending on your outdoor activity, there is a type of fleece that will make it most comfortable.

Sources

Korean study that shows a cross-section of fabric samples and describes their weights as well as their air permeability.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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