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Polar Fleece vs Microfleece: A Guide to Fleece Fabrics

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If you’ve spent any time adventuring outside in your life, chances are you’ve worn a fleece jacket. A super popular fabric, fleece is well established as a go-to textile in outdoor clothing for its ability to look good and keep you warm in the harshest of conditions.

That being said, very few people realize that there are many different kinds of fleece fabrics, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For those of us who enjoy being outside, it’s important to understand these differences so you can make informed choices when purchasing new gear.

To help you understand the different fleece fabrics you’ll find in your outdoor gear, we’ve created this ultimate guide to fleece. First, we’ll discuss what fleece actually is and how it’s made. Then, we’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages of fleece before finishing off with a discussion on the different kinds of fleece fabric. Let’s get to it!

What is fleece fabric?

Alright, first things first: what exactly is fleece? It turns out that fleece is actually a fairly recent development in the textile world as it’s a synthetic polyester material derived mainly from plastic. This clearly differentiates fleece from wool, which comes straight from a sheep, alpaca, or another similarly fluffy animal.

Fleece fabrics are used to make everything from cozy blankets to socks and jackets. It’s one of the most popular synthetic fabrics in the world, particularly for its ability to keep people warm even when wet.

How fleece fabrics are made

Fleece is a synthetic fabric, which means that it’s mostly made from petroleum and petroleum derivatives like terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Generally speaking, to create polyester fleece, one first needs to make polyester fibers. To make these fibers, chemicals from petroleum are heated up to form a thick syrup, which is then hardened and spun into threads that are ultimately woven into fleece fabrics.

Since fleece is made primarily made from plastic, many people automatically think that fleece has a large negative impact on the environment. However, since recycling plastic is popular around the world, particularly in the European Union where it’s compulsory, many environmentally-conscious companies are able to make their fleece jackets out of 100% recycled plastic.

Benefits of fleece fabric

Fleece is an incredibly popular fabric, particularly in the outdoor industry. This is because fleece has proven itself to be both versatile and durable in the face of harsh conditions. Let’s look at some of the benefits of fleece for outdoor enthusiasts:

Fleece is warm

Since fleece is generally worn in cold environments, it should be no surprise that it’s a great insulating fabric. Fleece is considered to be a “pile” fabric, which means it has a layer of cut fibers on both sides. While the specifics of how this works aren’t terribly important, what this means is that air can sit between threads on both sides of fleece’s pile surfaces. Trapped air is key to retaining heat, which is why fleece is such a good insulator.

Fleece is hydrophobic

It turns out that it’s much easier to lose body heat when you’re wet because of the cooling properties of evaporation. Since being cold and wet outside can quickly spiral into life-threatening hypothermia, it’s best to avoid this possibility at all costs. Luckily, fleece is naturally hydrophobic – or water repelling – which makes it ideal for use in damp conditions.

Plus, fleece retains less than 1% of its weight in water when wet and can keep you warm even after it gets soaked in a river crossing. It dries quickly, too, so you can quickly get back to being warm and dry.

Fleece is lightweight and comfortable

Unlike traditional wool sweaters, which are heavy, bulky, and itchy, fleece is light, fairly compact, and soft to the touch. This gives it a significant advantage over traditional wool garments in the outdoors, where weight, compactness, and comfort are of the utmost priority.

Advantages of Fleece:

To sum it up, here are a few of fleece’s many advantages:

  • Great warmth-to-weight ratio
  • Stays warm even when wet
  • Dries quickly and doesn’t soak up a lot of water
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Not itchy

Disadvantages of fleece fabric

While it would be easy to label fleece as a wonder-fabric because of all of its awesome benefits, it’s important to understand that there are some disadvantages to fleece. Here are a few:

Fleece’s environmental impact

As we mentioned earlier, fleece is made from petroleum. Petroleum is a liquid mixture of substances that is extracted from bedrock and is used to make a whole host of products, from gasoline to plastics. In addition to the carbon impact of simply extracting this stuff from the ground, the burning of petroleum and the production of plastics are implicated in the increasing greenhouse gas concentration in our atmosphere.

Plus, fleece fibers tend to “pill” off over time, especially after washing. Pilling happens when fibers clump together and create little balls. Particularly when we wash fleece in a washing machine, these tiny fibers get mixed into our water system, where they pollute our waterways and oceans with tiny plastic microfibers.

Fleece has a low melting point

It so happens that fleece is also particularly susceptible to damage from heat, even at relatively low temperatures. This is bad news for those of us who really enjoy a good campfire on a backpacking trip. Small sparks can melt fleece as can washing it in hot water, ironing it, or drying it at high temperatures.

Fleece traps odors

Since fleece is hydrophobic (which makes it great for keeping us warm when wet) it is pretty difficult to wash. Soaps and detergents, which are used in conjunction with water, have a difficult time actually getting between fleece fibers, where bacteria usually gather. This means that fleece tends to smell a bit funky after just a handful of trips into the mountains.

Disadvantages of fleece:

  • To summarize, here are some of the disadvantages of fleece:
  • High environmental impact
  • Low melting point
  • Traps odors and is difficult to wash

Polar fleece vs Microfleece

While many people adore fleece fabric, it turns out that “fleece” is just a generic term for a specific kind of textile. In the outdoor industry, there are a number of different types of fleeces, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Polar fleece and microfleece are the most commonly used fleece textiles, so we’ll take a look at them here.

Polar fleece

Polar fleece is a commonly used type of fleece that is extremely durable and does not “pill” even after frequent use. It was first invented by a company that would later become Polartec but it is now used in thousands of different garments for both urban and backcountry use.

Polar Fleece is the heavier fleece that we commonly see in zip-up jackets and pullover hoodies around town like the famous The North Face Denali jacket. It comes in different thicknesses, which are measured as a weight in grams per square meter. The most common Polar Fleece weights are 100, 200, and 300, with 300 being the heaviest and warmest of the bunch.

Microfleece

Microfleece is actually just a lighter weight version of Polar Fleece. Usually, microfleece is 100 weight or below and is very soft to the touch. Generally speaking, microfleece is thin, which makes it great for layering under other jackets.

Microfleece jackets tend to be very breathable, especially when they’re manufactured in a “grid” layout. These “grid fleeces” were made popular by Patagonia’s famous R1 fleece, which features a gridded pattern on the inside of the jacket. These grids allow for better breathability, air circulation, and moisture wicking properties all while reducing the rate of piling and increasing wind resistance.

How to care for fleece

Although fleece is one of our favorite fabrics, it is notoriously difficult to wash and care for. The last thing you want to do when you find a fleece jacket that fits perfectly and looks good is to ruin it in the wash. Here are some tips to prevent that from happening:

Read the tags on your clothes

This is pretty universal advice for caring for your clothing. Generally speaking, the manufacturer knows what’s best for their product, so it’s often a good idea to follow their instructions. Regardless of if it’s your pajamas or nicest suit, do what it says on the tags.

Wash your fleece with care

Barring other instructions on the tags, you’ll want to turn your fleece garments inside out before you start washing them. This will help prevent that pesky piling in your fleece and keep your jackets soft for years to come.

Next, you’ll almost always want to wash your fleece in cold water with similarly colored garments, unless the tags say otherwise. Warm water generally encourages piling, so it’s best avoided. It’s also pretty important to keep your fleece garments away from other clothing items that produce lint as it’s nearly impossible to remove from fleece. Finally, avoid using bleach or fabric softener on fleece unless the tags say otherwise.

Once your fleece is washed, you’ll want to dry it. Air drying fleece is the safest option as it ensures that no harm will befall your favorite pull-over in the process. If you don’t have the time or space to hang dry your fleece, you can tumble dry your garments on a low heat to prevent them from getting damaged by the heat.

Which fleece should you choose?

Since there are so many different kinds of fleeces out there, it can be tricky to figure out which one is best for your needs. Unfortunately, there is no one fleece that’s great for all situations, so it’s best to first determine what you plan to use it for.

If you plan to use your fleece for in-town use or for around the house, you’d be better off getting a thicker Polar Fleece jacket. These tend to be less expensive and are warm and stylish enough to look good when you’re around town.

While warm and cozy, however, polar fleece is not a great option for outdoor use because it tends to be quite heavy and bulky. Its warmth-to-weight ratio is pretty poor from a backpacker’s perspective and it can be quite cumbersome to use as a layer under another insulating layer or a rain jacket.

Thus, if you’re looking for a fleece for a hiking adventure, you’ll likely prefer microfleece, especially with a grid pattern. These jackets tend to be a bit more expensive, but breathe well, are more compact and easier to layer, and are more wind resistant – all great qualities when you’re out in the mountains.

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