Fleece and cotton are both ubiquitous in outdoor clothing, and the two fabrics have many potential overlapping uses. When it comes to choosing fabric for your outdoor clothing and gear, it can be a challenge to understand how the characteristics of each type of fabric stack up against each other.
You can read how wool and fleece and wool and cotton stack up against each other in our other articles, but here, we’re going to take a deep dive into how cotton and fleece compare. Both fabrics are great in the proper application; you just need to know what the ideal uses are to stay comfy and safe on your adventures.
Advantages of Fleece
- Fleece is versatile.
- Fleece is moisture-resistant.
- Fleece is insulating.
- Fleece is breathable.
Advantages of Cotton
- Cotton is durable.
- Cotton is cool.
- Cotton is breathable.
- Cotton is lightweight.
Fleece Vs Cotton Comparison Chart
|Can be very soft
|Can be very soft
|No resistance, cotton should not be worn during cold days due to this.
|Can be made of recycled materials, but generally synthetic materials, and not ideal
|Much more sustainable, but cotton crops still use substantial water
|Can be quite inexpensive
|Can be quite inexpensive
|Not very odor resistant
|Pretty odor resistant
Comparing Fleece And Cotton Attributes
So how do fleece and cotton compare when we put them head to head? Here’s how the two compare to each other when we look at different scenarios.
Fleece is designed to be warm. Its double-sided pile lets it trap lots of air next to the body, so it insulates while still being breathable. Cotton has very little insulating ability at all. While you can layer cotton, you’d have to wear significantly more layers than comfortable to achieve even a fraction of the insulating power of similarly-weighted fleece.
Cotton fibers absorb water, meaning that it’s about as water-resistant as a paper towel. (Which, similarly, is made mostly out of cellulose.) Cotton has zero water resistance, and that’s part of what makes it such a good summer fabric. Fleece remains wearable for longer. Because the fibers in fleece are plastic, not natural, it’s more challenging for water to sink in, and it takes more time for fleece to become saturated.
Since cotton is a renewable resource, it’s always going to be more sustainable than fleece. Despite sounding like it comes from a wooly sheep, fleece is a synthetic material made from petrochemicals. Some fleece is made from recycled plastic, which is great– but that’s not true of all fleece, and it can be difficult to tell if fleece is made from repurposed materials or not. Furthermore, fleece itself is not recyclable, and every time you wash a fleece garment, you send thousands of microplastic fibers into the water cycle. While a fleece jacket can certainly last a while, the fabric isn’t particularly odor or dirt-resistant and needs a lot of washing over the course of its life.
Cotton, on the other hand, is completely biodegradable. While cotton itself isn’t the most environmentally friendly crop (it uses a lot of water), you can buy organic cotton clothing that reduces the impact of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on the environment.
Unusual for synthetic fabric, there actually isn’t a patent on the fleece concept. This was a deliberate decision back in the 1970s by the owner of Malden Mills, and it has kept the cost of fleece down ever since. However, cotton isn’t particularly expensive, either. You’ll pay a premium for organic cotton, but neither fabric is by nature more or less expensive than the other. Where the price differences come in is the quality of the fabric, the type of garment you’re looking at, and how that garment was constructed.
It’s hard to say whether fleece or cotton is more comfortable because it depends on how you define comfort. Neither fleece nor cotton are scratchy; in fact, both are quite soft. If you want something buttery smooth, you might prefer fleece. If you want something soft and brushed, you might prefer cotton in its flannel form. If you want a fuzzy blanket, fleece might be what you want. However, cotton tends to be comfortable longer. Fleece will pill up over time, and that can be annoying.
Cotton is lighter than fleece of similar thickness. There are very few fabrics that are as light as cotton! However, it’s important to remember that weight isn’t necessarily the deciding factor in choosing cotton or fleece– and weight isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you want a heavier fabric. It all depends on what you want your garment to do.
Cotton is naturally odor-resistant and does not retain odors; your cotton shirt won’t smell like a campfire after a wash cycle or two. Fleece, however, is a hydrophobic fabric, meaning that the fibers don’t absorb water. This also means that they resist soap and detergent… but not bacteria. This means that fleece gets smelly much faster than cotton, and needs to be washed more frequently.
Fleece and cotton are both breathable for different reasons. Cotton’s cellulose fibers are naturally breathable– they evolved to allow oxygen to pass through, letting the cotton seeds grow and develop while still being protected by the fluffy fibers. Fleece was intentionally designed to be breathable. While its polyester fibers are not naturally breathable, the way they are woven allows air to pass through the fabric. Typically, we tend to think of fleece as a fabric to wear in cold weather, and cotton as one to wear in hot weather. But ultra-lightweight fleece, sometimes called zero-weight fleece, can actually be worn in hot weather without overheating due to the way the fibers are woven.
Ultimately, cotton’s going to be more breathable than fleece in almost all applications. But some high-performance zero weight fleece can compare, and may be a good choice for you.
What Is Fleece?
At the simplest level, fleece is a synthetic fabric designed to mimic wool– but that’s definitely a simplification of what this fabric actually is and does. Fleece is one of the most popular fabrics for outdoor clothes, especially those meant for cold areas or for certain types of athletic performance clothes. Unlike most synthetics, fleece is breathable while still having insulating properties, which makes it super popular for activewear.
What Is Fleece Made Of?
It might be hard to believe that something as soft as a fleece blanket is made out of plastic, but it is! Fleece is made from petrochemicals, including the same types of plastic used to make water bottles. Some fleece is actually made from recycled plastic, though not all of it is.
How Is Fleece Made?
The process behind fleece’s creation begins with a chemical reaction between petroleum and petroleum derivatives. These chemicals are heated until they form a thick syrup-like liquid, which is then hardened and spun into threads. The threads are then looped and woven to create fleece.
What is a Pile Fabric?
Fleece is what is known as a “pile fabric”. Pile fabrics are fabrics that have a raised surface consisting of upright strands or loops of the yarn or thread that’s woven to make the fabric. Fleece has a double-pile, meaning the pile is found on both sides of the fabric. It’s this pile that allows fleece to trap air and hold it in air pockets, which gives it fantastic insulating and warmth properties.
History Of Fleece
Fleece has an interesting industrial history. Whereas natural fibers like wool and cotton have history going back thousands of years, we can pinpoint the exact invention of fleece to one company: Malden Mills. During the 1970s, the company developed the first polyester fleece. Known for producing woolen garments, Malden Mills wanted to replicate the insulating nature of wool in a lighter fabric that didn’t rely on sheep. What they discovered was a fabric that was both insulating and breathable, as well as both warm and lightweight.
Fleece’s involvement with the outdoor world came quickly; in fact, when fleece was launched in 1981, it did so with the help of a tiny, virtually unknown (at the time) outdoors outfitter. In 1981, Malden Mills partnered with Patagonia to debut Synchilla, the first generation of performance fleece. It was an instant hit, and in 1985 the introduction of the Snap-T Synchilla pullover made fleece ubiquitous for outdoorsy people. In fact, you can still buy the Snap-T pullover today– all that’s changed is that now Synchilla is made out of 80% recycled plastic. Fleece helped launch Patagonia to its modern success, and Patagonia helped fleece become the fabric of choice for adventurers the world over. By the 1990s, fleece’s popularity had spread thanks to companies like The Gap and Old Navy adopting it for everyday wear.
Today, you can buy almost anything imaginable in fleece. It’s very popular for outerwear, like midweight jackets, and is often used to line pants and shirts to make them warmer and more comfortable. Fleece is known for being incredibly soft, and so it’s often used for fabric surfaces that contact the body, as well as for blankets.
What Is Cotton?
If you live somewhere hot, you’re probably already very familiar with this lightweight, breathable plant fiber. The cotton plant is native to arid river valleys around the world and was domesticated in multiple places multiple times because early people saw just how useful it was. The earliest people to farm cotton lived in the Indus River valley around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. By 6,000 years ago, it had also been domesticated in Peru, and from these two centers of domestication, cotton spread to wherever people could grow it.
When we think about cotton, we usually think of something white and fluffy. The white fluffy cellulose fibers in cotton protect the plant’s seeds. When cotton is harvested, these seeds are combed out and the cotton is cleaned. After this process, the cotton can be then further processed into yarn or thread, which can then be used for knitting or weaving into fabric.
Because cotton fibers are strong and have a long staple, or fiber, length, they can be spun into many different thicknesses of yarn and thread. This means that cotton fabric is very versatile; depending on the weave it can be thick or thin and stiff or flowing– the possibilities are endless. Cotton is durable, and when the fibers are brushed and stretched, they become quite soft. If you’re familiar with the soft texture of flannel, then you know what brushed cotton is like.
Washing Fleece and Cotton
Washing fleece is probably the material’s biggest downside. We can’t overlook how much microplastic pollution it creates. You will want to use a mild detergent and avoid fabric softener, as this can interfere with your fleece’s insulating ability. You also have to be really careful, because fleece is plastic– and that means it can melt. It likely won’t melt in your washing machine, but you should still turn it inside-out (to avoid premature pilling) and wash it on a cooler setting.
The dryer, however, can absolutely melt your fleece if you have it up too high. Some fleece can stand up to the high setting on the dryer, so check the label before you toss it in. To be safe, it’s better to tumble dry fleece on low. Some people will simply wring out their fleece after the washing machine and then let it air dry. You should never iron fleece or dry it on the radiator, as both are surefire ways to put a hole in the fabric.
Cotton, however, washes easily. The very first time you wash it, do so in cool water, and don’t dry it too high; cotton fibers will slacken after a wash or two and you won’t have to worry about shrinkage. Cotton is a tough fabric, so while you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions, you usually don’t have to worry much about it.
When to Choose Each
If you’re hiking in the desert and aren’t expecting rain? Cotton.
If you’re adventuring anywhere where it gets cold? Fleece.
If you’re buying underwear that’s not for heavy activities? Cotton.
If you’re buying leggings or lined pants? Fleece.
If you’re buying sheets for summer? Cotton.
If you’re buying a cozy blanket for the winter? Fleece.
Both fleece and cotton are awesome fibers that make amazing fabrics, but their performance is totally different. Knowing what each one can do can help you make the safe, smart choice for your outdoor clothing purchases!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about