Fleece Vs Polyester – Understanding Cotton & Polyester Fleece

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Article Categories: Gear | Hiking Tips
Article Tags: Clothing | Hiking Gear

The fabric you choose for the clothes you wear hiking, fishing, or otherwise adventuring is an important decision. The right fabric can protect you from environmental hazards; the wrong fabric can make you miserable or even put you in danger, and fabric that works great in one situation might be entirely wrong for another. When it comes to choosing fabric, the important thing is that the fabric’s properties are right for the performance you need.

Today, we’re going to be looking at two fabric types: fleece and polyester. Both fabrics are commonly used for outdoor clothing, but some key performance differences make them very different and appropriate for different situations. We’ll go over these fabrics and their traits, and help you decide when to choose which type of fabric.

 

What Is Fleece?

Fleece is a fabric that’s designed to mimic the insulating properties of wool but is lighter and cheaper to produce. It isn’t a specific fiber type and can be made out of different types of fibers. Most fleece produced today is synthetic fleece that’s woven out of man-made polymers.  

All fleece is produced by taking very thin threads, looping them, and then weaving those loops together. This creates little pockets of air that trap heat when you wear them. These air pockets let fleece keep you warm while keeping the weight of the fabric light.

Piled Polyester

Piled Polyester

Fleece is what is known as a “pile” fabric, meaning that it has depth. The higher the pile, the longer the woven loops and the fluffier the fleece feels. Long pile fleece traps more air than short pile fleece. Long pile fleece is frequently used as outerwear or for blankets. Short pile fleece is often used to line pants, as leggings, or as material for shirts.

Fleece has a long history with outdoors hobbyists, specifically with the company Patagonia. The first synthetic fleece to hit the market was Patagonia’s Synchilla. The response to the gear made with this fabric is a major part of what propelled Patagonia to success, and the popularity of Synchilla pullovers as a mid-layer and outer layer changed the way people thought about layering fabrics. Today, fleece technology has progressed substantially thanks to changes in polyester fibers, but the original Synchilla pullover is still available and a perennial best-seller.

If you are interested in the fleece making process, see this video from How It’s Made:

 

Types of Fleece: Cotton and Polyester

Fleece itself isn’t a fiber like cotton or polyester; it’s a fabric type. This means that fleece can be made out of different types of fibers and that its performance is influenced by what type of fiber it’s made from. Two common types of fleece are cotton fleece and polyester fleece. Cotton fleece is a natural fiber woven into a fluffy fleece, while polyester fleece uses synthetic fibers. While the two fabrics might be similar, there are several key differences.

 

Cotton Vs. Polyester Fleece

Fleece Type Insulation Moisture-Wicking Comfort Odor
Cotton Loses heat easily Does not wick moisture and takes a while to dry Soft fabric, light to wear in hot weather, and more breathable Naturally odor-resistant
Polyester Good insulation especially as pile depth increases Dries quickly and wicks away moisture Usually soft, but not very breathable and uncomfortable in warm weather  May harbor bacteria that lead to odors

 

What Is Polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic fiber that is one of the most popular fibers for modern clothing. While polyester once had a reputation for being stiff, uncomfortable, and oddly shiny, the truth is that today’s polyester is so radically different from the polyester popularized in the 1970s that it’s hardly the same fiber. Advancements in polyester fabric have come from new developments in polymers, new weaving designs and techniques, and new coating technologies. 

The first polyester was made in 1941. As a synthetic fiber, it was first developed in a chemistry lab in the UK and was quickly purchased by DuPont. Early selling points of polyester were that it never wrinkled, didn’t need ironing, washed well, and was cheap. Today, those points are still true– polyester is one of the cheapest fibers on the market since it’s so easy to make and doesn’t rely on crop growing times or animal agriculture. 

Polyester is an entirely synthetic fiber. The name comes from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the polymer it’s made from. This is done by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, which creates a lightweight plastic that can be spun into long, thin, strong threads. A thread that’s long, thin, and strong can be plied with natural fibers to create polyester blends that combine the strengths of other fiber types with the advantages of polyester. 

Polyester blends are extremely common and very popular in today’s modern clothing industry. They add strength and can often improve the texture of natural fibers like wool, and they’re cheaper to produce than entirely natural fabrics. Much of your wardrobe likely contains polyester blends.

However, that isn’t necessarily true for water-resistant outdoor or high-performance sport clothing. Advanced fabric design means that polyester can be manipulated and modified to suit any performance requirements. One notable example is Dri Fit fabric, which was pioneered by Nike and replicated by several other companies. This fabric is highly moisture-wicking and provides good airflow for breathability. 

 

Other high-performance polyester fabric designs include the following:

  • Antibacterial coating for reduced odor
  • Textured waffle-weave fabric for quick drying
  • PVC coating for toughness (occasionally seen with outerwear; frequently used on gear)
  • Mesh weave for improved breathability
  • Waterproofing and DWR

 

Polyester is naturally hydrophobic, which means that water tends to roll right off of it and not absorb. However, it does sometimes receive a little extra chemical assistance to keep you dry. Some high-end polyester fabric is made of yarn that is spun with two slightly different types of fiber. This creates an inner core of the yarn that absorbs moisture and an outer layer that spreads the moisture to the surface for quick evaporation.

 

Polyester Vs. Fleece Characteristics

Because polyester is a fiber and fleece is a fabric, and one that can be made from polyester at that, we will be comparing a typical, no pile high performance polyester cloth to polyester fleece. 

 

Warmth/Insulation

Fleece is an excellent fabric for insulation. The trapped pockets of air keep your body heat from escaping and are perfect in cold weather. Some types of fleece, like microfleece, are not designed for insulation– with these types of fleece, garments are typically designed for warm weather wear or insulation as part of a composite garment. For example, you might see fleece-lined leggings or pants that use microfleece to trap air but not compromise on weight. Fleece does not insulate while wet, however. If fleece gets completely soaked through, the water displaces the air.

Polyester can insulate, too, especially if it’s in layers. However, when you layer polyester, it has a hard time breathing and letting air flow through to your skin. This means that polyester layers can lead to overheating, depending on the weave. When it comes to keeping you cool, however, polyester is an excellent fabric choice. Modern high-performance polyester often comes in weaves that are designed to promote airflow and keep you cool. 

 

Water Resistance

Polyester fleece is water-resistant. Cotton fleece is not. This is because polyester is a naturally hydrophobic material, and you’ll often see water bead up and roll off the surface, especially if the fibers have additional waterproofing. Fleece’s water resistance depends on the type of fiber used. However, fleece is not waterproof, and you will need an outer layer that is more impermeable for activities in the rain. 

Polyester that doesn’t have the loops of a pile fabric, however, can be waterproof. Polyester fibers only absorb about 0.4% of the water they encounter, and this is why you’ll often see it used for outerwear and shells for jackets or coats. There’s a scientific reason for this: capillary action. 

Polyester and other synthetic fibers do not absorb moisture in the fibers themselves. The weave of the fabric itself moves the water. Surface tension keeps water moving in the spaces between the threads of the weave, which pulls water away from your body. This capillary action can be enhanced by added fiber coatings. Additionally, garment coatings can enhance the water-resistance of polyester fabric. If it’s going to be wet, you can’t ask for a better fabric than polyester.

 

Sustainability

For polyester fleece and other types of polyester fabric, sustainability is a major concern. While some polyester uses recycled plastic for its polymers, not all of it does– and even then, the plastic still contributes to pollution. Polyester fabrics, including polyester fleece, shed microplastics into the water when they’re washed. You can take steps to prevent this somewhat, like not using fabric softener, but abrasion from everyday wear and tear contributes to these plastics being shed. 

If sustainability is a concern for you, you can find recycled polymers by looking for “rPET” on the label of your fleece. Most companies that used recycled polyester are proud of the contributions they’re making to environmental protection, so they’ll frequently advertise that they’re using post-consumer materials as a major selling point.

Cotton fleece doesn’t put microplastics into the water, but conventionally-grown cotton is a very water-intensive crop that uses strong pesticides and fertilizers. Choosing organic cotton is more sustainable and environmentally friendly– and the fabric is usually nicer, too. 

 

Cost

Polyester is extremely cheap to manufacture– that’s part of why it’s so popular! For both fleece and regular polyester fabric, the price goes up as the performance of the garments increases. However, even high-performance polyester isn’t that expensive. 

Cotton fleece is also fairly cheap. Organic cotton will be a little more expensive, but none of these fabrics will break the bank. The prices are so similar that it rarely factors into the choice between them– instead, look at how the fabrics perform and what you want them to do. 

 

Comfort

Fleece can be very comfortable and soft. The piled threads are comfortable against your skin, and the loops provide space for air to get through. Deeper piled fleece is less comfortable, but microfleece and cotton fleece are brushed and are designed to be worn next to the skin. Fleece’s light weight also helps keep it comfortable.

Polyester can also be very comfortable, but it depends greatly on the weave of the fabric. Because it’s so versatile, there are just as many comfortable options as there are uncomfortable ones. Generally, modern polyester that’s designed to be worn next to the skin is lightweight, breathable, and soft. Modern polyester blends can also be highly comfortable. 

 

Weight

Fleece is super light– even the heavy, deep-pile fleece doesn’t weigh that much! Remember, a lot of fleece is actually air, and that factors into the weight of the material. Deep pile fleece will be heavier than microfleece, but it will still be lightweight and easy to pack.

Polyester fabric is also lightweight. The polymer threads are extremely thin and smooth, without complicated surface topography that adds weight. Certain weaving designs, like waffle weaving or mesh, can also help cut weight.

 

Odor Resistance

In many cases, polyester of any kind is going to have issues with odor resistance. This is because it’s not antibacterial, unlike cotton and other natural fibers. Polyester fleece in particular can get smelly quickly because of the density of the pile and the increased surface area created by the loops.

However, a lot of high performance polyester is now being manufactured with antibacterial coatings. This helps cut down on bacterial growth and improves odor resistance. And polyester fabrics are easy to clean– fleece included. 

 

Breathability

Polyester fabric, including fleece, can be breathable if it is manufactured to be so. The fibers themselves don’t let in air (unlike natural fibers), but advances in textile production have created weaves that are moisture-wicking and breathable– perfect for athletic wear!

 

Which To Choose?

Generally speaking, polyester isn’t an ideal fabric for cold-weather applications unless you plan to layer. It can make a great base layer, as can fleece. Fleece jackets are popular in cool and cold weather due to their insulating ability. When you’re choosing between polyester and fleece, the choice is typically going to come down to temperature. Standard polyester fabric and fleece perform differently, so knowing what each one can do can help you make the best choice for your outdoor clothing purchases!

If you’d like to know more about fiber, why not consult our other guides, too? We have guides to the following fabric types:

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor 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. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about