Are you looking for info on the best fabrics to wear in cold weather? This guide is exactly what you need.
Keeping warm through the winter doesn’t mean you have to wear layer upon layer of heavy, bulky clothes that make you look like the Goodyear Blimp.
Sometimes less is more, and you can stay plenty warm by layering fabrics that are specifically designed to create a barrier against the cold.
Some of these insulating fabrics enhance natural products, and some are completely synthetic. Some are affordable, and some are extremely expensive.
All of the winter fabrics on this list merge nature and technology to keep you comfortable and stylish.
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Under Layers vs. Insulation vs. Outer Layers
Some fabrics work best for specific types of clothing. For example, a wool under layer should sit close to your body because it needs to touch your skin to wick moisture away.
On the other hand, an insulating material like down must be used as “fill” in outerwear because it can’t be woven into fabric. There’s a reason that down long johns don’t exist!
Outer layers are usually built with water resistance in mind. You’d be hard pressed to find a merino wool “shell” or raincoat. Instead, outer layers must be finished with waterproof fabrics like Gore-Tex or Polartec.
We’ll go into depth about all of these fabrics. Just keep in mind that certain materials are best used for certain layers.
The 14 Best Cold Weather Fabrics
Let’s look at all the best winter fabrics in more detail, starting with lightweight inner layer fabrics and working our way into insulation and outer layers.
Merino wool is naturally a good under-layer because it traps heat between its fibers making it warmer than some synthetics and cottons. When specially treated to be shrink, odor and bacteria resistant it becomes Smartwool.
The treatment process also improves natural moisture wicking and odor-reducing capabilities. There are concerns about whether the chemical finish can be harmful to humans and some people react to the lanolin inherent to wool.
Smartwool is fairly expensive, but not unreasonably so.
icebreaker BodyFit Zone
Another merino wool blend is Icebreaker’s BodyFit Zone. The wool is combined with Lycra, a stretch polyurethane fiber.
Combining the two gives wool warmth and superior shape retention. Icebreaker uses body mapping to determine where the warmth and stretch are needed most and then places more fabric there.
Although it is a bit more expensive than similar products, it offers thermal regulation, good mobility, moisture wicking and antimicrobial properties.
Uniqlo HeatTech is a soft, lightweight fabric that relies on hollow fibers to trap warm air.
The company uses milk proteins and amino acids to create HeatTech which allows the fabric to trap warmth, wick moisture, reduce odors, and be antimicrobial.
One of its most attractive features is its low price, which can be said about pretty much any Uniqlo product.
Under Armour ColdGear
ColdGear, made by Under Armour, is a micro-fleece and ceramic blend. The company describes the coating as “thermo-conductive” – it will absorb body heat and retain it.
The brushed micro-fleece lining offers warmth and comfort and the strip of ceramic embedded between the layers helps heat the body.
Under Armour increases design effectiveness by using infrared imaging to pinpoint where the is the greatest heat loss and bases their designs around that.
As with most high-tech synthetics, ColdGear is lightweight, soft, antimicrobial and moisture wicking.
Duofold is a stretch polyester blend fabric manufactured by Champion. It uses two layers of lightweight fabric that can trap heat between them which acts as if there is a third layer of insulation.
Champion includes their “Champion Vapor Technology” making Duofold extremely moisture wicking. The result is that warm vapor is trapped, but you are kept dry.
Luckily, it is also very affordable.
ColdPruf Thermachoice is another merino wool blend. The wool is combined with synthetic fibers and polyester.
The technology is similar to Champion’s Duofold in that it uses two-layers to trap heat between them.
The polyester technical fiber named Silvadur is designed using anti-bacterial and anti-odor chemicals. It is another very affordable choice.
Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick
Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick is another active-oriented fabric. It combines 90% hydrophobic (water-resistant) and 10% hydrophilic (water-absorbing) fibers so the moisture is wicked away from the body and dries 4 times faster than cotton.
They named this technology drirelease. The company pairs it with cotton/polyester blended fabric to create affordable clothing.
Two bonus features are that the antimicrobial feature uses no harmful chemicals and it’s UV protective.
Composed of the belly plumage of ducks and geese, down is the original insulating material.
During production, clusters made up of thousands of fibers are interwoven to create air pockets that will trap heat. The clusters are resistant to permanent compaction.
There are several different criteria that determine how effective down insulation is:
Fill rating is a volume measurement of how much the down will compact and refers to the quality of the feathers. You want this to be at least 550 (it goes up to 900).
Greater compaction means fewer air pockets and less heat retention. Larger fluffier down from mature birds are greater insulators and take up greater volume.
Fill weight is a quantity measurement of how many ounces of feathers are used.
Down to feather ratio is the final factor. The first number is the amount of down, the second is feathers.
Normal ranges are 70/30, 80/20 and 90/10. The higher quality insulation has the higher first number (down).
Balancing these three figures is important to determining how effective the insulation is. For instance, a higher fill weight but low ratio (70/30) coat means that larger feathers and less down have been used.
The coat may be bulky and weigh more, but there are actually far fewer air pockets to trap heat. It is possible to have a lower weight coat with a higher fill rating and 90/10 ratio that will be much warmer, yet sleek and very compact.
Down Clo Value
To make this complicated relationship easier, a unified value was devised in 1941 – the Clo value. This measures what would be needed for a person sitting at rest in a room with less than 50% humidity to be comfortable.
Higher values mean that the product will keep you warmer. For instance, a jacket with 1 ounce of 800 fill rating has a Clo value of 1.68. If you are going to be in temperatures below zero, you want a Clo value of 4 or more.
While down is still an effective insulation material, it has a few drawbacks. In addition to humane and ecological issues, it is expensive.
Most importantly, it doesn’t always lend itself to active wear where moisture evaporation is essential.
Down becomes compacted and loses its ability to insulate when wet. It also requires special dry cleaning.
Thinsulate from 3M is a synthetic fabric used by many manufacturers as their insulative material. It relies on extremely thin (15 micrometer) polyester fibers woven with high density to form a product that traps heat, yet allows moisture to escape.
3M makes several iterations that may be flame resistant, stretch, etc. They use the term “precious metal technology” to describe the warmth and anti-odor properties inherent in their products.
North Face Thermoball
Thermoball by North Face uses the synthetic down produced by PrimaLoft as insulation. It was developed for the US military in the 1980s.
It uses small, round fibers that bunch together closely which traps the heat in the small air pockets. The advantage over natural down is that it keeps its loft (airiness) even when wet.
It is impervious to damp, snow and rain while still being lightweight.
Arc’teryx Coreloft is a non-woven insulation fabric made out of multi-sized, crimped polyester fibers that trap air pockets of heat.
The larger size of the fibers makes a looser weave possible so it is breathable. Because various sizes of fibers are used, it resists compaction even in damp conditions.
The fibers themselves are hydrophobic (they repel moisture) and the outer layers dry quickly when exposed to wet conditions. It is fairly expensive compared to comparable products.
Coreloft is highly compressible and light weight to make packing easy.
Primaloft is found in garments produced by other manufacturers besides North Face.
It is another polyester insulation but it relies on microfibers in a sheet form to retain heat, be air permeable, lofty and soft.
It is also moisture-resistant, and even wet retains up to 98% of the insulated heat. It is also highly compressible and lightweight.
Polartec is one of the first synthetic fleece manufacturers. This company developed Polartec fleece and many other fabrics that keep people and objects dry and warm.
One of the company’s latest innovations is Thermal Pro. It’s smooth, inner lining ensures a comfortable feel against your skin.
Companies like Patagonia and Moreno have chosen to use Thermal Pro in their designs.
One of the best fabrics for outer layers is still Gore-Tex. Named for their original flagship material, the Gore-Tex company most recently developed Infinium.
This fabric provides superior waterproof protection while allowing moisture to be released because the membrane pores are 700 times larger than water vapor.
It is made from a stretched porous form of polytetrafluoroethylene that is waterproof, windproof and durable. Gore-Tex Infinium is so effective, it is incorporated into shoes, gloves, camping equipment and medical implants.
Using These Fabrics to Stay Warm
Regardless of how warm your individual choices of clothing may be, if you layer them in the wrong order, they won’t be effective.
For instance, silk can be a good insulator because it is lightweight and breathable, but it should be worn as an inside layer, not a top layer.
Your first layer should be good at wicking so moisture is moved away from your skin to top layers where it can evaporate. Otherwise, you’ll become clammy and chilled.
Merino wool is also good for a first layer. Cotton, on the other hand, retains moisture, so pure cotton may not be your first choice for a base layer.
The middle layer acts as an insulator – it will trap the heat, yet still be breathable enough so you don’t overheat. Cotton and wool both make solid middle layers.
Finally, the top layer must be able to withstand moisture and wind. It faces the elements. A down coat or parka acts as your middle and outer layers. The down insulates and the nylon or Gore-tex exterior repels water and wind.
The latest fabrics listed above are usually thin and compactable making travel and movement much easier. New technology makes the fabrics perform even better.
Whether running errands or climbing mountains, there’s no reason not to be comfortable, warm and stylish.