What Is Fleece & How Sustainable Is It?
In some areas of the world, we’re starting to cozy up for winter which may have us wondering about one thing — what is fleece? Well, for a start fleece is one of the most popular (and comfortable) fabrics out there and winter would be a real bummer without it.
The world is becoming increasingly aware of areas we can improve in to help save our planet—and there’s a lot of potential to turn the fashion industry into a sustainable one.
Until a few years ago, no one was really asking about sustainable fashion, and now we’re seeing eco-friendly brands and labels pop up left and right, and much of the improvement is happening at the material level.
What stuff is made of matters.
For now, join us as we suss out one of the key players in a sustainable winter wardrobe, and uncover what fleece is and how sustainable it is (or isn’t).
WHAT IS FLEECE MADE OF?
First things first, what material is fleece exactly?
Many people who think of fleece are quick to assume that it’s made of sheep’s wool (and it is meant to mimic that, well, fleecey feel). In fact, the word fleece was originally used to describe sheepskin (hence the Golden Fleece of Greek mythology).
However, in the modern era, this cozy fabric is 100% synthetic and generally created using petroleum-derived polyester—polyethylene terephthalate (PET), to be exact. The exact same stuff as most single use plastic bottles.
When it comes to most products made with fleece, the threads will start with polyester fibers before sometimes having natural fibers added in (rayon, hemp, wool). These natural fibers give it an added element of texture.
WHAT IS FLEECE USED FOR?
Why, anything cozy, really! If it’s designed to be soft, snug, and insulating, chances are there will be some fleece involved.
Specifically, you’ll find fleece in winter sports jackets (often as a liner for those with a more weather resistant exterior), sweaters, midlayer pullovers, thermal base layers, sweatpants, pajamas, winter accessories (like scarves, gloves, and hats) and snuggly blankets.
Speaking of blankets, fleece is actually just a blanket term for the many different types of similar fabric, all of which are made with slightly different types of fibers and used in different ways. Let’s touch on each (literally and proverbially).
Polar fleece is generally what we think of when we think of “fleece.” It’s breathable, soft, durable, and easy to care for.
Polar fleece is designed to keep you warm, which it accomplishes by incorporating air pockets between the fibers that help to trap your body heat and keep you nice and toasty when you’re skiing or out for a winter walk. It’s commonly found in outdoor clothes and jackets for cold-weather adventures.
Sometimes, polar fleece can also be a hard fleece. What is hard fleece? Well, it’s just polar fleece that’s been backed or treated with another material / substance that makes it wind resistant.
If you’re thinking super puffy and fluffy, you’re thinking sherpa fleece, or blizzard fleece. Often referred to as a “high pile” fleece, it resembles wool more than standard fleece. That’s why Patagonia has named any of their sherpa fleece products “woolyester fleece”.
Despite that, it’s still made from 100% polyester…This stuff will keep you warm and, as such, it’s commonly found as a lining in jackets, sweatshirts, and cardigans.
If you’ve ever seen fleece that appears to be nubby, you’re likely looking at berber fleece (no, it has nothing to do with Berbers from North Africa). Berber fleece was designed with a fur-like texture to keep you warm and insulated without packing on a lot of extra weight.
Great for high-performance sports wear, berber fleece helps to wick moisture away and is commonly found in coat liners, vests, socks, hats, and other wintertime apparel.
French Terry Fleece
French terry fleece is a lightweight fleece. Unlike other types of fleece, it’s not fluffy and instead looks woven. It’s also absorbent and repels moisture. In terms of thickness, it’s somewhere between a t-shirt and a sweatshirt.
The sustainability of french terry fleece varies. It’s not 100% polyester as most other fleece types, but is instead typically made of a rayon and polyester or polyester and spandex blend. New sustainable alternatives, however, manage to mimic the French Terry feel using a number of different blends of organic soy, cotton, and bamboo.
Coral fleece, sometimes called raschel fleece, is another high pile fleece that’s not quite as it’s puffy as sherpa fleece but not as tight knit as french terry fleece. It looks similar to polar fleece, but is fuzzier. In fact, it’s almost like a silky faux fur. What is coral fleece of made to achieve this? The same PET as regular polar fleece.
Coral fleece is very soft and generally ends up in more expensive fleece jackets, shirts, blankets, and baby items. It’s great because it doesn’t pill like other fleece (which we’ll define just shortly under the disadvantages of fleece).
Sponge fleece is a soft cotton-polyester fleece blend. It’s warm and cozy and as one sweatshirt brand summarizes it perfectly — “it’s like rolling around in a field of marshmallows and pug ears.”
Micro fleece is like the fabric’s favorite daughter, the ‘special’ type of fleece. Compared to all the other types of fleece listed here, microfleece is the thinnest and lightest option.
Micro fleece is the classification fleece receives when it weighs 200 grams per square meter (gsm), or less.
It’s commonly found in sweaters, shirts, lightweight jackets, throw blankets, and bathrobes. It may not be as warm as other types of fleece, but micro fleece is one of the best options in terms of breathability, which is also commonly found in outdoor sports pullovers and baselayers too.
IS FLEECE SUSTAINABLE?
Now the million fiber question: Is fleece eco friendly and sustainable?
Chances are, if you’re buying fleece, it was probably made using non-renewable resources. Many times, it’s also coated in a chemical material to keep it water resistant and windproof, too.
Off the bat, fleece doesn’t sound that sustainable, does it? It may be generally made of plastic (aka petroleum) but that doesn’t mean that all fleece is an environmental faux pas. You can still stay warm this winter—without wrecking the planet.
But what is eco fleece and how have we managed to turn something so unsustainable into a more environmentally friendly fleece?
Surprisingly, the fact that fleece is made from polyester (plastic) can actually be a good thing for momma earth, provided it’s sourced responsibly. You see, fleece may be made of plastic, but it doesn’t have to be NEW plastic.
Remember how we mentioned it’s the same thing as plastic bottles? Recently, eco friendly fleece brands have actually been making fleece from recycled plastic bottles! This reduces landfill waste, decreases virgin petroleum mining, AND makes for a more affordable product
Other versions of eco friendly fleece include those french terry fleece blends we mentioned above that made from bamboo or organically-grown soy or cotton.
And let’s not forget the most sustainable version of fleece: pre-loved! Looking to buy that cozy fleece jacket? Look for a secondhand one at one of the many great online thrift stores (yes you CAN stay sustainable while still staying home!)
And if you do buy new, just be sure to buy one that you’ll wear for decades to come.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF FLEECE
Advantages of Fleece Fabric
Fleece is soft and warm and definitely one of the most common choices for staying toasty in winter. Its ability to keep us warm (second only to more expensive wools) is its greatest asset, which is why it’s one of the more sought after winter fabrics.
Its unmatched comfort and plushness is a close second in the Pro column. Image the texture of yarn with the softness of cotton and you’ve got fleece. That’s why it’s great for making the things that keep you feeling good at home (PJs, robes, and blanket, anyone?).
From a sustainability perspective, fleece is incredibly durable, it can withstand many cold winter seasons and if manufactured using 100% recycled materials, it really can be an eco friendly clothing choice.
Disadvantages of Fleece Fabric
First things first, fleece is traditionally not sustainable. While it’s possible to make fleece out of fully recycled PET, companies doing so are still vastly outnumbered by those that aren’t.
Despite its durability, fleece is also prone to pilling, meaning those annoying little balls on the fabric’s surface will eventually turn up. They not only make a garment look dingy, but can eventually lead to wearing through. For this reason, some “anti-pill” fleece products have been designed with special spun yarn fabrics that aren’t prone to pilling.
Third, it’s a fire risk. Fleece does a great job at keeping wearers warm—sometimes too warm. Fleece is highly flammable (it’s oil!). As such, many countries require it be treated with chemical flame retardants that aren’t great for the environment (or our bodies). Lose, lose.
There’s also BPAs. Anything made from plastic could technically contain bisphenol-A, which has been linked to all sorts of reproductive and other health disorders. Fortunately, most eco fleece companies, like Patagonia and LL Bean, claim it is BPA free but always worth a check if you’re buying from an unknown brand.
One last major disadvantage to fleece (recycled or not) and any other synthetic fabrics is that they don’t biodegrade. Period. This makes it all the more important to temper our fleece consumption and be extra mindful about it’s end of life outcome.
They’ve also been associated with microplastics in our waterways. Each time a fleece garment is washed, it can release up to 1,900 bits of plastic into water ecosystems. However, these can be avoided by using a microplastic catching wash bag like the Guppy Friend. We use ours with every wash and it’s super easy!
HOW TO CARE FOR FLEECE
Fleece may be durable when wearing during your favorite winter adventure, but, without proper care, it can be damaged easily.
When it comes to how to wash fleece, just bear in mind that friction and heat are not good for fleece. Wash your favorite fleece pullover in cold water, avoiding the use of fabric softener and bleach, and either on the delicate cycle or by hand. And of course, use your Guppy Friend.
If you must dry, use the lowest setting.
And if a clothes dryer presents risk to fleece, imagine what using a clothing iron will do. Two words: melted.plastic. Do not iron your fleece jumper (not that you’d even need to – fleece is highly wrinkle resistant!).
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FLEECE AND OTHER FABRICS?
Fleece vs Flannel
Both found in plaid shirts, fleece and flannel are relatively similar. Fleece does not shrink (or very little anyways) and is great at retaining heat. However, flannel is better at wicking moisture and, as it’s made of natural materials (cotton), it’s better for someone who suffers from allergic reactions. However, it is more prone to shrinking than fleece.
Fleece vs Wool
Fleece and wool are very similar, both providing that soft and fuzzy feel. The main difference would be that wool is a natural fiber that comes from animals (thus not vegan), whereas fleece is synthetic. Wool is also a better insulator, but is generally more expensive.
WHICH BRANDS USE SUSTAINABLE FLEECE?
Happily, there are now a bunch of brands who have started bundling up with sustainable fleece.
Especially when it comes to things like fair trade sweaters. Some of the world’s largest and most ethical outdoor gear brands are also big fans of using recycled plastic bottles and organic cotton to make their sustainable fleece clothing.
In fact, the popular outdoor clothing brand Patagonia began doing this wayyyyy back in 1993 (before eco-friendly was even cool!). Today, all their fleece is recycled, from their sweater-mimicking Better Sweater fleece line to their ultra classic and colorful Synchilla Snap-T pullovers.
They’ve since been joined by a number of other outdoor companies, such as LL Bean, prAna, tentree, and United By Blue (which also all happen to be some of our favorite sustainable menswear makers).
Be on the lookout for any brand that uses Polartec fleece. This supplier of fleece fabric has been increasing the amount of recycled material in their fleece for years and recently committed to 100% recycled material across all types of fleece they manufacture.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON FLEECE FABRIC
A few last words before you zip up. The winter months always present a unique challenge when it comes to staying cozy. You want to be warm and dry — while also looking cool (in an eco-friendly way, of course).
Fleece has been the go-to option for cozy comfort and, fortunately for us, many brands are now using recycled plastics and organic natural fibers to make their fleece gear.
But, like with most things in fashion, it’s important to remember that even our favorite clothes will eventually become too holy — and when they do, they sometimes end up polluting our environment.
So, when it comes to fleece, always go with an ethical and environmentally friendly brand, and remember sustainable fleece is designed to last and to keep you warm and cosy for many winters.