Since the late 1980s, the fleece jacket has become a symbolic staple of outdoor and winter wear. With a type of fabric so light yet so well-performing, it’s no wonder that the material became as popular as it is today.
But, what is fleece exactly? What is fleece made of? How is it made? What is fleece used for? These are just some of the questions we’ll be answering in our analysis of fleece fabric. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with a fluffy sheep’s coat!
And in all of that, we have to consider the environmental impacts of this material. With the numerous negative effects of the clothing industry on our planet, it’s imperative to be vigilant in choosing our clothing items.
Although fleece is such an excellent fabric in terms of function, it isn’t the most sustainable material out there—not by a long shot.
What Is Fleece, and How Was It Invented?
While the word fleece is quite a popular reference in Greek mythology (‘The Golden Fleece’), the fleece—as we know it today—was developed only a handful of decades ago.
The development of fleece fabric began quite late into the 1970s, a project spearheaded by Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills. At the beginning of the 80s, the textile mill partnered with Patagonia to create outdoor wear from the new, innovative fabric .
By the mid-1980s, fleece was all the rage in outdoor clothing, especially in skiing, and you could find fleece in most outerwear stores.
The lightweight and moisture-wicking properties of fleece material make it ideal for winter conditions as well as for use in athletic garments.
Today, through continuous development, fleece has just improved in terms of function. From the first-generation Synchilla fleece to today’s incredibly fine polyester fibers, fleece has definitely evolved as a fabric.
But, function is only one of the many aspects to consider when analyzing any material. Is fleece sustainable? Durable?
What Is Fleece Made Of?
Fleece, unlike the name suggests, is not made from natural fibers. Though the term was originally used to refer to a sheep’s wool, it is made completely from synthetic fibers.
More specifically, the light fabric is made of polyester—a kind of plastic fabric. Polyester yarn is used for various fabrics and is prized for its affordable price point and versatility.
Occasionally, the polyester fibers in fleece items will have some natural fibers integrated into them. Some examples of this are wool, cotton, and hemp. There are even some cases when it doesn’t contain any polyester at all.
However, this is by no means the norm and should not be assumed unless stated.
How Is Polyester Fleece Made?
Fleece generally starts with PET material (as a thick syrup) extruded into incredibly thin strands of polyester yarn. These strands are then knit together very closely to create the signature features present in polyester fleece.
Fleece is created with a pile structure. This means that the surface threads or outer layer stand separately from the base fabric, creating a distinct texture for the surface. Other common examples of pile material are velvet and corduroy.
It’s actually the air pockets within the pile structure that give fleece warm properties. It’s then able to store body heat efficiently due to the increased layers of insulation.
Because the yarn used to knit the fabric is so thin, even the added pile structure won’t make it bulky. Hence, fleece ends up as a light yet efficient insulator.
If the PET used to spin the polyester yarn is recycled (i.e., from plastic water bottles), it has to go through a sorting and cleaning process to create fresh PET chips ready for processing.
Types of Fleece Fabric
To be clear, there isn’t just one form of fleece. There are endless variations from light, soft fabric to fluffy, bulky material used for cold weather.
And not all of them need to be solely made from polyester either! It’s pretty common to see a combination of cotton and polyester for some kinds of fleece fabric.
Polar fleece is probably what comes to mind when you hear ‘fleece,’ It’s an umbrella term for fleece fabric in varying weights. However, it’s generally used for colder climates and is a light, durable fabric.
It dries pretty quickly and does not hold water very well, which is a plus in many scenarios.
In typical fleece fashion, polar fleece is meant to be an insulating fabric and can hold heat well in its air pockets.
Microfleece is generally the lightest form of fleece fabric. Because of this, it is also the most breathable option, though that means giving up some of the insulating factors.
This material is often used for microfleece robes, towels, shirts, and many other microfleece items.
Fleece is typically considered microfleece if it’s less than 200 gsm.
Coral fleece or raschel fleece is often used in super-soft fabrics like those used for baby blankets or clothes.
It has a higher pile than polar fleece and may feel a little bit fluffier and softer. Regardless of the fluffy exterior, this type of fabric is still made from plastic.
French Terry Fleece
French Terry Fleece is mid to light weight type of fabric. Its soft composition makes it suitable for loungewear items such as sweatpants, hoodies, or sweaters.
Though French Terry can be a type of fleece, it isn’t always. And it’s markedly different from conventional types of fleece because it’s not made of 100% polyester and is also made with other synthetic fibers.
It will usually have a percentage of rayon integrated into the material.
Stretch fleece is mainly used for activewear like gym clothes. And though stretch fleece is still a fleece, it’s usually not just polyester. There’s usually some spandex/elastane in the material, and it’s also often made from cotton.
What Is Fleece Used For?
Despite being good for insulation, fleece is not a thick fabric and yet still will keep you warm while giving you room to breathe. Because of that, it’s a pretty versatile material useful for a host of different applications.
The applications of fleece in clothing generally depend on the type of fleece used. For instance, it could come in the form of lightweight fleece, which is good for light outdoor clothing.
On the flip side, heavyweight fleece is used for colder temperatures to provide adequate insulation. Fleece for this purpose is usually quite thick without being too heavy.
You’ll see anything from lightweight jackets and warm clothes to soft microfleece bathrobes and throw blankets. With so many different types of fleece, there is also a wide range of possibilities for the material.
Is Fleece Vegan?
Yes! Despite what the name might suggest, fleece has nothing to do with a fluffy sheep’s coat. Making fleece does not involve the harm of animals (in the basest sense). In fact, fleece is often treated as a vegan alternative for wool.
Fleece is often made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be turned into synthetic fibres. Hence, it is vegan since it doesn’t contain any animal or animal byproducts.
Because of the way fleece is made, it is a much more breathable fabric compared to wool. It also has a considerably lighter weight than wool and has excellent moisture-resistant properties.
However, like many of the items that are common in our everyday life, fleece still impacts our biodiversity. Though it isn’t a direct impact, it is still something we should also consider in making our choices.
Are Fleece Jackets Sustainable?
At Puratium, we’re adamant about not using plastics in our clothes. For one, polyester is not biodegradable. Unlike natural fabrics like cotton or hemp(here’s our guide on it), it doesn’t go back to the earth at the end of its life.
Instead, polyester will sit in landfills or worse, in nature, for the foreseeable future. For sure, you’ve heard plenty of the horrors of plastic pollution and what it’s doing to our ecosystems and the living beings within them.
It isn’t just the issue of disposal. Throughout your use of synthetic items like fleece jackets, you are still causing environmental pollution through the microfibers released into our water systems with every single wash.
You won’t notice it at all. To you, it will just look like the fabric has gone through regular wear. But the more you wash your fleece, the more it sheds, thus creating a negative loop of microfibers ending up in our environment .
But it’s not just the waste that’s generated by the product that’s such a problem. There’s also the issue of polyester coming from non-renewable sources such as petroleum.
Petroleum (or crude oil) use can lead to emissions that are awful for our environment and the planet in general . Though petroleum-based products have certainly made our lives easier and more convenient, they didn’t come without a price.
From production to the end of life, synthetic fibers (like the polyester used to make a fleece garment) are fraught with issues.
However, is it possible to make, use, and dispose of fleece sustainably?
Can We Make Fleece Sustainably?
At the very best, recycled fleece or eco fleece is your best sustainable option. Now that technology has improved, the methods for utilizing recycled material have just gotten better.
In the past, post-consumer fleece made from recycled plastics was scratchy and not at all like the coveted fleece fabric. But now, it can be just as good as using virgin materials.
However, even then, fleece still wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. Sure, using recycled plastics would definitely divert plastics from ending up in our ecosystems, which is a good thing.
But, it distracts us from the notion we should be focusing on: using natural fibers that can be sourced ethically and sustainably in an infinite cycle.
Plus, let’s recall how polyester often degrades into microplastics that eventually end up in our oceans. Even if the material used did not come from virgin sources, it would still contribute to plastic pollution somehow.
In the end, it can be tough to ever consider synthetics as a sustainable option. Recycled polyester fleece still isn’t mainstream, and many brands don’t offer this option. And even if they did, fleece will still shred microplastics over time.
Would We Recommend Fleece?
Fleece fabric is most often used for high-performance specialty clothing. It’s super lightweight in nature and is incredibly useful in certain scenarios like in extreme weather conditions or for sports.
These are some cases when we could recommend synthetic fleece, especially since fleece is a vegan alternative to other insulating fabrics like wool.
It’s always challenging to figure out the most sustainable and ethical way to approach consumption, especially in a world and economy that has yet to achieve sustainability.
For sure, there are different types of fleece that could come from natural materials. Some notable examples are hemp fleece and cotton fleece. There’s even bamboo fleece, though it isn’t made in the most eco friendly manner.
However, these are still significantly different from polyester fleece, especially in the moisture-resistant department. Though these natural fleece fabrics have an eco friendly edge, they might not have all that you generally find in synthetic fleece.
If you find yourself in a situation where fleece is the best option available, we highly recommend you get it recycled. Fleece polyester yarn made from recycled plastic bottles is far better than using virgin plastic.
It’s even better if you can get it second-hand from your local thrift store.
Fleece can keep you warm and cozy in cold weather without making you feel like you’re wearing a heavy blanket. But there’s a lot more to consider.
Like the other synthetic fibers we know of, fleece fabric isn’t the best material for our environment. It doesn’t degrade and isn’t exactly made in an eco friendly process.
Despite that, performance fleece has its merits. It’s useful for certain types of clothing suited for particular conditions (e.g., sports, harsh weather).
If you still have some of this fabric in your closet, don’t beat yourself up over it. But in the near future, maybe you can apply what you now know to make a more sustainable and ethical choice towards other natural fibers.
- https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/teacher_resources/webfieldtrips/climate_cha nge/petroleum/