When dressing for cold weather, you have a number of insulating fabrics to choose from. Two of the most popular materials are fleece and wool. The best fabric for winter clothing depends on the weather conditions you expect, the activities you plan to do, and your personal preference. In this guide, I will outline the differences between fleece wool and explain which is better for a range of different conditions and use cases. I’ll also list the pros and cons of fleece vs wool. Finally, I’ll compare them to a third material, down.
In this guide, we’ll cover warmth, weight, breathability, protection from the elements, comfort, versatility, cost, and much more. This info applies to all kinds of fleece and wool clothing and gear including jackets, gloves, scarves, base layers, blankets, and more.
The main difference between fleece and wool is the materials that the fabrics are made of. Fleece is a synthetic fabric while wool is a natural fabric. Fleece is basically a synthetic version of wool. The processes used to manufacture the two fabrics are completely different.
Generally, fleece is the better choice for extremely wet weather and for those on a budget. Wool is the better choice for extremely cold conditions. It’s the better all-around material but it is more expensive.
I’ve worn both of these fabrics extensively while hiking, camping, and cycling over the years. Hopefully, this guide helps you make an informed decision about whether wool or fleece is the better material for you.
- Moisture wicking
- Quick drying
- Doesn’t absorb much moisture
- Easy to wash and maintain
- Soft and comfortable
- Not sustainable or environmentally friendly
- Doesn’t last as long
- It’s bulky
- It pills
- Not as warm
- Generates static electricity
- Resistant to odors
- Insulates when wet
- Wools helps regulate body temperature
- Keeps you cooler in hot weather
- Quick drying
- Flame retardant
- Wool is a renewable resource
- Water repellent
- Wrinkle resistant
- Wind resistant
- Can be itchy and uncomfortable
- More maintenance required
- Takes a long time to dry
- May be considered unethical
- It can shrink
Table of Contents
- What is fleece?
- What is wool?
- Pros and cons of fleece
- Pros and cons of wool
- Which should you choose?
- Fleece and wool sweater recommendations
An Overview of Fleece
Fleece is a synthetic fabric. It is man-made in a factory.
Fleece is made from polyester. Polyester is a type of plastic derived from petroleum and various chemicals. The most common type of polyester used to make fleece is called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Most fleece is made from 100% polyester.
During the remanufacturing process, polyester fibers are spun into yarn. The yarn is then tightly woven together into fleece fabric. This fabric is then brushed. The brushing process gives the fleece its distinctive soft and fuzzy texture.
Brushing also gives the fabric more volume. The extra volume increases the insulation qualities of the fleece. Slight variations in the manufacturing process can give the fleece different textures. For example, fleece can be thin and fuzzy or thick and matted in texture.
Different types of fleece can be made from a blend of fibers. Both synthetic and natural fibers can be used. For example, fleece can be made from a blend of polyester and cotton, spandex, rayon, wool, or recycled materials such as plastic bottles.
Blending polyester with different fibers gives the fleece different properties. For example, blending polyester and spandex makes a stretchy fleece fabric that works well in activewear. The fleece lining in jackets and pants is often made from a blend of polyester and cotton fibers.
Different types of fleece have different names. Sherpa fleece is made from 100% polyester. It has a fuzzy texture. It is commonly used to make jacket linings and hats. Polar fleece is a thicker type of fleece that is commonly used to make jackets and blankets.
Fleece comes in different ‘weights.’ The weight refers to the thickness or loft of the fleece. Most companies measure the weight with Polartec’s 100, 200, 300 scale. The higher the number, the thicker, warmer, and heavier the fleece is. The number represents the weight of the fabric in grams per square meter. For example, 100 weight fleece weighs 100 grams per square meter of fabric.
Fleece was initially designed to imitate wool. In other words, it is basically synthetic wool. It was introduced around 1974. The fabric is commonly used to make jackets, liners, hats, gloves, scarves, and fleece blankets. Fleece is sometimes referred to as polar fleece.
An Overview of Wool
Wool is a natural fiber that comes from the hair of animals. It has been used to make textiles for thousands of years. Most wool comes from sheep. Wool can also be made from the hair of other animals including goats, bison, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, camels, musk oxen, and more.
The wool grows out of hair follicles on the animal’s skin. Chemically, wool fiber is mostly composed of the animal protein keratin. This is the same type of protein that human hair is made from. The fibers are much finer than a human hair. Wool also contains a small amount of lipids.
Wool from different types of animals has different names. For example, merino wool is made from merino sheep hair. Cashmere wool is made from cashmere goat hair. Qiviut wool comes from musk oxen.
Wool is harvested from animals through the process of shearing. The hair is cut off with blade shears (similar to scissors) or machine shears (similar to electric hair clippers). Shearing does not harm the animal. Only the hair is cut. When the hair grows back, the wool is shorn again.
Sheep and other wool-producing animals are generally shorn once per year. Usually in the spring.
Shearing wool-producing animals is necessary for their health. Over thousands of years, these animals have been selectively bred for wool production. They are domesticated. If the wool is not shorn, it will continue growing and make the animal sick.
After shearing, the wool is separated, cleaned, and sorted. The wool is then spun into yarn. Spinning interlocks the individual fibers into a long strand of material.
This yarn is then woven into wool fabric. Wool provides natural insulation. The resulting fabric is warm and usually expensive.
Some types of wool are more valuable than others due to the natural properties of the animal’s hair. Where the animal came from can also play a role in the quality of the wool. Generally, wool made from finer hairs is more valuable because it feels softer to the touch.
Sheep’s wool can be used to make a wide range of garments including sweaters, hats, shirts, pants, socks, gloves, undergarments, wool blankets, and more.
Fleece is breathable
Both air and water can pass through fleece easily. Fleece also doesn’t absorb water very well. When you sweat, the moisture on your skin vaporizes and passes through the fleece and dissipates into the air. Moisture doesn’t get trapped in the fabric. As a result, you won’t get soaked with your own sweat.
Different types of fleece offer different levels of breathability. This is the case because the fibers are woven differently. Thick fleece with a dense weave doesn’t breathe as well as thin fleece with a looser weave. Air can’t pass through the dense weave as easily.
Thin 100 weight fleece allows for excellent breathability. Thick 300 weight fleece doesn’t allow for as much breathability. Sherpa fleece doesn’t breathe as well as microfleece. Heavier fleece is warmer but doesn’t breathe as well.
Some fleece jackets feature a waterproof outer layer or flame-retardant coating. These reduce breathability.
Fleece has moisture-wicking properties
Fleece wicks sweat away from your skin. This is achieved with short fibers that create a capillary action. Water passes through the fibers without being absorbed. Fleece has a low absorption rate.
After the moisture is wicked away from your skin, it evaporates away from the outside of the fleece. You’ll stay warmer when your skin is dry. Lightweight fleece wicks moisture slightly better than wool. Fleece won’t get heavy and waterlogged like cotton or down.
Fleece is quick-drying
If your fleece gets damp with perspiration or soaked in rain, it dries out quickly. This is possible for a number of reasons.
First, the fibers that make up the fleece are hydrophobic. They repel water instead of absorbing it. It takes less time for less water to evaporate away.
The breathability of fleece also helps it dry quickly. Air can pass through the fabric and speed up the evaporation of moisture that has accumulated.
The sweat-wicking qualities also allow fleece to dry faster. Moisture moves away from your skin to the outside of the fleece jacket. This moisture can more easily evaporate from the outside of the jacket.
This quick-drying property comes in handy while hiking in wet weather. During my Wonderland Trail hike, my fleece was the only dry piece of clothing I had after everything I got caught in a 6-day rainstorm. I had to sleep in it to stay warm enough during the night as my sleeping bag had gotten damp.
Fleece is lightweight
The average fleece jacket weighs between 8 and 12 ounces (about 226-340 grams). This is 4-5 ounces (around 110-140 grams) lighter than a comparable wool sweater.
When both materials are wet, fleece is significantly lighter because it doesn’t absorb as much water. This light weight makes fleece an excellent material for ultralight hikers. The light weight also makes fleece more comfortable to wear because it doesn’t weigh you down or restrict your motion as much.
The weight of a fleece jacket depends on the features and thickness of the fleece. Ultralight fleece jackets use quarter-length zippers and have no pockets or hood to save weight. Thinner fleece jackets are lighter than thicker fleece jackets. For example, a jacket made from 100 weight fleece weighs less than a jacket made from 200 or 300 weight fleece.
Fleece doesn’t absorb much moisture
When moisture comes into contact with fleece, it tends to pass through the fabric instead of soaking into it. Fleece can hold less than 1% of its weight in water.
This characteristic of fleece offers several benefits. First, the jacket will dry out faster because it doesn’t hold onto moisture. The jacket will also be lighter because you won’t be carrying around a bunch of water weight.
Fleece is Affordable
Fleece is a lower cost fabric. You can pick up a basic fleece jacket for just $15-$25. A high-end fleece jacket from a major outdoor clothing manufacturer may cost $60-$120.
Higher-end fleece jackets come with additional features such as a full zipper, hood, pockets, adjustable cuffs, etc. Jackets made from lighter-weight fleece tend to be cheaper than jackets made from thicker fleece.
Fleece may be more ethical than wool
Fleece is a synthetic material that is made from polyester, which is a type of plastic. It is derived from petroleum. Fleece is not made from animal fibers like wool and down.
Vegan hikers may find fleece to be a more ethical material than wool or down for this reason. No animals are harmed in the making of fleece. If you don’t use animal products, fleece is an excellent insulation option.
Fleece is easy to wash and maintain
Fleece is a low-maintenance fabric. You can just throw your fleece in the washing machine with the rest of your clothes. You don’t have to use a special detergent or drying technique as you do with wool. That said, there are a couple of precautions you can take when washing your fleece to extend its life.
When you wash fleece, you should wash it in cold water on a gentle cycle to avoid pilling. Ideally, you should wash your fleece with powder detergent because it tends to be gentler than liquid. You should also never use fabric softener or bleach when washing fleece.
You do need to be careful while drying your fleece. Fleece doesn’t shrink in normal drying conditions but it can shrink when exposed to temperatures above around 150°F. Under extreme heat, the synthetic fleece fibers can melt. This would destroy the texture of your fleece. For more info on washing fleece, check out this guide.
Fleece is soft and comfortable to wear
Fleece is available in different textures. The texture depends on the blend of materials that the fleece is made of, the thickness, and the manufacturing process. Fleece is generally softer than wool. Many find it to be more comfortable to wear.
In my opinion, fleece is one of the most comfortable fabrics. It feels great against the skin. It’s very soft to the touch. This texture makes fleece material excellent for jackets and linings for clothes. It’s cozy.
Fleece doesn’t itch like wool. Because it’s a synthetic material, it doesn’t contain any allergens. This makes fleece an excellent alternative to wool for those with sensitive skin or allergies.
Fleece is warmer in some situations
The warmth of a fleece jacket depends on the weight or thickness of the fleece and its loft. For example, thicker and heavier 300 weight fleece is warmer than thinner and lighter 100 weight fleece. This is the case because thicker fleece has more loft. This means that there are more air pockets in the fabric that can trap heat and provide insulation.
Fleece can also keep you warmer than wool in wet conditions. This is possible because fleece dries faster than wool. When a fleece jacket or wool sweater gets soaked, it can’t provide much insulation. Fleece can dry out quickly once you get out of the rain. Once the fleece is partially dry, it can provide insulation again. This makes it a great choice f or light rain.
Fleece provides some insulation when wet
Due to the hydrophobic properties of fleece, the material can provide some warmth when it gets wet. It retains some loft which provides insulation by trapping body heat. Fleece performs better than down or cotton when wet but worse than wool in damp conditions.
When fleece gets soaking wet, it can’t provide insulation. One nice thing about fleece is that you can basically shake your soaked fleece jacket out in the air and it will dry enough to provide some warmth. This is possible because fleece doesn’t absorb much moisture.
Fleece is more durable
Fleece is designed to be durable, long-lasting, and easy to care for. Polyester fibers are incredibly strong. They can bend many times without getting weak and breaking. Fleece is also harder to tear than wool. If you snag your fleece jacket on a tree branch, a hole is less likely to form. Fleece can also handle abrasion better than wool.
Mold and mildew aren’t a worry either as long as you hang your fleece up to dry when you return home. Moths and other insects are less likely to eat fleece because it is a synthetic material. The fibers also don’t really degrade over time either.
Fleece garments don’t require any special care or maintenance to maintain its shape and size. You can wash fleece many times without needing to take any precautions. You also don’t have to worry about shrinkage as much while washing and drying fleece.
Fleece does pill and wear thin over time but not as quickly as wool. Overall, fleece is more durable than wool.
Fleece is fashionable
A nice fleece jacket is kind of a step up from a hoodie, fashion-wise. It gives you a sporty and outdoorsy look when you wear it. You can wear fleece around town while you’re not on the trail. It’s also comfortable to wear while lounging around at home.
Fleece is available in different colors, patterns, and textures. Whatever style you prefer, you can find a fleece jacket to match. This all makes fleece the perfect choice for everyday wear.
Fleece is a synthetic material that is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is the same material that most single-use plastic bottles are made of. It’s a type of plastic that is derived from petroleum. Petroleum is a non-renewable resource.
Fleece also isn’t quite as durable and long-lasting as wool. This means you’ll have to replace your fleece jacket more frequently. This means more material ends up in a landfill. Fleece also doesn’t biodegrade like natural fibers.
One way to make fleece more sustainable is to wear fleece that is made from recycled materials, such as plastic bottles. This is often called eco-fleece.
Fleece made from recycled materials requires less raw petroleum and energy to manufacture. It also keeps plastic out of landfills. This makes it a much more sustainable material. Of course, It’s still not perfect. Another option is to buy a second-hand fleece jacket from a thrift store.
If you prefer to wear more sustainable clothing, consider wool, cotton, or down instead. These materials come from natural fibers that are renewable and sustainable.
Fleece is not environmentally friendly
Fleece can introduce microplastics into the environment. Microplastics are tiny particles of thread that break off of the fleece when you wash it. Many of these plastic particles are too small to be filtered out when wastewater is treated.
According to this recent study “on average 1,174 milligrams of microfibers are released from the washing machine. These microfibers then travel to local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them can enter into rivers, lakes, and oceans.”
These microplastics do not biodegrade like natural fibers. They may take hundreds or thousands of years to degrade.
After the microplastics make their way into the environment, they can be eaten by sea creatures and other wildlife. As they pass through the food chain, they become more concentrated. Eventually, the concentration of microplastics becomes toxic.
According to this article, microplastics can bind with toxic chemical pollutants. Microplastics act as a vector for these harmful chemicals. This further increases toxicity.
It is still unknown how microplastics affect human and animal health. If you’re looking for a material that is more environmentally friendly with similar properties to fleece, consider merino wool. It is a more environmentally friendly material.
Fleece may not last as long as wool
Synthetic fibers like fleece can degrade more quickly than natural fibers like wool or down. After a couple of years of use and wash cycles, fleece begins to pill and wear thin.
This wear is mostly caused by abrasion. The fibers can only bend and rub against one another so many times before they start to break.
When the fleece starts showing signs of wear, it loses much of its insulating properties. Your fleece jacket might last 3 seasons while a comparable wool sweater might last 5 seasons.
You’ll have to buy a new fleece more often. This can end up costing you more in the long run. More fleece also ends up in the landfill.
Fleece develops odors easily
Fleece doesn’t have antibacterial or antimicrobial properties like wool. This means that fleece develops an odor more easily than wool. This odor can be caused by a number of factors including sweat, bacteria, and mildew.
This can be an issue for those who need to wear their fleece for multiple days in a row without washing. If you’re out hiking for several days, your fleece jacket will start to stink. Hanging your fleece to air out can help to reduce the odor until you’re able to wash it.
You have to wash fleece more frequently than wool
Fleece doesn’t have any natural anti-odor properties like wool. You need to wash it frequently to keep it smelling clean.
You’ll need to wash your fleece jacket after every 4-7 wears depending on the conditions you wear it in and your level of activity. To compare, you may be able to wear a wool sweater for 1-2 weeks before it starts to stink.
Fleece is bulky
Even though fleece is lightweight, it doesn’t compress very well. It is a bulky fabric. A fleece jacket takes up more space in your pack than a down jacket.
You can make your fleece jacket a bit more compact by storing it in a compression sack. Compressing fleece does not damage it.
Pilling happens when broken and worn fibers clump together into little balls. This is the result of normal wear and tear. It is mostly caused by abrasion.
Pilling is a common problem with many fabrics. Unfortunately, fleece is particularly susceptible to pilling due to its fuzzy texture. Every fleece will pill after enough use and wash cycles.
Pilling reduces the insulating properties of the fleece. Pilling also makes the garment look worn and kind of dingy. When pilling gets too bad, it’s time to buy a new fleece.
It is possible to prolong the life of your fleece by shaving the pilling off. This does remove material which makes your jacket a bit less warm.
Fleece is flammable and has a low melting temperature
Due to the chemical makeup, surface texture, and density of the material, fleece is more flammable than many other types of fabric. You don’t want to sit too close to a campfire when wearing your fleece jacket. If a spark jumps onto your jacket, you could catch fire.
Most fleece jackets are treated with a chemical fire retardant to make them less flammable. This is a safety requirement in many countries. Check your jacket’s label to see if it’s been treated.
Running your fleece jacket through a hot washing machine can also cause it to melt or shrink. Check the label for more information on drying your fleece to avoid damage.
Fleece may not be as warm as wool
The warmth of a fleece jacket depends on its thickness. Thicker fleece provides more insulation. Most fleece jackets are pretty thin. A fleece alone can only keep you warm down to around 45 degrees.
If you expect weather below freezing you’ll probably want to pack both a fleece and an insulated jacket. Wear your fleece over a synthetic or wool base layer. A fleece alone can only keep you so warm. Layering is the best solution if you expect cold temperatures.
When fleece gets wet, it doesn’t provide much insulation
Because fleece is breathable, water can pass through easily. As a result, fleece gets wet more quickly than wool. When your fleece jacket gets wet, it doesn’t provide much insulation. Wool, on the other hand, can still keep you warm when it’s damp.
Fleece generates static electricity
When the fleece rubs up against your body, static electricity builds up. This attracts hair, lint, and dust to collect on the garment. You may also experience static shocks more frequently when you touch metal objects. This is mostly just an annoyance.
Some people consider fleece to be outdoor clothing. Wearing fleece can make you look like a hiker, hunter, or fisherman. It isn’t very fashionable in the city. This really depends on where you live. In areas where outdoor activities are popular, wearing fleece may be common. If you don’t really care about fashion, then this point doesn’t really matter.
Resistant to odors
Wool has natural anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties making it resistant to developing odors. Body odor comes from sweat. Sweat itself does not smell. The odor is caused by bacteria on your skin that break the sweat down. The bacteria’s waste produces the odor.
Wool resists odors by absorbing sweat away from your skin. This keeps your skin dryer which discourages bacterial growth. As a result, you won’t produce as much body odor while wearing wool.
Wool fibers also bind to the odors that are produced and retain them in the fabric. As a result, the fabric stays smelling fresh longer. According to this study, “Fabrics containing 20% wool had substantially reduced odor intensity compared to 100% polyester.” The article goes on to say that “100% wool showed higher sorption capacity than the blends.” Wool effectively retains odors better than other fabrics. When you wash your wool, the detergent releases the odors.
This anti-odor property is helpful when you’re hiking for multiple days without a shower. It’s also nice for travelers who are unable to wash their clothes frequently. You can wear the same wool shirt or sweater for weeks without getting smelly.
Wool provides insulation when wet
Wool can absorb a lot of moisture before it starts feeling wet. It is a hygroscopic insulator. Water molecules get trapped in the porous fibers of the wool. They do not permeate the fabric. As a result, wool stays dry to the touch when damp.
The natural crimp of the fibers also prevents wool from losing loft when wet. Tiny air pockets remain between the wool fibers. These trap body heat, which keeps you warm.
If you get caught in the rain without waterproof gear, your wool sweater or base layer can still provide insulation. This property makes wool an excellent choice for hiking in wet weather.
Wool is breathable
Wool is slightly more breathable than fleece. It allows air to pass through freely. It is a naturally breathable material. Animal hair needs to be breathable so air can circulate through and dry the animal off if it gets wet or cool it down if it gets too hot.
This breathability helps you avoid getting soaked with sweat. When you perspire, the moisture can escape and evaporate away freely into the environment. It doesn’t get trapped against your skin. When you get wet in the rain, the moisture can also freely evaporate away. The breathability also helps you stay cooler in hot weather.
Wool is a more breathable material than fleece. It is one of the most breathable types of fabric used for making clothing.
Wool can help you regulate your body temperature
As you warm up and start sweating, wool fibers wick sweat away from your skin and absorb the moisture into the structure of the fibers. That moisture can then begin evaporating away. This helps to keep you cooler and dryer.
When you stop your activity, wool prevents rapid cooling by slowly releasing moisture into the environment. This helps to keep you warmer. You won’t experience that rapid evaporative skin cooling like you do when you wear synthetic materials, like fleece.
When you wear wool, your body temperature will remain more constant as you transition from active to inactive. You won’t suddenly overheat or freeze.
Wool is warmer
Wool’s purpose in nature is to keep animals warm. It is a natural insulator. Wool is slightly warmer than fleece.
Most types of fabric keep you warm by trapping your body heat in small air pockets in the fabric. Some types of wool, such as merino wool, can actually generate their own heat. This helps to keep you much warmer.
This heat generation is possible thanks to a chemical process. When water is absorbed into the wool fibers, it passes through tiny pores. The hydrogen bonds of the water break down. This creates a chemical reaction that creates heat. This process is called adsorption. This phenomenon makes wool a particularly warm fabric.
According to this article “Experiments have found through this process, one kilogram of merino wool can produce as much heat over eight hours as an electric blanket.” For more in-depth information about this process, check out this article.
Fleece does not generate heat. It only keeps you warm by trapping your body heat.
Wool can keep you cooler during the summer
While hiking or traveling in hot and dry climates, wool can keep you cooler than synthetic fabrics or cotton. This is the case because wool wicks moisture away from your skin and allows it to evaporate away.
This is possible thanks to the moisture-absorbing properties of wool as well as the crimpy and curly shape of the fibers. If you’re traveling or hiking in a hot region, merino wool t-shirts are an excellent option.
Synthetics are also sweat-wicking. They just don’t perform quite as well as wool. Cotton absorbs moisture and holds it against your skin.
Wool is quick-drying
Wool dries out faster than cotton or down but not quite as fast as fleece and other synthetics. It is a quick-drying material.
The time that it takes wool to dry depends on its thickness. The thinner the wool, the faster it will dry. A thick wool sweater is pretty slow to dry. A thin merino wool base layer dries quickly.
Wool is flame retardant
According to this study from the Handbook of Fire Resistant Textiles, wool has naturally flame retardant properties. It is difficult to ignite. If wool does start to burn, the flame tends to extinguish itself instead of spreading. When wool burns, it dissipates into ash. It doesn’t melt into hard material like synthetics. While wearing wool, you don’t have to too much about sparks from your campfire
Wool is a renewable resource
Wool is a natural fiber that is made from the hair of animals such as sheep. The animal’s hair continues growing throughout its life. Sheep are usually shorn once per year. The same sheep can be shorn many times throughout its life.
Animals are considered a renewable resource because they can reproduce quickly and infinitely. This is a major benefit of natural materials.
The petroleum used to make fleece is not renewable because it is finite.
Wool is an environmentally friendly material
When your wool garment wears out, you don’t have to worry about it polluting the environment in a landfill. It is a biodegradable and compostable material. Wool can biodegrade in just 3-4 months when it’s buried in the ground. It is a completely natural material.
Wool can also be recycled into other products, such as insulation. It can sometimes be recycled into other garments or textiles as well.
There is one type of wool that is not environmentally friendly. Superwash wools are coated in a layer of plastic. These take a long time to degrade.
Livestock farming for wool production also emits greenhouse gasses. Animal farming also takes up a large amount of resources including land, water, and feed. Wool isn’t the most environmentally friendly material but it is certainly better than fleece.
Wool is ethical
Animals are not harmed during the wool production process. The wool is simply cut off. Just like humans are not harmed by haircuts.
Sheep are sheared around once per year. The hair is cut with a pair of shears or mechanical clippers. The same sheep can be shorn many times throughout its life.
Sheep are domesticated animals. They have been selectively bred for thousands of years to maximize wool production. They can not shed their wool naturally. If a sheep is not sheared, it will suffer health issues and eventually die.
The treatment of wool-producing animals can be an ethical issue. There are some potentially unethical practices in the wool industry such as tail docking, castration, and winter lambing. Sheep are also killed after their wool begins to degrade due to old age.
Not all wool is ethically sourced. Before buying a wool garment, consider checking where the wool came from. If the wool was ethically sourced, it will say so on the label.
For more information on the sustainability and ethics of wool, check out this great article.
Wool is semi water repellent
Wool has a natural wax coating called lanolin. Lanolin is a substance that is secreted from the sebaceous glands of wool-producing animals. The lanolin helps wool repel water. This water repellent property is the reason that fishermen used to wear wool knit sweaters while out at sea.
Over time the lanolin can wear off. You can replace it by treating your wool garment with fresh lanolin. For more info, check out this guide.
Wool can also absorb about 30% of its weight in water before it starts to feel wet to the touch. This property of wool helps you stay feeling dry, even when the wool is damp. Only after the wool reaches saturation of 30% does it start to feel wet.
Wool is wrinkle-resistant
Wool is much less likely to wrinkle than cotton or linen fabrics. It is a popular choice among travelers for this reason. You can pack it tightly and not have to worry about wrinkles.
If your wool clothing does get wrinkled in your suitcase, you can dampen it in the sink or expose it to humidity from the shower then hang it to dry. When it dries out, it will be wrinkle-free.
Wool is compressible and packable
Wool compresses much better than polyester fleece. This makes it a great choice for those who like to travel with a carry-on bag only. You can easily fit 4-5 merino wool shirts in a standard-sized packing cube or compression sack.
This can save you a massive amount of space for other gear. You could also use smaller luggage. I recently replaced some of my travel clothing with merino wool for this reason.
Wool is wind resistant
Due to the tight weave of the fibers, wool blocks wind better than synthetics like fleece. A wool sweater can keep you warmer under breezy conditions.
Of course, wool can’t replace a hard shell layer. If you expect cold winds, you’ll need something a bit more wind resistant than wool such as a rain jacket or windbreaker.
Wool is more versatile
A wool shirt can be worn year-round. Wool keeps you warm in cold weather and keeps you cool in hot weather. A thin wool shirt can be used as both a base layer or on its own as a regular shirt. Wool sweaters can be worn for outdoor activities as well as for more formal activities. For example, you could wear a nice wool sweater to work.
A wool sweater is a step up from a fleece jacket, fashion-wise. It’s kind of a middle ground between casual and formalwear. You can wear a nice wool sweater in most professional environments or in high-end hotels and restaurants. You can also buy wool suits for formal occasions.
Durable and long-lasting
Wool fibers can bend up to 20 thousand times before failure. Wool garments tend to hold up well and last a long time with proper care. You should get 4-5 years of heavy use out of a quality wool sweater. A comparable fleece jacket may last a year or two less.
Having said this, wool can start to pill when exposed to abrasion. For more durability, consider choosing wool garments that are blended with synthetics. 85% wool is more durable than 100% wool.
Wool is expensive
A nice wool sweater costs $100-$200. A comparable fleece jacket costs $60-$120. A wool garment costs 50-100% more than a similar fleece garment. Wool is a much more expensive fabric. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off buying a synthetic or cotton garment.
The main reason that wool is expensive is that it takes more time and effort to make. Wool must be grown. It takes around a year for a sheep to grow a full coat of wool. Wool production costs are higher as well. The wool must be sheared, sorted, cleaned, spun, weaved, and more. Each step requires labor. Fleece can be produced quickly in a factory.
Wool can be itchy and uncomfortable to wear
Comfort really depends on the type and quality of wool your clothing is made of. Some wool clothing is made from thick and coarse fibers that are densely woven together. Coarse texture and heavy weight are natural properties of low-quality wool fibers.
Clothing made from these types of wool tends to feel itchy. It doesn’t feel comfortable against the skin. The heavier weight and stiffness of thick fibers can also make wool clothing feel more restrictive to wear.
Some types of wool are extremely soft and comfortable to wear. For example, merino wool and cashmere wool are two of the softest varieties. Alpaca wool is soft as well.
These varieties are softer because the fibers are very fine and flexible. Fabric made from these types of wool also tends to be lighter because the weave is less dense. Clothing made from these fabrics feels great against the skin. Merino baselayers are popular due to their light weight and soft texture. Softer wool is more expensive. It is considered to be of higher quality.
If you have particularly sensitive skin or certain skin conditions, you may not feel comfortable wearing wool. It is also possible to be allergic to wool. Some people have an allergy to lanolin. This rare condition can cause skin irritation and itchiness.
If you find wool to be uncomfortable, you may be better off with a synthetic fabric like fleece. If you have an allergy to wool, you could try wearing alpaca wool. Alpaca fiber doesn’t contain lanolin.
Wool is high-maintenance
Wool is harder to wash than fleece. Many wool garments need to be hand-washed to avoid damage. If your garment can be washed in the washing machine, you should use the wool cycle. If your machine doesn’t have a wool cycle, use the gentle cycle. Wool should be washed in cool or lukewarm water.
It’s also important to use a detergent that is designed for wool such as this Wool & Cashmere Shampoo. Don’t use regular detergent. If you don’t have detergent that is designed for wool, use a gentle detergent. Don’t use bleach while washing wool.
After washing your wool clothing, don’t wring it out. Instead, squeeze the excess water out. This way, you won’t stretch the fibers or break them.
When it comes to drying wool clothing, it’s best to lay it out flat on a drying rack. Avoid drying wool in direct sunlight. To preserve the shape, don’t hang wool clothing to dry. Also, avoid using the dryer. Improperly washing and drying your wool can cause it to shrink.
After your wool is washed, you should fold it instead of hanging it up. This helps the wool maintain its shape.
Before washing your wool clothing, it’s best to read the washing instructions on the label. Some types of wool are easier to wash than others. Some fragile garments require extra care. Blended wool can often be washed and dried normally. Washing your wool properly will prolong its life.
The good news is that you don’t have to wash your wool clothing as frequently as clothing made from other materials because wool is odor-resistant and stain-resistant. You can wear wool for weeks between washes. For more info, check out this great guide to washing wool.
Wool is slow drying
Thick wool sweaters take a long time to dry out completely. This is the case because wool fibers absorb moisture and slowly release it as they dry out. A thick wool sweater may take a day to dry out completely. A comparable fleece jacket might dry out in a few hours.
For this reason, wool isn’t ideal for wet weather use. If you expect extremely wet weather where your jacket will get soaked, fleece is the better choice.
Some people find wool to be unethical
Wool is an animal product. It comes from the hair of sheep and other animals. Wool is not vegan. Some people are against the use of animal products because they find it to be unethical and exploitative. Whether or not wool is ethical to wear is up to you to decide.
One thing to consider when buying wool is that not all farms treat their animals equally. In some cases, sheep are mistreated. Castration, mulesing, tail docking, and ear hole punching are common practices in the industry. These practices can cause pain and suffering for the animal. This can be considered unethical.
Before buying a wool garment, you may want to consider where the wool came from and how the animal was treated. Most brands explain how their wool is sourced on their website. Try to buy ethically sourced wool.
Wool is not as durable
100% wool garments tend to be fragile. They develop holes easily. Particularly on spots that experience lots of abrasions, like the elbows. Wool fibers break over time and holes develop. Pilling is also an issue. Wool can also shrink if you don’t wash it properly. All of this wear and tear can cause your wool garments to wear out quickly.
Wool can shrink
Heat and movement cause wool to shrink. This is the main reason it is not recommended to wash wool in hot water or dry it in the dryer.
Wool shrinks when the protein scales that the material is made of catch on one another. This causes them to bind to one another and sit closer together. The garment shrinks as a result.
To avoid shrinking your wool, wash it properly. It is possible to unshrink wool in some cases. Check out this guide for info.
Wool is heavy
Wool is a heavier fabric than fleece. This is the case because wool is a denser material. It’s not light and fluffy like fleece. Wool also absorbs much more moisture than fleece. This weighs you down. For this reason, wool is not ideal for ultralight hikers and travelers. It adds more weight to your pack.
The benefit of the added weight is that it makes wool warmer. A heavier material can provide more insulation and protection from the elements.
Pilling happens when fibers break and clump together into small balls. It is usually caused by abrasion. Pilling reduces loft. The fabric can’t trap as much heat when fibers clump together. This reduces warmth. Pilling also makes the garment look kind of ratty and old.
Exactly how fast pilling will start depends on the type of wool, the thickness of the fibers, and how you wear the clothing. If you wear a backpack over a wool sweater, you may start noticing pilling around the shoulders and back quickly. The backpack rubs against the fibers and causes them to break and pill.
There are a few ways to reduce or repair pilling. For example, you can shave the pills off with a fabric shaver. Wool blends also tend to pill less.
Insects can chew holes in wool clothing
Insect larvae like to eat natural fibers such as wool and cotton. They can nibble holes in your wool clothing and ruin it. Insects that can damage wool clothing include moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, firebrats, cockroaches, termites, and more.
When storing your wool clothing for the winter, consider storing it in an airtight container like a plastic tub to keep moths and other insects out. You could also use mothballs.
Down Jacket Pros
- Warm- Down provides the best insulation of any fiber used in the manufacture of winter garments. Even with modern manufacturing, down still performs better than any synthetic material. A good down jacket can keep the average person warm down to around 20°F (around -7°C). If you expect colder weather, you’ll want to pack a fleece or wool layer in addition to your down jacket.
- Lightweight- An average down jacket contains 3-4 ounces (85-115 grams) of down filling and weighs 10-16 ounces (280-450 grams) in total. This is light enough for any ultralight traveler or hiker. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you can buy high-end ultralight down jackets that weigh as little as 8 ounces (around 226 grams). That’s half a pound.
- Compressible- One of the biggest benefits down has over fleece and wool is the fact that it’s highly compressible. A down jacket stuffs into a bundle that’s about a liter in size. Some compress even smaller. Because down jackets compress so small, they are easy to pack. This makes them a great choice for travelers and people who fly often. They take up very little space in your pack.
- Long-lasting- If taken care of, you can get decades of use out of a down jacket. Natural down doesn’t degrade as fast as synthetic materials. It can be compressed and decompressed many times.
- Down is more environmentally friendly- Down is a natural product that comes from geese and ducks. It’s renewable. Fleece, on the other hand, is made of polyester which is essentially a type of plastic.
- Fashionable- Down puffer jackets are always in style. They make for an excellent day to day winter garment even while you’re not on the trail. They make a great addition to your wardrobe.
Down Jacket Cons
- Expensive- Budget down jackets start around $60. For a high-end ultralight model, expect to spend $200-$300. They’re not cheap.
- Some people find down to be unethical- Down is made from the feathers of ducks and geese. It is typically harvested during slaughter. If you have a problem with wearing clothing that is made from animal products, you’ll probably want to stay away from down jackets. Synthetic options are available. They have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. When buying a down jacket, it is a nice idea to make sure that the down was ethically sourced. The manufacturer indicates this on the label. For more, check out this article about ethical down.
- Down does not perform well in wet conditions- When down gets wet, it loses its insulation properties. The reason for this that water causes down loses its loft by causing the feathers to stick together. Because there are no air pockets to trap heat, you don’t stay warm in a wet down jacket.
- Slow to dry- After a down jacket gets wet, it tends to stay wet. It will never dry out in your pack or in wet conditions. If you expect a lot of precipitation, it’s best to leave your down jacket at home. Fleece and wool dry very quickly.
- Down is harder to wash- You can’t just throw your down jacket into the wash with the rest of your clothes. You have to use a special type of soap called down wash. You should also use a front-loading washer. They are more gentle on clothing. After washing, you must slowly dry your jacket over the course of a couple of hours with tennis balls to remove clumps. For more info, check out this guide to washing a down jacket from cleverhiker.com.
- Less durable- With down, you have to worry about mold and mildew. If these develop, you’ll pretty much have to throw your down jacket away. To avoid this, make sure you let your down jacket dry completely before putting it away after use. You also want to avoid overcompressing your down jacket or leaving it compressed for long periods of time. The reason is that the fibers can degrade when compressed. Your jacket will also take more time to loft when it has been overcompressed.
- Down can get smelly- If you don’t wash your down jacket properly or if it gets damp and doesn’t dry out soon enough, it can develop a pretty nasty barnyard smell. Lower grades of down are more likely to smell. The solution is to properly wash your jacket. Buying a jacket with a higher grade of down helps as well.
- Some people can have allergic reactions to down- Dust particles in down can cause allergic reactions in some people. A type of down exists which is designed to be hypoallergenic.
Which is Better? Fleece Vs Wool
This choice comes down to the weather conditions that you expect to encounter, the type of activities you do, your budget, and your personal preference.
If you expect to encounter extremely wet weather, fleece may be preferable due to its breathability and fast dry time. Fleece is also ideal for those who are on a tight budget. It’s much cheaper than wool. Fleece also offers a soft, cozy texture that feels excellent against the skin. It’s also durable and easy to wash.
The main drawback to fleece is that it isn’t very environmentally friendly. It introduces potentially harmful microplastics into the waterways.
Wool is probably the better all-around material. It offers water resistance, breathability, and quick-drying properties. It can also help you regulate your body temperature as weather conditions change. Wool keeps you warm in inclement weather and cool in hot weather. One of the best features of wool is the odor resistance and microbial properties. You can wear a wool sweater for weeks between washes without having to worry about it getting smelly.
The biggest drawback to wool is the price. It’s an expensive material. Durability can also be an issue. Some people also find wearing animal products to be problematic.
If you’re looking for the warmest material, down is the better choice. It provides more insulation than fleece or wool. Down is also better for travelers because it packs much smaller. It’s compressible.
Personally, I’m a big fan of merino wool clothing. To me, the biggest advantage that wool offers over fleece is odor resistance.
I regularly wear my wool clothing while hiking and traveling. During these times, it’s not practical to wash clothes regularly. I end up wearing the same clothes for many days between washes. Sometimes, I store my clothing in my pack while it’s still damp. Wool takes a long time to start developing an odor. Fleece gets stinky after just a couple of days.
I also appreciate the temperature regulation properties of wool. While traveling, I sometimes pass through multiple climate zones or travel through a season change. I can wear a wool base layer for extra warmth in cold weather. I can wear the same base layer as a cool shirt in hot weather. Wool is versatile.
Fleece Jacket Recommendations
This ultralight fleece jacket is made from 100% recycled materials. TKA (Thermal Kinetic Advancement) fleece is a proprietary fleece designed by The North Face. It offers excellent insulation and durability. This jacket features a quarter-length zipper and no pockets. This minimalist design saves weight and allows the jacket to pack down small.
This is the fleece that I currently wear. So far, I’m really happy with it. Recently, it kept me warm during some cold nights on the Wonderland Trail when temperatures dropped to around freezing.
This premium jacket from Marmot is made from 100 weight fleece. It is designed to be both lightweight and durable. The jacket features a full front zipper and three zippered pockets for gear storage.
This high-performance base layer from Smartwool is made from 100% merino wool. It is manufactured with an interlocking knit. this helps to increase comfort, breathability, heat regulation, and odor resistance. It is machine washable. This base layer can also be worn as a shirt.
This 100% merino wool shirt is well made and designed for easy care. It is machine washable and can be dried in the dryer. This is a versatile base layer. You can wear it against your skin as a base layer or on its own as a regular long sleeve shirt.
FAQ About Fleece and Wool
1. Is fleece or wool better?
Neither is really better than the other. Wool is warmer, more durable, and more environmentally friendly. Fleece is more breathable, lighter weight, easier to care for, and better for those with sensitive skin. It also does not contain animal products.
2. What are the main differences between fleece and wool?
Fleece is a synthetic or man-made material, typically made from polyester. Wool is a natural fiber made from the hair of sheep and other animals.
3. Which is better for winter, fleece or wool?
Wool tends to be warmer than fleece. Wool fibers have naturally insulating properties that keep you warm even when wet. It traps more warm air. Fleece doesn’t provide quite as much insulation.
4. Which is better for outdoor activities, fleece or wool?
Both fleece and wool have their advantages for outdoor activities. Wool is excellent for colder conditions due to its insulating properties. Fleece is lighter and more suitable for activities where you’ll generate more body heat and sweat more.
Fleece, wool, and down all have their place in any wardrobe. I like to wear my fleece during the day while I’m active. During cold mornings or evenings, I put on my down jacket for extra warmth. Wool is an excellent base layer material for its odor-blocking properties.
If you’re looking for versatility and performance, wool is hard to beat. It’s warm, breathable, and quick-drying. Odor resistance is an excellent feature that you only get with wool. If you’re on a tight budget, fleece offers a great synthetic alternative to wool. It offers most of the benefits with very few drawbacks. At the end of the day, the best fabric really depends on your specific needs.
Where do you stand on the fleece vs wool debate? Share your experience and experience in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
- Cotton Vs Wool: Pros and Cons
- Goose Down Vs Duck Down
- Winter Travel Tips: Stay Warm, Enjoy the Holidays, and Save Money
- The Best Winter Travel Destinations
- Winter Camping: Tips for Camping in the Snow
Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.