Technology for winter performance fabrics just keeps getting better! As an extension of our guide to cold weather dressing, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite performance fabrics to keep you warm and dry during the frosty months.
Before diving too deeply into specific textiles, let’s review a little on the important of layering up in cold weather.
The primary function of the innermost layer should be to wick moisture away from your body. Choose a synthetic fabric like Capilene, Thermax, or Prolite, all of which will wick perspiration away quickly.
Ideally, the base layer should sit as close to your skin as is comfortable, while still allowing you to breathe easily
The middle layer should both insulate you and continue to wick moisture away and towards your outer, ‘shell’ layer.
Here, we’re looking for fabrics that trap air in order to keep you warm.
“Fleece”, or brands like Polartec, Primaloft, Thermolite, and Thinsulate are all good options.
The outer layer’s purpose is to protect you from wind, rain, or snow. Fabrics in the outer layer should allow for both insulation and ventilation.
Of course, we’ve done a deep-dive in our attached guide. But, a few additional notes.
First, err on the side of a looser fit on outerwear, and consider sizing up. You want to have enough room for a base and middle layer.
Second, investing quality is paramount. A $200 coat that lasts you 10 years is worth far more than a thin, cheap one that comes apart after a year.
Winter Performance Fabric Breakdown
Acrylic fabric is a man-made synthetic fabric originally developed to be a wool alternative.
Generally considered to have a wool-like feel, however, many new advances in acrylic fabric production has resulted in fabrics that are very fine, smooth, and softer on the skin than even the finest wools.
It is hydrophobic (does not absorb water), lightweight, soft, warm, easy to care for, and durable.
Due to these characteristics, Acrylic is used in socks, hats, gloves & glove liners, sweaters, boots, and other winter base-layer garments.
Capilene is polyester with a chemical bond.
Companies like Patagonia use Capilene in their insulated products. They claim it’s superior to polypropylene and other hollow-core polyesters because it both wicks moisture away and insulates.
Hydrophobic fibers like polypropylene easily absorb moisture, but they’re not great at wicking it away.
Capilene though, disperses moisture quickly because it combines hydrophobic and hydrophilic molecules in each fiber.
The product is both machine washable and dryable. And, it has an anti-microbial finish to cut down on odor-causing bacteria.
CoolMax was originally designed for wear under police and military uniforms. It keeps an air pocket between your skin and outer garments. This allows for natural evaporation.
It actually works in both cold and warm weather. The CoolMax “RVU” is a ventilated undergarment with ventilation and ribbing. This improves airflow and keeps you cool. Other CoolMax garments use that air pocket to keep you warm.
Cordura is made by looping and tangling additional filaments into an already high-bulk, high-twist yarn to create something even stronger.
This arrangement gives a “Cordura” weave a bulk that’s equal to or greaer than other spun yarns. It also offers greater abrasion resistance than either cotton or other man-made fibers.
This type of construction really pays off! A comparison of Cordura to cotton duck fabric of equal thickness shows Cordura weighs half as much, has three times the tear strength and three times the abrasion resistance of the basic fabric.
A brand name, it’s one of the first- and probably the most famous- high-tech athletic clothing winter performance fabrics.
An accidental invention, you make it by stretching tetrafluoroethylene–TEFLON- fibers to create a fine, grid-like membrane over a surface.
This membrane works by attaching to outer and liner fabrics and preventing large drops (like rain) from penetrating but allowing tiny droplets (like perspiration) to pass through and evaporate.
Micro Flow Transmission (MFT)
Micro Flow Transmission works on the same theory as Gore-tex but at a more modest price.
As with GoreTex, tiny pores allow perspiration to escape but block water and wind from entering.
Modal, a wood pulp based cellulosic fiber, is made out of pure wooden chips from beech trees — specifically the European Schneider Zelkova tree.
It is in the same family of fibers as viscose rayon. However, viscose rayon can be made from a number of different trees, whereas Modal uses only beech wood. It is a better variety of viscose rayon that has high tenacity and greater strength when wet.
Is Modal fabric warm in Winter?
Modal has a similar thermo-regulating characteristic to TENCEL. It provides warmth & insulation in the winter, and helps you feel cooler when it’s hot out.
For complete details on Modal, check out our Modal Fabric article.
A brand name fabric, Polartec is polyester that is napped and finished on both sides. This process creates tiny pockets, which trap warm air.
Most importantly, though, these pockets allow your body to breathe!
This is one of the first “wicking” performance fabrics. It was originally sold under the brand “LIFA.
The fabric has evolved over the decades. The first versions could only be washed and had to be line-dried. The new versions, “Prolite”, can go in a dryer without melting the material. This is welcome change!
A brand name for a lightweight non-absorbent synthetic insulation. This material is very similar to natural goose down and it stays warm even when wet.
It’s most often used for the filling in insulated “puffer” jackets.
DuPont created this fabric back in the 1980’s. It’s a stretchy, nylon-like fabric that has superior color retention, but doesn’t stick to your body the way nylon can.
Supplex is a wicking, breathable fabric. It comes in many styles, including wovens and knits. You can also find it in with different treatments: water-repellent, sun protective, anti-microbial.
You can use it to line other fabrics (like an outer shell of a breathable garment) or as a standalone functional garment.
Solarweave and Solar Knit
Both from the Solar Protective Factory, these are breathable winter performance fabrics.
They are light-weight, cotton-like, wicking, color-retentive, easy-care, odor and mildew resistant.
More importantly, though, they’ve been shown to block over 95% of the suns harmful UVA an UVB rays! They’ve passed extensive FDA tests and retain their benefits even after two years of wear and tear.
TENCEL (a Lenzing brand) is a variation of a Lyocell fiber, made from cellulose and wood fibers. It has a wonderfully soft, fluid quality to it when woven with other fibers – which is soft as silk, and as breathable as cotton.
Is TENCEL Warm in Winter? TENCEL has a thermo-regulating characteristic allowing it to keep you warm in the winter, yet cool in the summer. It’s a great year-round fabric, and especially a good choice for underclothing.
TIP: TENCEL, Modal, Rayon, Viscose, & Viscose (from Bamboo) are all made from wood fibers, yet each fabric has it’s own specific characteristic.
A hollow core fiber 1/6th the diameter of a human hair that retains heat for insulation.
It has a soft, silky feel and its large surface area helps wick moisture away from the body. It’s both machine washable and dryable and doesn’t retain the odors polyester-based material can.
Where can I find or source Thermax fabrics?
Thermax is/was a fiber made by Dupont in 1980s. You can learn more here.
That being the case, it’s very likely that Thermax hollow-core fibers are not being made any longer, or are not available the the general public.
Of course, if you’re looking for some insulating fibers, there are plenty to choose from. If you’re not sure where to start, you could search for different fabric brand name trademarks here, find the manufacturer, and then see if they can direct you to where you can source material/fabric.
You may want to also look at some of the innovative fabric technologies from Low Impact Technologies.
Thermolite & Thinsulate
Both brand names for a polyester fiber insulation that provides warmth without bulk.
The filling is very similar to Primaloft filling.
Ullfrotté Original is knit with a smooth outer synthetic layer, and a soft terry-loop wool loose-knit inner lining.
Made with a blend of fine Merino wool, synthetics, and air. The combination optimizes heat retention & thermal comfort.
Ultrex is very similiar to Gore-Tex. It, too, uses a microporous coating to create a waterproof, windproof, durable and breathable winter performance fabric system.
Like Gore-Tex, the pores are small enough to block out wind and rain, but large enough for vapor molecules to escape. A durable finish forces water to bead up on the outside and keep the fabric dry.
Churchill ordered British scientists to develop a material to help RAF pilots survive icy waters if shot down over the North Atlantic during WWII.
The resulting product, Ventile is a light, waterproof, windproof winter performance fabric made of dense long-staple cotton.
Even though it’s thick, the fabric still breathes! Air molecules easily pass though, but still block the larger water molecules. The fabric swells when wet, making it even more impenetrable.
Heddels has a wonderfully in-depth feature on the fabric here.
An article about winter performance fabric would not be complete without mentioning one of the most thought of cold weather insulating fabric — Wool.
Why does wool keep you warm even when it’s wet? Wool’s crimped fiber structure is made up thousands of tiny air pockets. These air pockets trap heat very efficiently between the fibers, providing a natural occurring insulation layer, even when wet.
Wool is moisture wicking, and is uniquely able to absorb and retain a higher amount of moisture relative to its weight, compared to other man-made synthetics.
One of the most commonly types of wools used in outdoor gear is Merino Wool. Merino Wool comes from Merino Sheep, and known for its softness, shine and breathability. The fibers of Merino wool are softer, finer, and more smooth than many other wools & fabrics.
We hope this gives you a thorough overview of the types of winter performance fabrics out there.
Ideally, we’d recommend a product that has a filling like PrimaLoft or Thinsulate and an exterior webbed shell like Gore-Tex.
Winter weather can whip up in no time, so keeping a jacket or a blanket in your vehicle certainly advisable.
Thanks for reading, and stay warm!