The Ultimate Buyers' Guide to Fleece

by Katlyn Shea, founder, Dakini

Have you ever put on cold running tights in the morning? You feel freezing, and you haven't even gone outside yet. Not motivating! That's why I originally made Dakini fleece leggings: for me. Putting them on is a reward — stretchy outside, warm cozy velour-finished fleece inside — instead of a cold shock, and now I'm actually excited to brave New England's winter mornings.

Great fleece is the most amazing fabric! 

More people are catching on due to its softness, warmth, and moisture-wicking properties. But have you wondered what is fleece, exactly? How do you care for it? What are the different types, and what makes good (or bad) fleece feel the way it does? What makes some fleece clothing look sharp, and what makes other fleece look, well, schlubby?

We've been hands-on with fleece fabrics for more than three decades. So here's your ultimate guide to understanding fleece, and finding and caring for the right fleece clothing. (Yes, and blankets too.) 

What exactly is fleece?

Fleece is a type of fabric with a soft, fuzzy texture. It can be made from synthetic or natural fibers that are knitted together, then brushed or sheared to create a pile of soft fibers on one or both sides of the fabric. (We'll talk more about shearing a little later.)

This pile of fibers traps air, creating a layer of insulation that helps to retain body heat. That's why it makes for warm and cozy clothing.

Fleece is usually thicker and more durable than other kinds of fabric, such as cotton or silk. It is also more moisture-wicking, meaning that it can help to keep the wearer dry and comfortable by wicking sweat away from the skin. Additionally, fleece is often more affordable than other types of fabric. 

What kinds of fibers are used to make fleece?

Among natural fibers, wool and cotton are common. The challenge with natural fiber fleece is that it tends to wear out quickly, losing its loft and warmth.

There are two main synthetic fibers used in fleece: polyester and acrylic.

Polyester: Polyester yarn is the most widely used synthetic yarn in fleece production. It is known for its durability, excellent moisture-wicking capabilities, and resistance to wrinkles and shrinking. Polyester fleece is lightweight, quick-drying, and provides good insulation.

Acrylic: Acrylic yarns are synthetic fibers known for their lightweight feel, and ability to retain shape and color. Acrylic fleece is less expensive than other options, making it a popular choice for affordable fleece products.

What's the difference between acrylic and polyester? In terms of performance, the big difference between acrylic and polyester is that acrylic is good at trapping heat, whereas polyester is better at wicking moisture. As a result, acrylic is mostly found in warmer clothes, while polyester is used for sports clothing where you sweat a lot. 

The bigger deal is that fabric made from acrylic tends to be stiffer — not a great quality for clothing. (We'll talk more about this a bit later, when we look at how to recognize high-quality fleece. Acrylic is cheap but polyester makes better fleece.)

Often, one of these two materials will be the main ingredient, but one or more other types of fiber can be blended in to make a garment look better, feel better, and live longer.

Nylon: While nylon is not as commonly used as polyester in fleece production, it can be blended with other synthetic yarns to increase durability and resistance to abrasion or wear-and-tear. Nylon also has good moisture-wicking properties and can add strength to the fabric. 

Rayon: Rayon is actually 'semi-synthetic'. It's made of natural material — cellulose fibers derived from wood pulp — but then manufactured into yarn using chemical treatment. Rayon feels soft and silky, but isn't as durable as nylon.

Spandex or Lycra: Spandex, that familiar stretchy synthetic fabric, is technically named "elastane". Lycra is one brand of spandex. It's not used as the sole ingredient in fleece fabric, but a little spandex in the mix of fibers can give fleece clothing a wonderful stretchiness. 

For example, those running tights we started with? They are made from a blend of roughly 50% polyester, 40% nylon, and 10% spandex. This gives them that comfortable feeling on your skin, together with the wicking, durability, and stretch you need.

What are the different styles of fleece?

Hop in your way-back machine and head for the 1980s. You'll find was mostly used in serious athletic/outdoor apparel. It was a performance fabric, and all the fleece clothing looked exactly like that — like you'd just gotten off your mountain bike, or off a mountain anyway. "Style" probably wasn't the right word to describe it.

Sometimes that's great, but some of us don't define ourselves as athletes first, even if we enjoy sports, exercise, activity — you know, moving around and doing stuff. I wanted to go on a morning hike but then meet a friend for coffee or run errands without having to go change. So Dakini helped bring fleece toward the mainstream by adding some style. 

Today, clothing includes a bunch of different kinds of fleece:

  • Polar fleece: This is a synthetic fabric made from polyester fibers that are tightly woven together. It is soft, warm, and lightweight, making it popular for jackets, sweatshirts, and blankets. PolarTec®, originally created in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was the king of polar fleece fabrics. (And practically right next door to my home town, which played a part in creating Dakini — I could get small lots of all kinds of fleece until I found exactly the right one for any given piece of clothing.)
  • Microfleece: A thinner and lighter version of polar fleece, often used in lightweight jackets and layering pieces.
  • Sherpa fleece: A thicker, plush version of fleece that mimics the look and feel of sheepskin. It is often used in jackets, vests, and blankets.
  • Wool Fleece: This is a natural fleece made from the wool of sheep or other animals. It is warm, durable, and moisture-wicking, making it great for outdoor activities.

Bamboo Fleece: This is a natural fleece made from bamboo fibers. It is soft, breathable, and moisture-wicking, making it ideal for activewear and athleisure clothing.

How can I tell if a fleece is high-quality or poorly made?

Feel. The first way to judge is simply how it feels to you — when you touch it with your hand, do you want to put it on

You don't need to be a professional clothes-maker to judge this. If it feels rough or stiff to your hand, it's a poorly made fleece that will feel that way on your body too. 

To me, the word that comes to mind first about bad fleece is spongy. Frankly, that usually tells me it's made from acrylic. Acrylic is durable but it doesn't drape well; it doesn't have a natural soft feel that moves with your body. It feels spongy to your hand.

Look. The manufacturing process for cheap fleece is usually less precise, leading to inconsistencies in the fabric's texture and appearance. For example, years ago we got a shipment of fleece fabric that was thinner at the edges than in the middle, because the blades used in shearing were accidentally set at slightly different heights.

Yarns. Yarns are the ingredients used to make fleece clothing. Looking at the blend of yarns in a fleece should give you a hint about whether it's going to wear well in different settings. 100% acrylic will be durable but super uncomfortable. Polyester has come a long way over the years, but 100% poly won't have much drape; it's probably going to look a bit blocky and move stiffly. See our section above regarding different synthetic blending fibers and what they're good for.

Durability. Cheap fiber and bad manufacturing also lead to fleece that's less durable, and more prone to pilling or shedding. This is harder to tell the first time you pick up a garment, but any fleece that's already pilling or leaving fibers around is definitely a waste of your money. I have twenty-year-old pairs of running tights; they have inevitably lost some of their loft over that time, but they're still great for less-frigid days. Good fleece clothing is an investment that will pay off in longevity.

Finishes. High-quality fleece is typically made from finer and more durable fibers, such as polyester, that have been carefully processed and finished to create a soft, uniform texture. The manufacturing process for high-quality fleece may also involve additional steps, such as double-sided brushing or shearing, to create a more plush and luxurious feel.

High-quality fleece may also be treated with additional finishes, such as anti-pill coatings or moisture-wicking technologies, to enhance its performance and durability. These added features can make high-quality fleece more expensive than cheap fleece, but they can also improve its longevity and overall value.

A glossary of fleece clothing terms

You'll hear or read many of these terms when you are looking at fleece clothing.

Stretch: The degree to which the fleece fabric can stretch and recover its shape. Fleece fabrics that are designed with stretch properties will provide a more comfortable and form-fitting fit, allowing for better movement and flexibility. It also adds 'recovery' — how the fabric reacts after being stretched by bending, twisting, or moving. A fleece with good recovery will look good longer.  

Loft: The thickness and fluffiness of the fleece fabric. Fleece fabrics with a higher loft have a thicker pile of fibers, which makes them more insulating and plush.

Drape: This refers to how a fabric hangs and moves when it is worn. Fleece fabrics with a more rigid or stiff drape may feel less comfortable to wear and restrict movement, while fabrics with a softer, more fluid drape will feel more comfortable, and allow for better range of motion. A fabric with little drape will look stiff and not move together with the wearer. (To be blunt, it will make your body look less fit or shapely, and more like a box.)

Hand: This is clothing-industry shorthand for how a fabric feels when you touch it. "The hand of this fleece is fuzzy but too firm," a fleece buyer might say as they're rummaging through different options.

Shearing: This is a big one. Shearing has a huge effect on how fleece looks and feels. Shearing fleece refers to the process of cutting or trimming the fibers on the surface of the fleece fabric to create a more uniform and consistent texture. During the manufacturing process, fleece fabric is often brushed with wire brushes to create a pile of fibers on one or both sides of the fabric. While this pile of fibers helps to trap air and create insulation, it can also create an uneven or matted texture.

To create a smoother and more consistent texture, the fleece fabric may be sheared, which involves cutting the tips of the fibers to create a shorter and more uniform pile. This is done with special shearing machines that use rotary blades to trim the surface of the fabric.

Shearing fleece can help to improve the appearance and performance of the fabric, making it softer, smoother, and less prone to shedding or pilling. It can also help to remove any loose or tangled fibers that may be trapped in the fabric, creating a more durable and long-lasting product.

Anti-pill: This refers to a treatment or finish that is applied to the fleece fabric to prevent pilling, which is when small balls of fibers form on the surface of the fabric due to wear and friction. Fleece fabrics that are treated with anti-pill finishes will maintain their smooth texture and appearance even after multiple washings and wearings.

Double-sided: This refers to fleece fabrics that have a pile of fibers on both sides of the fabric, making them extra plush and warm. Double-sided fleece fabrics are often used for blankets, outerwear, and other cold-weather clothing items.

Heather: Heather fabric adds a second color component. In our case, a white hair yarn adds dimension to a fabric that's made predominantly with a solid color yarn. Heather fleece looks more interesting and a notch more sophisticated.

Velour: This is a soft, plush 'finish' to the face of fabric, similar in texture and appearance to velvet. Velour is simpler to produce than velvet, more durable, and slightly less sumptuous. It is made from a blend of synthetic fibers (or sometimes cotton fibers) that are knitted or woven together, then sheared to create a dense pile of soft, fuzzy fibers on one side of the fabric, similar to how fleece is made. This pile of fibers gives velour its characteristic plush texture and sheen. Velour is typically lightweight and breathable, making it comfortable to wear in a variety of settings.

How to care for fleece, and other questions
Can fleece go in the washing machine?

Yes. A good fleece garment can be washed many, many times. We have customers with 20-year-old fleece jackets and sweaters that still look great.

Can fleece go in the dryer?

On low heat, yes, fleece clothing can go in the dryer.

But often it doesn't even need that. Because fleece doesn't retain moisture very well, it dries quickly on low heat, or simply hanging on a line outside.

Very high heat can damage fleece fabric, so don't do that.

Is fleece sustainable?

Any clothing made from synthetic fiber is inherently not sustainable. Synthetic fleece does have reasons why its eco-footprint can be better than other options:

  • Quality fleece can be worn and cleaned many, many times (versus being replaced)
  • Fleece doesn't hold water, so it dries much faster and uses less energy than most natural fibers
  • Some natural materials, especially cotton, demand a huge amount of water to grow.
Can I wear fleece in summer?

Yes, yes, yes — think "layers"! 

Fleece jackets, sweaters, and pullovers make a great layer for summer nights, cool rainy days, or out on the water. They're light and easy to add or remove as weather changes.

How does fleece compare to cotton? How are they different?

We love cotton, don't get us wrong. We use it in some Dakini clothes. It's great for staying cool (I mean while you see fleece blankets, you don't see a lot of fleece bed sheets. That's cotton's job.).

Fleece and cotton are both popular fabrics used in clothing and textiles. Besides the feel, key differences between the two are insulation, durability, texture, and "wicking": Cotton tends to absorb moisture and stay wet, while water moves through fleece, away from the body.

Insulation: Fleece is generally more insulating than cotton due to its thicker, loftier construction. It traps air more effectively, which helps to retain body heat and keep the wearer warm. In contrast, cotton is more breathable and does not provide as much insulation.

Moisture-wicking: Fleece is designed to wick moisture away from the body, which helps to keep the wearer dry and comfortable during physical activity. Cotton, on the other hand, tends to absorb moisture and can become heavy and uncomfortable when wet.

Durability: Fleece is generally more durable than cotton, especially when it comes to pilling and shedding. Fleece fabrics are designed to hold up to wear and tear and maintain their softness and shape over time. Cotton, however, can be prone to pilling and may shrink or lose its shape after washing.

Texture: Good fleece has a soft, fuzzy texture that feels comfortable and cozy. Cotton can be soft as well, but it tends to have a smoother, flatter texture. (Again, perfect for bed sheets.)

Overall, fleece and cotton have different properties that make them better suited for different uses. Fleece is often used for activewear, outdoor gear, and cold-weather clothing, while cotton is more commonly used for everyday clothing and textiles.

What Else?

Alright, now you know a lot about fleece! What have we missed? Send your questions to and we'll update this guide to fleece from time to time.

Want to see great fleece in action? Dakini has amazing clothes for women and men of all ages. Find your favorite and you'll see how top-quality clothes look, feel, and perform!a

[bio] About the author: Katlyn Shea learned to sew from her grandmother at an early age. She founded Dakini in 1993 with the goal of 'elevating fleece' with clothes that look as good as they perform.