The Best Materials for Outerwear

What materials to look for when designing and creating outerwear
Eric Goodwin

When it comes to outerwear the right material makes all the difference. Each material brings its own set of characteristics and caters to different needs and preferences. From rugged cotton canvas to high-tech waterproof shells, let's dive into the top materials for outerwear and what makes each one unique.

1. Synthetic Fleece

Synthetic fleece stands out as a go-to choice for lightweight insulation. Usually made from polyester fibers, this material offers exceptional warmth while remaining breathable - making it perfect for layering under a shell or wearing on its own in milder conditions. Its moisture-wicking properties ensure that sweat is pulled away from the body keeping you dry and comfortable. Synthetic fleece is warm and quick-drying, making it a classic option for the sport and outdoor industry.

Example: Patagonia Synchilla Pullover

2. Cotton Fleece

Cotton fleece, with its soft texture and cozy feel, adds a touch of comfort to outerwear. While not as performance oriented as its synthetic counterpart, cotton fleece provides excellent insulation and breathability, making it great for casual outings or everyday wear. Its natural fibers offer a level of comfort and breathability that synthetic materials just can’t match, allowing for better airflow and temperature regulation. However, cotton fleece does not perform well in wet conditions as cotton will soak up water and take forever to dry.

Example: Reigning Champ Terry Zip Hoodie

3. Cotton Canvas

Cotton canvas has long been revered for its durability and timeless appeal. This rugged material offers excellent wind resistance and can even offer moderate water repellency, making it a popular choice for jackets and coats designed for outdoor work or leisure. Its sturdy construction makes it abrasion and tear resistant, ensuring longevity even in harsh working environments. Additionally, cotton canvas develops a unique patina over time, adding character to each jacket.

Tip: Look for cotton canvas “Duck” weave, which is a tighter, more durable weave than classic weave

Example: Carhartt Duck Utility Jacket

4. Denim/Bull Denim

Denim has been a staple fabric in the world of fashion for over 100 years, so of course it has found its way into outerwear. Denim offers a great blend of style and functionality - durable but breathable and softens over time. Its dense weave and sturdy construction offer protection against wind and light precipitation, while its classic aesthetic adds a touch of Americana to any wardrobe.

Bull denim is essentially the same as denim, with the same weights and 2x2 twill weave, but bull denim is dyed after being woven into fabric, where classic denim is yarn dyed before it is made into fabric. Yarn dying creates a unique look (think blue jeans) where the face of the fabric is more coloured than the backside of the fabric. Bull denim on the other hand has a clean, consistent colour on the face and back of the fabric.

Example: Iron and Resin Bull Denim Ramble Jacket

5. Wool

Wool has been prized for centuries for its natural warmth and insulation properties. Wool offers exceptional thermal regulation, keeping you warm in cold weather and cool in warmer temperatures. Its moisture-wicking abilities ensure that even when damp, wool retains its insulating properties, making it an excellent choice for cold and wet conditions. Additionally, wool is naturally odor-resistant and antimicrobial which keeps you feeling fresh and comfortable during extended wear.

Example: Burberry Wool Pea Coat

6. Softshell

Softshell fabric combines the flexibility of a fleecy mid-layer and the protection of a weather-resistant shell. This versatile material is ideal for high-intensity activities that require freedom of movement, such as hiking, climbing, or skiing. Softshell jackets typically feature a breathable membrane that repels wind and water while allowing moisture to escape, keeping you dry and comfortable during strenuous pursuits. It's usually stretchy and warm, and while it can’t quite hold up to extreme weather like a proper hard shell, it’s more than capable in average rain.

Example: Lululemon Cross Chill Jacket

7. Waxed Canvas

Waxed canvas offers a unique blend of rugged durability and weather resistance. Traditionally used in maritime and outdoor gear, this time-tested material is treated with wax to repel moisture and enhance its natural water resistance. Waxed canvas also develops a distinctive patina over time, and while it may require occasional re-waxing to maintain its water repellency, this will only add to its amazing patina. Waxed canvas provides reliable protection against rain, snow, and wind, making it an excellent choice for outerwear to withstand the elements. While it won't perform as well in extreme weather like a synthetic, it more than makes up for it in pure style.

Example: Belstaff Racemaster Waxed Jacket

8. Nylon and Polyester Blends:

Nylon and polyester blends are go-to materials for outer shells due to their durability and water resistance. These synthetic fabrics are highly abrasion-resistant, making them suitable for rugged outdoor activities like hiking or climbing. They are also lightweight and can be calendered (a technique to smooth the fabric so down feathers won’t poke through the fabric) making them perfect for insulated jackets. While they won't be waterproof like a fabric with a membrane backing, they often feature a tight weave and DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coatings, which means they can stand up to all but the worst inclement weather.

Tip: Learn more about new regulations restricting DWR in our article here

Example: Canada Goose Toronto Jacket

9. 2.5 & 3 Layer Waterproof Breathable Shell

For ultimate protection against the elements, nothing beats a waterproof breathable shell. Constructed with advanced membrane technology, these shells offer unparalleled waterproofing while allowing moisture vapor to escape, keeping you dry and comfortable in the harshest conditions. 2.5 and 3 layer constructions refer to the number of layers within the fabric, with 3 layers typically offering added durability and protection against damage to the membrane. Whether you're braving a torrential downpour or navigating snowy trails, a waterproof breathable shell fabric provides the ultimate defense against inclement weather, ensuring that you stay dry.

Tip: It’s important to note that when designing and building a waterproof breathable shell jacket, the construction details like water resistant zippers and seam sealing are as important in the performance of the jacket as the material itself.

Example: Arc’teryx Alpha SV Jacket

The choice of material plays the largest role in determining the performance and functionality of your outerwear. Whether you prioritize warmth, style, durability, or weather resistance, there's a fabric option to suit every need and preference. By understanding the unique characteristics of each material, you can ensure that your outerwear meets the demands of your outdoor pursuits, keeping you comfortable, stylish, and protected in any environment.