Last year I was asked to contribute to this article for New York Magazine and I figured with the temperature finally dropping this season it would be a great resource for those interested in insulated winter parkas!
If you’re looking to either buy a winter jacket or make one - here are some of the main FAQ’s when it comes to winter outerwear.
What makes good winter outerwear — what features should the average buyer look for when investing in a winter parka?
- Warmth that's suited to the climate - If you live in a cold dry area like the Midwest or the Rockies then you'll likely be looking for a different parka than if you live in the less cold but very wet PNW. Match the warmth and insulation to where you’ll be wearing the jacket.
- Durability & repairability - Parkas should last years so choose a jacket & brand that's known for durability. A lot of reputable brands offer repair services which can help keep that expensive parka going even longer - you shouldn't have to throw out your parka because the zipper slider came off!
- Timelessness - A good parka will be with you season after season, so stick with classic timeless styles and leave the trends to other types of clothing.
Do you have to spend a lot of money to get a good coat?
- Yes and no - winter outerwear is difficult and time consuming to make and often requires very specialized equipment, complicated construction techniques, and expensive materials. All this can add up to an expensive coat, especially if it's made in a country with higher wages. But a good coat can also last years, which means it's more of an investment over time than other apparel. That said you can definitely find good deals on winter outerwear, especially at the end of the season.
What are the elements that make a warm parka warm?
- Insulation is the main element of a parka that keeps you warm - usually down or synthetic insulation. The little fuzzy feathers under a bird's main feathers are called down (which also keeps the bird warm). Down usually comes from geese or ducks. Synthetic insulation is usually thin polyester or nylon fibres tangled together to form a lightweight puffy sheet. Some parkas also feature fleece lining, reflective lining, or other features which can help keep you warm.
What are the elements that make a waterproof parka waterproof?
- The main elements that make a waterproof parka waterproof are DWR and a membrane that backs the face fabric (face fabric is the outermost fabric of the jacket). DWR stands for Durable Water Repellent which is an invisible coating on the face fabric that beads and repels water. It’s an important part of what makes a parka waterproof but it doesn’t last forever so it will need to be reapplied periodically. The second element is a waterproof or waterproof breathable membrane that is bonded to the back of the face fabric. This membrane prevents any water that has gotten past the DWR from soaking into the jacket.
- You can read more about DWR and some of the upcoming challenges in it’s usage here
What are the elements that make a windproof parka windproof?
- Parkas usually tend to be pretty windproof because they have a lot of fabric and insulation layers to block the wind, but what you want is to block the wind before it gets to the insulation. This means you either want a membrane backed face fabric (the same membrane that makes it waterproof/waterproof breathable) or you want a dense, tightly woven face fabric that will block the wind.
How does insulation work in a winter parka — does puffiness equal warmth?
- Sort of, but not completely. Think of it this way: for insulation to work you want as many layers of individual bubbles of air between you and the environment as possible. This makes it so that the cold air has to cool down one bubble of air, then the next, then the next, on and on all the way to you. So you could make a puffy jacket out of bubble wrap but it won't insulate you very well because there's only one bubble layer of air for the environment to cool down before it gets to you. This is where the quality of insulation really comes into play. Let’s look at down as an example - 900 fill down is lighter and fluffier than 500 fill down (as we explain below) because 900 fill down has more bubbles of air in it than the equivalent weight of 500 fill down. This means that a thinner layer of 900 fill down will keep you as warm as a thicker layer of 500 fill down because the amount of bubbles of air between you and the environment would be the same.
What’s the breakdown between synthetic insulation and down insulation?
- Despite our efforts humans haven't been able to engineer anything better than what a humble goose can make - which means down is still king when it comes to sheer warmth. No synthetic insulation can match the loft of down, but that's not as important as you might think for a parka. Down is ultra lightweight, ultra compressible, and ultra warm, but it loses its warmth when it gets wet. Synthetic insulation on the other hand can still keep you warm when it gets wet, which is often more important especially if you live in a wet or humid climate. And while synthetic insulation is getting better with advancements like hollow fibers, down is also getting better thanks to humans - with advancements like water resistant coatings on the down itself and static coatings that make the down repel itself, making it even fluffier and warmer.
Is “fill power” real or just a marketing term?
- Fill power is real and is an actual measurement for down. Fill power measures the amount of cubic inches one ounce of down will fill, so for example a 950 down will fill 950 cubic inches and weigh only once ounce, that's over 4 gallons of volume that weighs just one ounce! How the fill power changes is usually by how much actual down (the tiny fluffy feathers) vs actual feathers (the pointy, long flying feathers) are mixed into the down. A feather pillow would have a terrible fill power because it's mostly feathers, but a high end 900 fill power jacket will have almost all down and no feathers in its insulation. But in terms of parkas, fill power isn't as important as the actual amount of insulation. Fill power is more important for items like lightweight mid layers and sleeping bags - where weight, compressibility, and warmth are important. Parkas are usually heavy, bulky, and not very compressible so fill power doesn't apply quite as much.
What are the different kinds of synthetic and down insulation — and what is the warmest version of each?
- For down you're really looking for two main things, fill power and ethical standards. There isn't much of a difference between goose or duck down, so the fill power or the percentage of down to feather will tell you more about the quality. For down the higher the fill power the warmer it is for its weight. You also want to find a company that uses responsibly sourced down and doesn't support practices like force feeding or live-plucking. It’s also important to note that down is a byproduct of the poultry industry and would otherwise be thrown out or incinerated.
- Synthetic insulation is trickier, there are a lot of different companies making great synthetic insulation but there isn't really a standard like fill power for synthetic insulation. The two big players are 3M Thinsulate and Primaloft. For winter jackets Primaloft probably has the edge while Thinsulate is usually a bit better for thinner applications like gloves or boots.
Apart from insulation and the outer shell, what are some additional comfort features that make a good parka — ex. styles of hood, pockets, etc?
- Cuffs and waistbands are an important thing to look at for two reasons. You want something that will lock out the cold and keep cold air and snow from rushing up your sleeve, so look for velcro, snaps, elastic, etc. And also try to gauge the quality of the cuffs and waistband because those are usually some of the first areas to wear out on a jacket.
- A fur/faux fur trimmed hood will block the wind in the same way a furry microphone cover will block wind noise. Fur is amazing at dissipating wind, and nowadays faux fur will perform the same as real fur.
- Look for pockets you can actually put your hands in, especially if you're wearing mitts. It seems obvious but it's not always the case.
Is there an ideal parka for slightly warmer winters, ex. California and West Coast?
- For areas like the west coast I would suggest synthetic insulation and focus more on water resistance. Down isn't really the best option for those climates unless you are layering a down mid layer under a waterproof shell.
What about an ideal parka for rainier climates versus freezing ones?
- Rainier climates stick with synthetic insulation and less insulation over all - vs freezing climates it's all about warmth. Even in freezing climates though down isn't a must, there are lots of very warm synthetic jackets out there!
What parka do you yourself wear?
- I wear a custom parka I designed and built myself with a nylon supplex shell and two layers of 6oz Primaloft Gold insulation - the benefits of being an outerwear designer ;) You can learn to make your own here