Fleece vs. Wool: Which Offers the Best Protection From the Elements?

Should you wear a fleece or a wool layer when you head out on your next cool-weather adventure? As you’re pondering which sweater or sweatshirt to grab in preparation, you may well wonder whether fleece or wool will work best or your activity. Which will be most comfortable while providing the best protection from the elements? The answer depends on what the weather’s like and what you’re planning on doing. Is it windy and/or likely to rain or snow? What is your anticipated level of exertion? For example, are you going shopping, or taking a long hike with the dog? All these variables will inform your decision: fleece, or wool?

What Is Fleece?

Fleece, also known as polar fleece, is a synthetic fabric made of polyester or a blend, originally invented to imitate wool. During manufacture, the fabric is brushed to give the synthetic fibers more volume, making the material soft and “fuzzy” like sheep’s wool fleece (sometimes mimicking sherpa and shearling wool).

Fleece vs. Wool

There are some confusing terms when comparing fleece and wool. Sometime’s you’ll hear the term “wool fleece,” which is a natural fiber that covers the skin of sheep and similar mammals, functioning like human hair or other animal furs. The fibers are collected via shearing and processed into the fabric we know simply as wool. The use of the term “wool fleece” is used for this unprocessed wool. The final wool textile, which we simply call “wool,” has been used for thousands of years to produce garments that keep us warm, including, of course, sweaters

Synthetic fleece, which is simply called “fleece”, is a material made from polyester (usually) and its name is inspired by the natural textile it mimics. The difference between fleece and wool, generally, is that wool is a natural fabric that comes from animals and fleece is a man-made material. However, there are many more characteristics of the two textiles like warmth, water repellency, durability, and antimicrobial properties, which we’ll describe below.

Which Is Warmer?

Since warmth originates with the heat of your body, a better way to ask compare the two fabrics is to consider which insulates better. Both fleece and wool retain heat effectively in the absence of rain or wind. If you get caught in the rain, wools like Merino provide better insulation, at least initially, because it contains lanolin, a natural water repellent. But once it’s soaking wet, wool takes a long time to dry. Fleece, on the other hand, becomes saturated with rainwater more quickly than wool, making it useless as an insulating layer when wet, but it dries out much faster when you find shelter from the rain.

In general, wool provides better insulation from the wind, unless you wear a fleece with integrated wind-resistant insulation. But if you’re engaged in a high-intensity activity like running, hiking or biking, this sort of wind-resistant insulation can become too much of a good thing, causing you to sweat—which is counter-productive in cold weather.

Either way, both fleece and wool are far better than cotton in all aspects except cooling. Fleece and wool are warmer, more water-resistant, warmer when wet and wick perspiration better than cotton.  

Pros and Cons of Each

The comfort and performance of both fleece and wool apparel depend in large part on the quality of the apparel. All things being equal, the following is a summary of the pros and cons of wool and fleece sweaters or sweatshirts:

Fleece Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Quick-drying
  • Easy Maintenance
  • Does not shrink like wool
  • Very soft and not itchy like some wools

Fleece Cons:

  • Low water resistance
  • No insulation value when wet
  • Can melt near the fire or in the dryer on too high of a heat
  • Can pill over time

Wool Pros:

  • Semi-water-repellent
  • Insulates when wet
  • Flame retardant
  • Breathable
  • Naturally anti-microbial (resists stink)

Wool Cons:

  • High Maintenance
  • Slow-drying
  • Shrinks if washed and dried incorrectly

Wicking

It’s difficult to compare all fleeces to all wools for their wicking properties. In general, a synthetic fleece with short lengthwise fibers wicks the best, slightly edging out merino wool. Fleece base layers use these short fibers to create a capillary action to wick sweat away from the skin. Merino wool, however, contains natural antimicrobial properties which will keep your sweaty base layers from stinking. So if your adventures take you off the grid for multiple days, you may prefer merino over synthetic fleece, while if you’re more of a daily runner, then synthetic might be preferable.

We have many more choices in the modern world than we used to—in just about all realms of life—thanks to technology. Performance clothing is but one example. When it comes to deciding what to wear to keep warm in cool weather, we must no longer settle for clothing that meets some of our needs but not others. Just like ‘there’s a tool for every job,’ there is a warm clothing layer—in wool or fleece— for every occasion.

22 thoughts on “Fleece vs. Wool: Which Offers the Best Protection From the Elements?”

      1. Considering the multi-faceted business that moisture management is it seems likely that there would be more than one answer to that question; a subtly different knit pattern can make the same base fabric behave significantly better, one fabric might transfer moisture well but cling at a low % of saturation, etc, etc.
        “Wicking” is, per se, marketing speak.

          1. It all depends on the activity. But when I’m in the woods here’s what I found works for me:

            Lighter merino or fleece down to around 50 degrees (standing arond camp). When it hits the 40s to about 25, I opt for traditional knit wool items under a rain jacket that vents. Below 25 degrees, I reach for those kitted sweaters to go over a wool button-up shirt along with either a down vest or jacket (with a rain shell on top).
            Once it gets down below 0, that’s when felted wool makes its way into my kit.
            Wool can be expensive, but the knitted wool sweaters I have for the colder weather should last generations. Plus they’re easy to mend.

          2. some people apply a lotion before wearing fabrics that might cause itching, the theory is that the fiber ends won’t stick into your skin, but glide along instead, it may be worth a try.
            Lorri

      2. It says wool is initially water retardant due to the presence of lanolin in the fiber, so my guess would be that it wouldn’t wick since it naturally repels moisture….just my tcw.

      3. Neither wool nor fleece is meant to be solely a wicking fabric, but I believe that a light weight merino is far better. I have warn and cared for both for as long as Polartec has been around, and in many circumstances. They are both BREATHABLE, but only WICKING if designed for that. You can wear a wicking layer of your choice under either, and moisture escapes between the fibers, depending on the DENSENESS of the knit or the weave of your outer layer. .
        Polar fleece 300 weight and merino 300 weight will both allow moisture to escape less quickly that merino or fleece 100 weight, of course. I prefer to wear several layers of washable merino, if needed, wearing a short sleeved 100- 150 weight wool next to my body. I like to layer merino of heavier weights on top of my base layer, depending on the temperature and my activity. When traveling, I pack several short sleeved base layer tops that can also be warn as a tee shirt when needed. I might carry one wool pullover or cardigan in 200 weight merino, and one 300 weight or higher piece. Each piece can be washed by hand (as you take your shower) and will dry on a hanger overnight. These pieces pack with about the same space as one Patagonia Synchilla jacket, but allow a variety of breathable combinations for warmth. That said, a polartec jacket and a loose raincoat can both be layered easily over several layers of merino, and meet most any need, except for living in northern Sweden, of course. I am an outdoors woman, world traveler, and have lived in all climates. Currently, during covid, I am knitting and will only knit with wool.

  1. I think you’re short-changing wool a bit here. Even when wool is wet, it still keeps you warm. My experience was this: One day I volunteered for an event that required me to stand out in blowing, cold rain with temperatures in the 40s, handing out literature. My fingers had to stay free, and I wore Smartwool glove-mittens (actually purchased at Orvis) which had the option of open fingers. I was comfortable (relatively speaking), and when I returned home I took off the gloves and was surprised to find they were soaking wet. My hands were still warm.

  2. I live in South East Alaska and wool is the way to go. The saying is “cotton kills” because it doesn’t insulate when wet, wool does.

  3. It all depends on the activity. But when I’m in the woods here’s what I found works for me:

    Lighter merino or fleece down to around 50 degrees (standing around camp). When it hits the 40s to about 25, I opt for traditional knit wool items under a rain jacket that vents. Below 25 degrees, I reach for those kitted sweaters to go over a wool button-up shirt along with either a down vest or jacket (with a rain shell on top).
    Once it gets down below 0, that’s when felted wool makes its way into my kit.
    Wool can be expensive, but the knitted wool sweaters I have for the colder weather should last generations. Plus they’re easy to mend.

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  5. I’d like to add a con to wool: it comes from sheep that are bred to produce an overabundance of wool to make more profit. Shearers are usually paid by volume, which means they will treat the goats impatiently, rush through it, resulting in injuries, and when the sheep are not as productive, they’re killed–often through live export, traveling on ships across oceans to countries where their meat has a higher value, and where animal welfare laws are nonexistent. Look up “mulesing” which is illegal in some, but not all, countries.

    I love fleece, but there are other, better fabrics than either of these, IMO, for warming and/or wicking.

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