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

By: Orvis Staff

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 promises the most benefits. 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—Is it Natural, or Synthetic?

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 fibers more volume, making the material soft and “fuzzy” like sheep’s wool fleece (sometimes mimicking sherpa and shearling wool).

What Is the Difference Between Fleece and Wool?

Wool fleece is a natural fiber that covers the skin of sheep and similar mammals, functioning like human hair or other animal fur. The fibers are collected via shearing and processed into the fabric we know simply as wool. Wool has been used for thousands of years to produce garments that keep us warm, including, of course, sweaters. 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.

Which Is Warmer: Fleece or Wool?

Does fleece or wool make the warmest sweater material? Since warmth originates with the heat of your body, a better way to ask that question is, which insulates better: fleece or wool? Both fabrics 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.

Fleece vs. Wool: Pros and Cons

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

Fleece Cons:

  • No insulation value when wet
  • Can melt near fire
  • Certain styles may not be breathable

Wool Pros:

  • Semi water repellent, providing better initial insulation in the wet
  • Flame retardant
  • Breathable

Wool Cons:

  • High Maintenance
  • Slow-drying

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.

15 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. 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.

  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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