As someone who loves the outdoors, you probably understand that you need to prepare for any type of weather. When choosing clothing and other items, you need to focus on the material you will use.
Two popular choices are fleece and cotton, but you may wonder which is best. When considering fleece vs. cotton fabrics, you want to learn a bit more about the characteristics of each of them. This can enable you to compare them to each other and then to your needs to decide which is the best for you.
While we feel fleece is the best choice, you may feel different. That is why we crafted this comparison for you. It will help you to make an informed decision on which fabric suits your needs.
All About Fleece
Fleece began as a polyester fabric creation of Malden Mills, now known as Polartec. Upon its introduction, it was mainly found in sports or outdoor wear. As technology advanced, it allowed for softer fleece that is comparable to natural fibers.
Fleece is a soft, warm, and fuzzy fabric. It may be made of a variety of materials, but the most common is a synthetic fibers blend. The fibers are man-made, according to Contrado. This requires the use of chemicals to create the threads and blend them together to get fleece.
The synthetic fleece comes from plastic, which may be hard to believe since it is fluffy and more like its namesake, the fleece of a sheep. The most common fibers used are polyester woven into the fabric and brushed to get the softness.
Because of the synthetic structure of the fabric, it holds in heat well, but it also has good airflow to keep it from getting too hot and allowing for the evaporation of moisture. It is also lightweight.
Fleece comes in three types:
- Lightweight or microfleece has the most breathability.
- Midweight fleece is slightly stiffer and has excellent water-repellent qualities.
- Heavyweight fleece is the thickest and most insulating.
All About Cotton
The cotton plant has a long history. It is a crop used for a variety of products because every part of the plant is usable. It can create everything from food to personal care items, such as soap, to clothing. The National Cotton Council of America explains it’s been used for creating fabrics since BC times. It is found around the world. In the U.S., the state producing the most cotton is Texas.
Machine spinning began in 1730, and Eli Whitney created the cotton gin in 1793, which revolutionized its use in clothing and other fabric items. While cotton produces many products, fabric is the top use for this crop.
As a plant-based fiber, cotton is an all-natural choice. It is a common choice for making clothing, bedding, blankets, and other home items. It has a range of uses other than as a fabric as well, such as filling for pillows and in medical supplies.
It is the basis for many different fabrics. These cotton fibers can become denim, flannel, canvas, and terry cloth. Of course, it can take on a variety of characteristics as well. Natural fibers are soft and fluffy, but when spun, they can be made rigid and stiff; they can retain the softness. Cotton blends are common, too, as they can work well with other materials.
Fleece vs. Cotton: A Direct Comparison
Fleece and cotton have some similar qualities, but there are also differences worth noting. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the top features of each fabric that you might look for when choosing which to buy for clothing.
Fleece is known for being quite warm and holding in body heat, but it also does an excellent job of wicking moisture away from your body. It will also repel water coming from the outside, such as rain, and dries quickly.
Cotton will soak up water easily. It also takes a long time to dry. It is only water-resistant when treated with wax, which does alter the other characteristics of the fabric.
Fleece wins the water-resistance category. There is no comparing the two in this category since cotton has no water-repelling characteristics.
Fleece is very breathable. It has amazing airflow that will allow air to flow through the fabric while also keeping out excessive airflow, such as the wind. It has a perfect balance that will prevent you from overheating when wearing it while also protecting you in harsh weather situations.
Cotton is more breathable than fleece. It allows for maximum airflow. However, that also means air can easily get in.
Cotton wins for breathability, but both fabrics are fairly decent in this category.
The design of fleece creates piles on both sides of the fabric. This allows it to hold in air, which will warm with your body heat and add an insulating layer. It gets top scores for its insulation properties.
Cotton doesn’t make a great insulator. It is too breathable and doesn’t do a good job of trapping body heat.
The clear winner for insulation is fleece. It has all the great insulating qualities, whereas cotton lacks them.
Fleece is easy to care for, and you can wash it in the regular washing machine, but it can pill, like a piece of wool fabric. So, you may need to do regular care to remove pilling. Another downside is that due to its synthetic nature, it is highly flammable. It requires flame retardant treatment for safety. You can damage it easily by exposing it to high-heat situations.
Cotton is quite durable. It has a strong structure, but it can rip and is prone to moth damage. It also may stretch out of shape easily and suffer shrinking. However, it does generally have a long life and requires no special care or maintenance.
It is a toss-up on which fabric comes out on top for durability. They are about equal in the pros and cons.
Fleece is incredibly soft. It is comfortable to wear in most weather conditions due to its characteristics, but fleece is a top choice for cold weather wear because it insulates and wicks moisture.
Cotton is amazingly comfortable. This is probably the most recognized feature of this fabric. It is a soft and stretchy fabric, which means it has a variety of uses. It also does not conduct electricity, so you’ll never have static cling.
It is a close call when it comes to comfort, but cotton wins. It is more versatile in its uses and great for all types of clothing.
Because fleece comes from synthetic fibers, it is highly sustainable. There is a process that can use old plastic bottles to create amazingly soft fleece fabric threads. It is also vegan since it acts as a wool alternative. However, it takes a lot of chemicals to create fleece, which is not environmentally friendly.
Cotton comes from a crop plant. It requires a lot of land resources to create. However, it is renewable and biodegradable.
You may think fleece wins hands-down when it comes to sustainability since it can literally come from old plastic trash, but cotton edges fleece out due to being biodegradable and renewable. Plus, cotton creates less waste and pollution.
Stand Out Features
Both fleece and cotton have some special features that stand out and make them unique. Here is a highlight of those features that can help you to better narrow down which one best meets your needs.
- Moisture-wicking: Fleece will absorb sweat from your body, allowing you to cool down more quickly and feel more comfortable. It also doesn’t hold in the moisture as cotton does.
- Holds in the heat: Fleece insulates well because it mimics wool. It will retain heat, which is ideal in colder weather.
- Strength: Because fleece is a synthetic fabric, it is super strong. It is difficult to damage unless you specifically mean to.
- Airflow: Cotton is light and breathable. It is wonderful in hot weather when you don’t want heavy clothing but need a light shirt instead.
- Versatility: Cotton can become almost any type of clothing or other fabric item.
- Comfort: Cotton stretches and moves with the body. It is only stiff if used to make specific fabrics intended to be stiff. It glides on the skin and never retains odors. Plus, cotton gets softer as it gets older.
When making a direct comparison, fleece comes out on top. It has more benefits than cotton. However, you should keep in mind that it highly depends on the intended use as to which is the better choice. Understanding the features is the most important thing so you can carefully assess your situation and needs and measure each option against them.
When to Use Fleece
Use fleece when you need something warm and comfortable for winter. It is ideal for cold weather because of being a good insulator. It also wicks moisture and dries fast to keep you toasty warm no matter the conditions you are in. You will want to shop for fleece clothing for activities such as skiing and winter camping.
When to Use Cotton
Use cotton when you want something cool in warm weather. Cotton’s breathability can’t be beaten. It is super comfortable as well and makes an ideal choice when you want something that will not make you hot or feel too constricting. Shop for cotton clothing items for warm-weather activities, such as boating and backcountry hiking.
You may have some lingering questions about cotton and fleece. Check out the following frequently asked questions to get some additional information that may help you make your choice.
What material is best for warmth?
There is really no contest when it comes to which makes the best fabric choice for warm garments. Fleece will hold in your body heat just like wool. It prevents heat loss while also keeping your skin dry. Moisture invites in the cold, so this is an important point.
With cotton, it is too thin and breathable to hold in body heat. It also holds moisture and takes a while to dry. You wouldn’t want to wear cotton in a situation where it is cold, and there is snow.
For these reasons, fleece is more commonly found in winter clothing items, including outerwear. Some cotton may be used, such as in linings because it is more comfortable, but not because of its warmth.
What are the disadvantages of polar fleece?
Polar fleece is just another name for fleece. Its disadvantages are that it is flammable, not as environmentally friendly as cotton, generates static electricity, attracts pet hair, requires more careful care and maintenance to avoid damage, and can be too warm in hot weather.
Is fleece good for winter?
Fleece is the perfect winter fabric choice. The design of fleece is to work much like wool, which gives it similar characteristics with some additional benefits. Whereas wool retains water and can take a while to dry, fleece will repel water, and when it does get wet, it dries very fast.
Fleece will hold in body heat and repel cold. It allows for airflow to prevent overheating as well. Plus, wool is heavy, but the design of fleece is lightweight.
Do cotton blends differ from 100% cotton?
Cotton is so versatile because it blends well with other fabrics. Many items you buy will be only a percentage of cotton and then a percentage of some other materials. Blending fabrics create a material with hybrid characteristics.
What this means is you may find a cotton blend that will work similarly to fleece. In fact, some fleece is made from cotton. However, cotton fleece behaves more like cotton than fleece made from synthetic fibers.
Cotton also may mix well with stretchy fabrics, such as spandex. This type of fabric is incredibly stretchy, but it is also clingy and may not have good breathability.
You should always read the labels of clothing items to see what it contains. This will help you to get a better idea of what to expect from its performance.
Is fleece or cotton better for people with allergies?
Cotton is the better choice for someone with allergies. It is a natural product, so allergic reactions are not common.
Fleece is synthetic, so it can cause allergic reactions. In addition, fleece has static cling, which means it will attract common allergens, such as dust and pet hair. However, since it is man-made, some manufacturers will design fleece to be hypoallergenic. Again, it is important to check the label for any such information.