Selecting Insulated Vests And Jackets : Apparel Industry Fact Sheet from Ohio State
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Selecting Insulated Vests And Jackets


Joyce A. Smith
Norma Pitts

Insulated jackets and vests provide a practical, fashionable approach to keeping warm during cold weather. Available at a variety of price levels, these machine washable garments are serviceable apparel for cold weather sports as well as daily activities.

Insulation materials, outer fabrics, style details and construction affect warmth, quality and price. Determine your needs and shop carefully before you buy.

Insulation Materials

Most insulated garments are filled with down or some type of synthetic fiberfill. The purpose of this layer is to trap air or body heat and prevent it from escaping. Still or dead air acts as an insulator to keep cold air out and warm air in. Thickness allows for more dead air space and thus increases warmth.


Down is the undercoating of water fowl. It provides the greatest amount of dead air space of any insulation material for its weight. A down pod consists of light, fluffy filaments that grow from one quill or point. These filaments intertwine and mesh, forming air pockets which trap air. One ounce of goose down contains 23,000 pods and two million filaments.

The best quality down comes from geese living in cold climates, especially China and other parts of Asia. Goose down has pods 1-2 inches in diameter, compared with 3/4 inch pods in duck down. Although goose down is 10-12% more effective than duck down, its availability is limited. Contrary to popular opinion, color has no affect on the insulation value, construction, or quality of down. Government Regulations state that insulation material labeled as down must contain at least 80% down and no more than 20% feathers. More expensive mixes go as high as 85% down and 15% feathers. Feathers are less resilient (do not retain loft) which causes them to break and reduce the amount of dead air space available. "Prime" down is of high quality, with one ounce filling 550 cubic inches of space. Sometimes the term "Northern" down is used on labels. It does not indicate quality, as all down comes from Northern climates.

Properties of down include:

  • Lightest of any insulation and warmest for its weight. Under the same conditions, polyester is 71% as effective, acetate - 44%, and wool - 32%.
  • Breathes, allowing moisture from the body to pass through and evaporate.
  • Resilient; compresses to a small area, springs back and retains loft.
  • Conforms to body shape without undesirable bulk.
  • Machine washable and dryable.

Disadvantages of down include:

  • High cost.
  • Loss of insulating properties when wet. Moisture causes down to matt or clump together with resulting loss of loft and warmth.
  • Length of time required to dry.
  • Attracts dust through static electricity and may aggravate allergies.

Milkweed Floss

Research is being conducted on the use of milkweed fiber as an insulating material. The milkweed fiber or floss is filled with tiny hollow tube-like structures that act as insulators. A natural wax coating adds water repellency. Although additional research is needed to establish resiliency, or ability to retain loft, milkweed can be blended with other fibers for commercial use. Garments using milkweed pod as insulation are not yet generally available.

Synthetic fiberfill

Synthetic fiberfill materials provide good insulation properties. They consist of a batt or matt of synthetic fibers, crimped or texturized, and intermeshed to form a thick, fluffy mass of fiber. Polyester, acetate and olefin are used in fiberfills; however, polyester and olefin are the most desirable fibers for insulated jackets and vests. When used as insulation, these fibers are specially designed to form a thick, resilient fiber batt which traps air and provides warmth.

Properties of polyester fiberfill include:

  • High resilience and loft.
  • Lightweight to provide warmth without weight and excess bulk.
  • Clean, odorless and non-allergenic.
  • Retains loft when wet; does not matt together or compress as much as down.
  • Relatively inexpensive.
  • Will not mildew.
  • Machine washable and dryable.

Disadvantages of polyester fiberfill include:

  • For equal warmth, polyester weighs more than down.
  • Some fiberfills cannot be drycleaned.

Types of fiberfill:

Several companies manufacture polyester fiberfill for use in insulated garments. Some types require special mention.

Hollofil, marketed by DuPont, is a series of short, hollow fibers meshed together. The short fiber is more down-like in terms of loft, while the hollow structure reduces the weight.

For equal warmth or thickness, Hollofil
is heavier than down but lighter than other polyester fiberfills. Hollofil
is less stable than Needlepunch fiberfill batts (see below) and, like down, requires more quilting lines and compartments to keep the fiber from shifting in the garment. Of the two types of Hollofil currently available, Hollofil II has a special finish which increases cost, but also durability over that of Hollofil 808.

Quallofil, also marketed by DuPont, is designed to most closely duplicate down. It features four internal channels to increase thermal performance. Quallofil is known for its resiliency, softness, loft, and ability to maintain 90% of its insulation qualities when completely saturated with water.

Both Hollofil II and Quallofil are coated with a wax-like finish which allows the fibers to separate and move freely when compressed and released. Manufacturers recommend that garments containing these insulators should not be drycleaned, as the cleaning process will remove this coating.

Thinsulate, Thermolite, Texolite Plus and Thermal R are examples of fiberfill products that provide warmth without the bulk of down or conventional polyester fiberfills. Thinsulate, 65% olefin/35% polyester, and Thermolite, 100% polyester, feature tiny micro fibers blown to form a high density web. The extremely fine fibers provide an increased surface area to efficiently trap air for insulation. Thermolite features an additional sheath that surrounds the micro fiber core. The sheath melts during processing, interlocking it with core fibers. Texolite Plus and Thermal R feature metalized films combined with either polyester fiberfill or foam. The films serve as reflective barriers to conserve energy. In addition, Thermal R offers windproof, breathable and non-allergenic properties. All of these insulation materials are of lightweight construction, and retain warmth under damp, wet conditions. The reduced bulk provides for sleek designs in outerwear, with enhanced freedom of movement.

Needlepunch is not a brand name, but is a type of polyester insulation material. The web structure is formed by interlacing many polyester fibers by punching with barbed needles. This creates a felt-like fabric that is warm, lightweight and inexpensive. This more compact material is often used in sleek, form fitting skiwear or outerwear, with a minimum of quilting lines. Polyester fibers used in needlepunch construction are non-allergenic, machine washable and dry cleanable.

Outer fabrics

When selecting an insulated jacket or vest, consider the fabric used on the outside and for the lining. Select a tightly woven water- and wind-resistant fabric for the outside layer. Water repellent properties are less important in a vest, but wind resistance helps retain body heat and warmth. Abrasion resistance, high tear strength and easy care are other properties to consider. Garments using down filling or insulation should have downproof (down pods won't poke through) outer fabrics. The following fabrics are commonly used in constructing insulated jackets and vests.

Nylon Taffeta is a tightly woven fabric with a smooth finish. The closely packed yarns provide good wind resistance, abrasion resistance and water repellency, although a finish for the latter is often added. Nylon taffeta is breathable, downproof and machine washable. Garments made from this fabric should have seam edges treated or seared with a flame to avoid yarn slippage and raveling. Other properties include snag resistance, high tear strength, heat sensitivity and easy care. The fabric can be machine washed and tumble dried and is extremely lightweight.

Ripstop Nylon is similar to nylon taffeta, although usually lighter in weight. The unique feature is a heavy nylon thread at 1/4" intervals running both lengthwise and crosswise in the fabric. This heavy windowpane pattern is easily recognized in the fabric. Contrary to the impression given by its name, ripstop fabric will puncture or rip, but only as far as the heavy nylon yarn. Ripstop is similar to nylon taffeta in other properties.

Poplin is a cotton or polyester/cotton blend woven cloth often used in insulated jackets and vests. When tightly woven the fabric provides good abrasion and wind resistance, although a water-repellent finish must be applied. Often referred to as mountain cloth, many, but not all, of these fabrics are downproof. They are usually machine washable and dry cleanable, but check care label recommendations.

Versatech is a 100% polyester woven fabric that is breathable and water repellent. The super fine polyester yarn is woven into a very dense and drapable fabric. It prevents water droplets from penetrating the weave, yet water vapor passes between the yarns for breathability and comfort. Possessing the same comfort and protection properties is ULTREX. This 100% nylon fabric features layers of a microporous coating and a water repellent finish. Many fabrics used in outdoor wear feature a Gore-Tex coating. This microporous film, when applied to conventional fabrics such as cotton, polyester/cotton poplin, or nylon taffeta creates a waterproof barrier. Tiny pores in the film prevent water droplets from penetrating, yet allow moisture vapors from body heat and perspiration to escape. fabrics treated with Gore-Tex or other microporous films, including Bion II and Dicrylan, will be more costly than similar untreated fabrics, but provide improved protection and comfort for individuals engaged in outdoor activities.

Versatech, ULTREX, and Gore-Tex are three of an increasing number of outerwear fabrics with similar properties. Check hangtags for water and vapor transfer properties.

Fashion fabrics such as corduroy and suede cloth are used in insulated garments on a limited basis. Their appeal is primarily aesthetic. Special water repellent finishes must be applied.

Some fabric colors and finishes are designed to reflect light and should be selected when safety is a major consideration. Garments to be worn hunting or while walking or bicycling in high traffic areas should reflect light.

Garments with decorative, multicolor designs in the yoke or bodice areas will be more expensive. The designs are purely fashionable and seldom affect the functional qualities of the garment.

Construction Features

Dressing warmly is a matter of trapping body heat. Garment construction features can enhance the insulation properties of the garment and increase protection from the cold.

Style Features

Design features of insulated vests or jackets which help trap cold air include:

  • Drawstrings at hood, waist or jacket bottom to keep out cold air and allow for ventilation.
  • Elastic or belted waists on jackets to prevent cold air from traveling up under the jacket to the upper torso.
  • High collars or ribbed necklines which hold air in. Some garments feature an insulated flap at the collar front to seal out drafts. Hoods provide additional protection.
  • Adjustable cuffs offer flexibility, keeping cold air out when fastened and allowing excess body heat to escape when released. Cuffs may be gusseted or belted with nylon hook and loop tape, snaps or button fasteners. Stretch knit inner cuffs prevent cold drafts from traveling up sleeves.
  • Two-way zippers allow ventilation during periods of increased activity and comfort when seated.
  • Storm flap closures with a generous overlap or that snap or tape securely over center front zippers keep out wind and cold. Some zippers feature an insulated back flap.
  • Handwarmer pockets with additional insulation material provide comfort and protection. Cargo pockets with button flap or zipper secure keys, identification or other valuables during activities.
  • Longer jacket styles provide additional warmth and protection to the body's vital organs. Many vests feature a shirttail design or flap on the garment back for warmth.
  • Raglan sleeve designs give freedom of movement in the shoulder area and eliminate top shoulder seams where water from heavy rains can leak through. Full cut set-in sleeves with extra yoke to cover shoulder seams and stretch panels in the back armscye enhance freedom of movement.
  • Other special features include jackets with inner storage pockets and removable sleeves which then doubles as a vest. .


Quilting stitches are decorative but also make important functional contributions to insulated garments. The design of quilting stitches affects the distribution of down and synthetic fiberfills throughout the life of jackets or vests. Without quilting stitches, down will shift and polyester fiberfill will either shift or pull apart.

Quilting stitches placed lengthwise or vertically in a garment should be avoided. During wear, insulation material, especially down, will shift and slip to the bottom edge of the jacket or vest, reducing insulation in the shoulder and upper torso.

Crosswise quilting lines which go around the body are a recommended stitching design. Insulation is held in place and more evenly distributed over the body. The chevron stitch design results in shorter compartments and holds down and fiberfill in place. One disadvantage is that the V section of the stitching lines tends to be weak and may break during wear.

Quilting lines themselves also affect garment insulation. Thickness means warmth and quilt stitching lines compress the fabric, forming cold spots. Many stitching lines placed closely together make the garment less bulky, stiff, and not as warm. Some manufacturers place felt strips under the quilt stitching lines for reinforcement and insulation. A lining or outside shell not quilted through to the garment creates dead air space and insulation. A lining cut somewhat smaller than the outside garment keeps the body from pushing against stress areas, i.e., the elbow or shoulder, and dislodging down. This is called a differential cut.

When selecting an insulated jacket, check stitching lines. They should be secure, even, and of moderate length (10-12 stitches/in.)


Proper care of insulated jackets and vests will extend wear life and preserve appearance. Always check care recommendations on the hangtag or sewn-in label. The filling or insulation materials will usually influence care recommendations more than the outside or lining fabrics.


Machine Wash. Down garments can be machine washed on a delicate cycle or hand washed using warm water and a mild soap. Special down soaps are available, but not necessary. Do not use enzyme pre-soak products or enzyme detergents.

In hard water areas, use a non-precipitating water softener, i.e. Calgon, in the rinse cycle to prevent soap film and curd from depositing on the down. Rinse thoroughly. Residue build up will cause down to clump, loosing loft and insulating properties.

Down garments are extremely heavy when wet. Support them to prevent tears caused by strain. Also, do not wring or twist garments to remove excess moisture.

Automatic Drying. Down garments can be tumble dried on a medium setting and a gentle cycle. Add two or three bath towels to the drum to absorb moisture and a pair of tennis shoes to break up clumps of wet down.

Down requires several cycles to thoroughly dry. If not dry, mildew may develop. Do not be concerned about over-drying down. Down naturally retains 11-13% moisture which it re-absorbs from the air if overdried.

Line drying of down requires special care. Dry outdoors on warm, sunny, dry days. Support down garments by draping over several lines to distribute the weight. Occasionally fluff the garment to separate wet clumps of down pods.

Drycleaning of down garments should be done professionally. Thoroughly air drycleaned items before use. Residual fumes from solvents may cause illness or death. Take down garments to a reputable dry cleaner. Do not clean at coin operated establishments.

General care of down requires some effort to retain loft. In storage, do not stuff or flatten out unnecessarily. Fluff up before use to increase loft. If down should start to work out of the outside fabric, pull it from the wrong side and work it back in. Once a hole is formed, additional pods work through to the outside.

Polyester fiberfill

Polyester fiberfill insulations are usually machine washable and dryable. Use a delicate cycle and warm wash temperature. Thoroughly rinse to remove soap or detergent residue. Adding a non-precipitating water softener to the rinse water will reduce detergent build up. Close zippers before washing to reduce possible abrasion damage.

Synthetic fiberfills dry quickly in automatic dryers. Use permanent press settings.

Check manufacturers' care recommendations for dry cleaning. Some polyester fiberfills (i.e., Hollofil
) contain a waxlike finish which will be removed by drycleaning solutions.

Trade names are used for educational purposes only and with the understanding that no discrimination is intended nor endorsement implied.

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