Selecting Insulated Vests And Jackets
Joyce A. Smith
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.
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
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
- 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.
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
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
- 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Design features of insulated vests or jackets which help trap cold air
- 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
- 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
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
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
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 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
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.