Fuzz Buzz

An extremely cool makeover brings high performance and style to the latest generation of fleece

Soon after its 1981 debut, fleece turned up in every ski town and campground in the country. And why not? The polyester fabric—soft, insulating, lightweight, quick-drying—was a revelation to the wool-and-flannel-clad masses. But as it transformed the clothes racks of America—$14.99 at Old Navy!—fleece became more commodity than cutting-edge, and over the last few years its lingering aesthetic of cozy frumpiness was eclipsed by sleek soft shells. Fleece had become the Paris Hilton of fabrics: It was seen everywhere but going nowhere.


"Fleece definitely has some adrenaline behind it again," says a sports-industry fabric expert.


Until now. Recent advances by textile makers and apparel designers have put the material back at the forefront of performance and style. Exhibit A: Polartec's Hardface technology, which employs a surface polymer to create a fabric that combines the best aspects of soft shells (weather and abrasion resistance, trim look) with the benefits of traditional fleece, like a high warmth-to-weight ratio and good breathability. Other innovations include body-mapping construction that puts more fleece where you need it and less where you don't, knitting techniques that mimic styles like corduroy and herringbone, and mix-and-match combinations that pair the fuzz with other fabrics. Whether you covet a new ski top or a jacket for casual Fridays, you'll find your fleece on the following pages.

You can ski-tour or bar-tour in this sleekly understated jacket. The midweight Wister is warm enough for dawn patrol, its four-way stretch fabric never binds, and breathable Polartec Power Stretch vents under the armpits help regulate body temperature. The armorlike Hardface Wind Pro shrugs off tree-skiing snags and takes the sting out of icy breezes. It's a bit toasty for pounding uphill in mild conditions, but you'll be glad to have that tall collar if you opt for the chairlift. $195; www.cloudveil.com

The Tau represents the best of new-fleece versatility. With its stretchy athletic cut, warm interior nap, and solid weather protection, it works equally well as a mid- or outer layer. On a crisp autumn day, during a long climb on the North Cascades' Le Petit Cheval, I never had to swap layers. During a light rain, it took 30 minutes for moisture to penetrate the Hardface Wind Pro fleece, and it dried soon after. At just 14 ounces, this one-pocket pullover is the choice if you want minimalist construction and maximum function. $175; www.arcteryx.com

Like the other five pieces here made with Polartec's Hardface fleece, the Granular blurs the line between soft shell and midlayer. The category-bending jacket didn't let in a drop in rain-hammered Portland, Oregon, even after I walked for several sopping blocks. Later, it kept me warm on chill evenings in Washington's Methow Valley. And the deceptively casual style belies the technical details: Hand pockets and hem drawcords are strategically placed—high and in front—so as not to interfere with a pack hipbelt or climbing harness. Close-fitting wrists and contoured shoulders make for a snug fit. $189; www.patagonia.com

Here's a fresh idea from Iceland: Hide a technical jacket in sheep's clothing. Inside this wool top lies a windproof, brushed-fleece lining. I've never cut such a clean line, or been so toasty, while walking the dog. Plus you get mountain-worthy details like an adjustable hood and drawcord hem. Still, it's not the best choice for prolonged wet weather. (Remember those wool mittens after a snowball fight?) The cut is Nordic svelte, with articulated sleeves and a snug waist; the result is a cool new urban-assault piece. $325; www.66northus.com

The Inconceivable is made with new Gore-Tex Soft Shell fabric. It's not a fleece on the outside, but inside you'll find a significant innovation: a cozy microfleece lining that's sealed with fleecy seam tape. The result? A three-layer waterproof-breathable shell with a soft, warm, low-bulk interior. Since the combo keeps you comfortable with fewer layers, you get the full benefit of the move-with-your-body stretchy material. It's too heavy for three-season use, but this jacket is made for cold weather, right down to the fleece-lined, adjustable hood. $429; www.thenorthface.com

A Jekyll-and-Hyde vibe radiates from the Covert. On one hand it's a sweet sidewalk surfer made with sweater-knit Polartec Thermal Pro, a classic midweight fleece with a new spin: The fabric has a wool-like finish that helps the hoody achieve a look of sophisticated punk. But zip this cardigan to the chin, tug the scuba hood tight, stash a few energy bars in the two deep front pockets, and the Covert becomes a luxurious midlayer for skiing or climbing—a jacket-cum-balaclava that's warm, breathable, and quick-drying. $175; www.arcteryx.com

When staying cool is key, grab this smart hybrid. Highly breathable Polartec Power Stretch panels on the sides and under the arms kept me comfortable on a 1,500-foot scramble to the summit of Little Annapurna, in Washington's Enchantment Lakes Basin. During an early-winter storm, the Hardface-treated Wind Pro on the Factor's torso easily shed snow, and the drawcord hem kept the flakes from sneaking in at the waist. It's not quite as warm as Patagonia's Granular, but it's also not as heavy. Demerit: The collar could stand to be a tad taller. $169; www.orgear.com

Not surprisingly, warm jackets tend to lose mobility because of their bulk. But this toasty rule breaker defies conventional wisdom, offering both excellent stretch and an athletic cut. The Windface easily moved in every direction while I was bouldering, but its warmth nearly matches that of the heavier Granular and Moto. A full complement of Hardface Wind Pro repels breezes and squalls, smartly hidden wrist cuffs block spindrift, and a cinch collar seals in warmth at the neck. One quibble: The elasticized hem sometimes rode up when I reached for a hold. $198; www.eider-world.com

Tired of standard-issue alpine style? The Moto's cut and stitching so faithfully imitate a leather motorcycle jacket that all it's missing is a hell on wheels patch. Of all the Hardface jackets tested here, the Moto uses the heaviest-weight fleece, with a funky dobby-knit exterior. The fabric boosts warmth but also increases heft and stiffness. And though the Moto has skier-appropriate additions like Power Stretch cuffs and drawcords at the neck and hem, it's cut high, like motorcycle riders favor—which means it can ride up during a fall. $150; www.mountainhardwear.com

The brushed, natural-feeling texture of the Sherpa—achieved via a new way of twisting the yarns—had friends doing a double take when I told them it was a fleece. Thanks to the sweaterlike style and traditional midlayer performance, you can pull it on whether you're cruising shop windows or blue runs. Caution: The thin acrylic-and-polyester blend and loose knit make the Sherpa less insulating than the other tops, and wind goes right through it, so be sure to pack a shell for mountain duty. $55; www.prana.com

The latest in smart fabrics? Patagonia's BioMap technology, which matches insulation and breathability to specific body areas. Such zoning comes to fleece in the R1.5, with dense material covering the kidneys and core, to keep those vital spots warm, and a high-ventilation grid overlaying sweat-prone places under the arms, on the back, and down the sides. Impressively, the mix-and-match fabric is created without a maze of seams. Bummer: It's hard to push up the sleeves of the otherwise stretchy top, and the gridwork at the wrists pills easily. $140; www.patagonia.com

With its textured finish and kick-back styling—it's cut a bit large, more woodsman than alpinist—the Gridlock doesn't even look like it belongs with typical outdoor fleeces. Which is precisely the point. But a cinch hem, high collar, and velourlike Polartec Thermal Pro interior give you everything you'll need to head for the hills. The jacket's untreated exterior absorbs rain more readily than some of the other models, but in the realm of go-everywhere garments, this is one of the few that can smoothly transfer from couloir to café to cubicle. $155; www.cloudveil.com

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