Fleece is a staple of any outdoors kit. Whether you like yours gridded or shaggy, zippered or pulled over, chances are you have some sort of lofted synthetic midlayer in your pack whenever you head out for a day of hiking, climbing, or skiing. And for good reason: it’s warm and wicking during high-output activities and damn cozy to snuggle into back at camp. But fleece’s fuzzy synthetic fibers shed in the wash, polluting waterways.
Polartec is hoping to change that. Last month the textile manufacturer debuted Power Air, a single continuous fabric knit into a grid of air pockets, like wearable bubble wrap. Fibers inside the “bubbles” make space to trap air, creating an insulating effect. That space holds body heat, just like the space between down feathers in a puffy coat. Without the exposed pile of a traditional fleece, Power Air is more durable and less prone to pilling and shedding during a spin cycle. “By using the efficiency of encapsulated air to shelter lofted fibers, Polartec Power Air will drastically improve how fabrics perform over their lifetime with respect to versatility, comfort, and sustainability,” Gary Smith, Polartec’s CEO, said in a press release.
Adidas is the first to bring the new technology to market, with a zip-up jacket for men and women, though I’ve been testing a prototype from Polartec directly.
Unsurprisingly, the material neither looks nor feels like a classic fleece. It’s smooth, almost silky next to the skin, and the hard-faced outer looks city sleek. But on a day of ice climbing, with temperatures in the low forties, it kept me as warm as the high-pile midlayers I often use. It also breathed so well that I wore it for six hours straight, from a predawn car ride to an uphill approach to a freezing belay to climbing, without ever feeling too hot or sweaty. That said, without that traditional fuzz, Power Air isn’t as snuggly, which I’d miss on camping trips and during other activities filled with downtime in chilly weather.
For this reason precisely, the fleece material we’ve all come to love probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But, just as the Polartec Alpha launch six years ago set off the active-insulation boom, Power Air may signal the beginning of another new category in midlayer design—one that merges the air-capture principles of lofted insulation with the knit construction of a fleece, all without shedding and contributing to microplastic pollution. Time will tell if it catches on.
Correction: In an earlier version, we incorrectly described the construction of Power Air and the release date of Polartec Alpha. Outside regrets the error.