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expert list of breathable fabrics

Clothes have come a long way since the day our ancestors first threw a skin over their shoulders for warmth. Over the millennia, the materials we use to cover ourselves have included leather, fur, wool, cotton, and linen. The 20th century saw the rise of man-made materials, including nylon, rayon, acetate, and spandex. Most recently, consumers have turned toward a material that can be transformed into fabrics that are exceptionally breathable, soft, and packable.

They can be designed specifically to keep us cool by wicking away moisture, or to trap body heat to keep us warm, according to Leslie Hanes of Discovery Trekking Outfitters, a Canadian company that uses unique, breathable, technical fabrics to manufacture ultralight dry-fast towels, custom outerwear, and outdoor gear. And what is the principal ingredient of these new fabrics? Polyester!

Polyester’s History

Wait a minute. How can polyester clothes be breathable? First invented in 1941, polyester gained popularity due to its non-wrinkle characteristics and ability to be printed in bright colors and with intricate patterns. But by the late 1970s, the “cheap polyester suit” was almost universally derided as tacky and uncomfortable. Polyester is, after all, a type of plastic, and a double-knit polyester suit feels like wearing a bendable water bottle: All your sweat stays inside, on your skin. So what changed?

It’s Not Your Grandma’s Polyester

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Polyester is a “melt spun” fiber, which means that it is heated, extruded, air-cooled, wound around cylinders, and then hot-stretched. Polyester fabric manufacturers constantly experiment with different processes to improve their fabrics. Those exact processes are trade secrets. In general, different fibers can be created in several ways to make them more functional and comfortable. For example, as Hanes explains, “The fibers can be stretched longer, woven with more space between, crimped to hold air pockets for insulation, or blended with other fabrics, most often spandex for stretch. The fabrics are breathable because they are knit, and air can move through a knit.”

Polar Fleece Conquers the World

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The early 1970s saw the founding of a little-known mountaineering outfitter called Patagonia by Yvon Chouinard, an avid mountain climber, surfer, and fly fisherman. He sought to develop clothing that was lightweight, warm, and breathable. Cotton, when wet, becomes heavy, loses its ability to insulate, and stays wet. You’d never want to ski in cotton jeans. Wool insulates even when wet, but it can be heavy and itchy, and it can shrink when washed.

By 1981, Malden Mills, (now Polartec), and Patagonia developed a type of fabric made of polyester that Patagonia trademarked as Synchilla® and Malden Mills called Polartec®. Both were referred to generically as “polar fleece.” It was soft, lightweight, washable, and even warmer than wool. Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein intentionally declined to patent polar fleece, which was then quickly adopted by many vendors. During the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway, all the CBS commentators wore polar fleece jackets made by Columbia Sportswear instead of the traditional wool sweaters.

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Get this Columbia fleece on Amazon for around $28

Shop our favorite breathable items easily:

Polyester for Warmth Without Weight

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Get this Magcomsen fleece on Amazon for around $36

Nowadays, companies like Eddie Bauer, The North Face, Helly Hansen, L.L. Bean, Land’s End, and more offer polar fleece clothing in many thicknesses—some windproof — all designed for warmth, quick-drying, and breathability without added weight. Polartec’s High Loft™ fabrics, used by Patagonia in their “Regulator” fleece jackets, utilize lofted hollow-core fibers spun into a furry material that conserves body heat while allowing body moisture to wick uninhibited during sweat-inducing activity. High Loft™ has the greatest warmth to weight ratio of all Polartec® fleece fabric technologies. They’re also highly compressible for packing. Hanes adds, “I also like Polartec’s Power Wool™, which is a merino wool base knit with polyester, so you get the best of both worlds.”

Polyester That Wicks to Keep You Cool

Soon after the introduction of polar fleece, companies began experimenting with creating lightweight, stretchy, breathable fabrics designed to keep you cool in hot conditions. Rather than heavyweight 100 percent cotton, today’s activewear is usually a polyester/spandex blend. Ready-to-wear examples include breathable underwear from a variety of companies, Columbia’s “Omni-freeze” shirts, and Patagonia’s “Capilene Cool.”  For fabrics, Hanes says, “I recommend Polartec® Power Dry®, a next-to-skin moisture-wicking fabric. It’s great for shirts, underwear, sleepwear, and all base layers. Polartec’s odor-resistant technology keeps your skin dry when you sweat and features a natural antimicrobial to prevent odor.”

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How They Work

 “The odor resistance,” Hanes said, “comes from silver that is actually knitted into the material and that doesn’t leach into water or onto your skin. These fabrics wick moisture and breathe due to the construction of the yarn, a small yarn knitted with large yarn that creates a capillary action. It’s the evaporation of the moisture through the fabric that cools you, and since these fabrics dry quickly, they won’t cool for long unless you sweat more. Polartec has a fabric called Delta™ created for military that keeps moisture moving to enhance cooling. It also has more elevated touchpoints that decrease skin friction so you don’t get a rash when running.”

Today’s polyester is a world away from the polyester of disco days. Spun into an almost limitless variety of fabrics, with different weights of yarn for warm or cold, polyester clothing is breathable, packable, washable, soft, stretchy, nearly wrinkle-free, and possibly the most comfortable clothing you can buy.

Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.


Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.

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