Over the years the fleece that I put on to get warm after a cold day on the water has changed, and in thinking about the changes in that fleece it is an interesting view in the way clothing - for the outdoors - has changed.
First, it is important to understand that a lot of the time, regardless of who sells it, fleece is fleece. Most of the high quality fleece is made by Malden Mills. Most of the fleece today is made from recycled beverage bottles. Also keep in mind that most of the zippers in the world are made by YKK, but that is another story. In the pile above you will see two fleece jackets made by patagonia. A third made Mountain Hardwear. The fourth jacket in the pile isn't fleece at all, and we will get there in a couple of hundred words.
The first fleece I wore on paddling trips was the patagonia Azteca. This fleece still exists - though not in this pattern - and is called the snap neck T - Still one of my favorite fleeces and it is slightly over 20 years old. A great fleece. A great layering piece, and when I wear it now people always compliment it. I am generally looking for a fleece to do two simple things. Keep me warm, and take up as little space as possible in a dry bag. This fleece did both pretty well, but I realized a flaw with it. On a windy beach the wind went right through it. If the wind goes through it, it takes your warmth with it.
Here is a test you can do. Put on a fleece and pull the sleeve over your hand. Then blow on your now fleece covered palm. If you can feel wind, then the wind will go right through it. A fleece like this - that the wind penetrates - is still great under a shell jacket, but on its own you will be cold when the wind is blowing.
My second criteria - pack small in a dry bag - was pretty much met. Here you can see that it takes about half of a 5 liter dry bag.
It worked well, but I wanted something that would do better in the wind. I Decided that it was time for me to invest in the 'mother of all fleeces' the Patagonia Retro cardigan. This fleece used a 'fur' like surface to help block the wind. After all, that is what fur on an animal does, so why not do it on a fleece? It worked well. It wasn't wind proof, but it was far more wind resistant than the snap neck T. the down side of this particular fleece was that it was expensive (I think it was near $265.00 when I bought it, though it is only $199 on Patagonia's website today) and it didn't work so well in a dry bag.
But it looked so cool! I felt like I belonged in a Patagonia ad when I wore it. But then around 2006 technology took over. I recognized that I couldn't afford to give up that much space to a jacket, and I needed to replace it with something that was still warmer in the wind, and packed smaller. But if fleece was fleece no matter who 'made' it what could I do? Well, I found the Mountain Hardwear windstopper tech jacket. Essentially MH took a micro fleece - a different kind of weave that isn't as bulky - and laminated a windproof shell to the inside. Try the hand test with this fleece and you will feel nothing. 100 percent windproof. Keep in mind that windproof works both ways. If it keeps wind out, it also traps air in, so even though this was a thinner fleece it would be much warmer because it was using my own heat trapped inside of the jacket to keep me warm. And look how well it did in a dry bag.
The smallest, and the warmest, by far. This became my chosen layering piece for quite a few years. It did well in every environment, packed small, looked good. It was a winner. But then I started hearing murmurs about something better, and this wasn't a fleece at all. This was primaloft. Primaloft is essentially synthetic down. Originally created for the US Army who wanted a light synthetic alternative to down. Primaloft is all of that. Compressible like down, and completely hydrophobic. And check this out.
It doesn't look that much smaller, because it has so much loft that by the time I got into position to take the photo it had repuffed itself in the bag. Here is a look with the bag sealed.
This five liter dry bag is actually a bit big for it. It is probably a third smaller than the mountain hardwear jacket and just as wind proof. This has become my fleece of choice and it isn't even a fleece! The jacket in particular that I am using is the REI Revel cloud jacket, but it could just as easily be the Mountain Hardwear Compressor jacket or The North Face Redpoint jacket. Give it a try, I don't think you will be disappointed.....
UPDATE - I misidentified my Patagonia Retro Cardigan, as a Retro-X Cardigan. Thank you Anonymous commenter.