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(The Gear Loop) - First invented by Polartec in 1981, fleeces changed the way we all dressed in cooler weather forever, and after a long hot summer, The Gear Loop is itching to get into this autumn’s best mid-layers

If you are anything like us, and looking for a truly versatile item that you can wear on the bike, at your desk, under a ski jacket, after a swim in the sea or to the pub, only a technical fleece will do (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves - the truth is we are kit junkies). 

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As with anything in life, you get what you pay for, and so it makes sense to spend a little more on a garment with so many uses, knowing it will do the job properly. 

A technical fleece will keep you warm but will also be breathable, it will wash well and be durable no matter how many times you wear it - and it will look the part, too. 

JottnarThe best technical fleeces for women photo 5

So we’ve scouted around to find the best women’s technical fleeces coming into the autumn of 2022 and have enjoyed testing them on the beach and out on the trail, knowing they’ll work well in the big hills, too.

In reality, most of garments we’ve featured here have been tested in the world’s most extreme environments, providing essential warmth to explorers and mountain-conquerers across the globe. Overkill? Not in our book, as we’ve found they are just as adept at providing essential warmth in the harshest of UK winters, too. 

The best technical fleeces for women

JottnarThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 3

Jöttnar Hemming LX

For

  • Deep venting zip
  • Flat-locked seams
  • Polygiene odour-resistance treated
  • Comfy long body with lower rear hem 

Against

  • Comes up small 
  • Neckline could be higher
  • Not recycled/sustainable fabric (but Jottnar does offer trade and upgrade)

Jöttnar hits the nail on the head again with this fleece. Simple at first glance, it’s actually packed with detail - including a chin guard on the (deep) front zip, anti-chafe seams (no seams on the shoulder if you’re wearing a backpack), thumb loops, a chest pocket large enough for a mobile phone but positioned so that it doesn’t get in the way of a backpack or climbing harness and a lower, scooped, back hem to avoid any gaps.

Jöttnar describes this 172g/m2 fabric as summer weight, but we’ll be wearing it as part of our ski layering system, as it’s incredibly light and warm, with a soft, waffle-style fabric interior, wicking and super stretchy for a great athletic fit. But it’s also very breathable.

It’s been treated with Polygiene odour-resistance, so it can handle several hard days on the go, and comes in three flattering colours.

ParamoThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 5

Páramo Bentu Duology Plus fleece

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For 

  • Super versatile: windproof, water repellent and warm
  • Comfy, curved lower back hem
  • Useful, generous pockets, including internal drop-pocket for Ordnance Survey map
  • Impressive eco credentials

Against

  • The fur-like velvety fleece is not for everyone
  • Slightly bulky and cumbersome, especially around cuffs
  • Snug fit, lacking the stretch of similar models
  • Waterproofing requires topping up

Páramo’s Bentu Duology Plus fleece is an all-singing, all-dancing collaboration with Nikwax, making it water repellent and windproof. Worn over a baselayer, you don’t need much else - it’s super soft, breathable and warm, but offers good protection for mixed conditions. 

Although you might want to add a shell jacket in a heavy downpour, the Bentu Plus Duology combination has been tested in a lab to resist at least four hours of heavy rain —-so really, this one garment has your layering system all set. 

At 403g it’s not for warmer summer days though, as we found it bulky to tie around the waist. Páramo are absolutely market-leading in their environmental standards; the fleece is PFC-free and they will take the garment back at the end of its life for recycling. 

A couple of last notes: we mention the fleece isn’t for everyone - Páramo describe it as "thick pile directional fabric" and it’s basically short, velvety, fur-like material that you either love or hate. And it is best washed in Nikwax tech wash and re waterproofed every so often, which adds to the cost.

ArtilectThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 1

Artilect Halfmoon Bio Pullover

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For 

  • Really soft, warm and comfy
  • Great, functional pockets and deep front half zip
  • 100 per cent recycled fabric that, crucially, will biodegrade 

Against

  • Easy fit, with no draw cord at the waist
  • No chin guard on zip

Just a few short years ago, fleeces were made of plastic. This soft garment is made from PrimaLoft Bio, which is 100 per cent recycled material that will also biodegrade in landfill or ocean environments. It’s really warm, really soft and highly breathable 

While it’s a technical fleece, it’s definitely something to wear casually, too, which we have. The chest pocket has ample room for a phone, and the front pocket is deep and large - great for stuffing cold hands inside, especially when you’ve just come out of the sea. The one downside of its easy fit is that, with no drawcord at the waist, it could get a little draughty on chillier days.

Helly HansenThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 2

Helly Hansen W Odin Power Stretch Half Zip

For 

  • Made with 80 per cent recycled materials
  • Stretchy, soft Polartec fleece
  • High neck, reinforced for extra insulation
  • Does not pill 

Against

  • Unexciting colours
  • Pricey considering the basic design
  • Lacks pockets

The Odin collection is part of Helly Hansen’s professional range for hiking and mountaineering, and the Power Stretch is a staple of that. 

A great, technical fleece that will be a mainstay in anyone’s layering system, it is warm, stretchy, soft and slightly wind-proof. 

When we say warm, we mean warm… way too much for late summer hikes, so keep it for mountaineering and colder days, for which it is intended. 

Made with Polartec, the fleece is quick-dry, breathable and promotes great mobility for strenuous mountaineering activities. There are no annoying shoulder seams and side panels add to a good fit - though if you’re wearing this as an outer layer for hiking, be warned there are no pockets.

MaierThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 7

Maier Sports Burray Midlayer

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For 

  • Well priced
  • Functional and versatile
  • Maier Sports will recycle at end-of-life

Against

  • Shoulder seams not ideal with a backpack
  • No pockets

This fleece from Maier Sports is designed to be versatile, so you can make the most of it. We’ve tested it in the gym, riding bikes and for late summer hikes and have no doubt it would work well as part of a winter layering system with its low profile simple, design. 

While the fabric isn’t fleecy, it’s really soft next to the skin and has great stretch properties. The Burray is made with dryprotec technology, so dries fast (though not if you get caught in a torrential downpour as we did). 

There’s a half zip with a chin guard, which is a nice detail, but the seams run over its shoulders, so this might rub if you carry a heavy backpack. 

While made from 90 per cent polyester (10 per cent elastane), Maier Sports operate a take-back scheme, so when you’ve worn it out you can send it back for a discount on the next buy and Maier will recycle the fleece. Which we like.

PatagoniaThe best technical fleeces for women: product photo 6

Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody

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For

  • Made from recycled materials
  • Soft, zigzag textured fabric 
  • Sleek and slim-fitting (weighs just 309g)

Against

  • Breast pocket too small to be functional
  • Not the cheapest

A whopping 68 per cent of Patagonia’s fabrics this season are made with recycled materials and the R1 Air Hoody is a key piece in its collection. 

It’s only available in this teal colour - quite why we don’t know - so you’ll only want to buy it if you like brights, which we do, and it's a fleece we’ve loved testing. 

The recycled polyester fabric is very soft and comfortable next to the skin, and while it’s warm, it’s also highly breathable and quick-drying - both properties, along with its slim fit make it perfect as part of a layering system. 

The shoulder seams have been offset so you can comfortably wear a backpack, and there are two decent-sized side pockets and a tiny breast pocket, which is useful for a credit card or key but not much else - certainly not a modern mobile phone.

We’ve said it’s not the cheapest, but this is a low-impact, highly technical garment that Patagonia hopes will be worn for many years 

MaierThe best technical fleeces for women photo 3

What to look for in womens technical fleeces

Weight vs warmth

Generally, fleeces come in micro, 100, 200 and 300 weights. Micro fleeces tend to be softer, but in weighing up whether you need warmth or weight, work out what your primary use for the fleece will be. As a general rule, the lighter the fabric, the less warm it will be, but the better it will work as the primary insulation layer in a layering system. Only one of the fleeces we tested for this article is a “jacket” style, which works as an outer layer on chilly days but might be a bit bulky when worn under a jacket.

Fabric and sustainability

Last season, the shearling fleece made a comeback, and while retro styling is here to stay, there are so many innovations in technical clothing and fabrics it’s hard to keep up. From the use of recycled polyester, Polartec for warmth and hydrophobic qualities, the use of silver and spent coffee grounds to reduce odour, to treatments with Nikwax to increase water resistance and much more. 

Two of the brands we’ve featured here run take-back schemes and we’d encourage you to think about end-of-life: this hard-wearing kit is essentially plastic at the end of the day, so try to use it fully and dispose of it responsibly.

Style and fit

One general observation we would make from trying all of the women’s fleeces mentioned here is that they are all, almost without exception, on the small side. 

In fact we sent one other brand back because it was too small and the next size up didn’t fit either. Our tester is a UK size 10 and a very solid “small”. Not an 8 or a 12, but a 10, yet most fleeces tested were medium. Something to bear in mind. 

If you want a hood and central zip, they come at the expense of weight and bulk. We’ve tested the entire gamut of styles - with pockets and without - and it’s an entirely personal choice based on the job you want them to do. 

Hooded fleeces and jacket-style garments can be extra cosy and snug around the neck and over wet hair. While we found the pockets in the Artilect fleece particularly useful as hand warmers after a sea swim, Jöttnar’s virtually seamless fit is really hard to beat.

Writing by Abigail Butcher. Editing by Leon Poultney.