In most parts of the world, spring is a season of change – but melted snows and flowering blooms can only come through a rapid shift in weather. Whereas autumn’s temperature seems to gradually dip with the falling of the leaves, a typical spring week may include rainy mornings, sunny afternoons, and a pop-up blizzard just for effect. In short, the right spring jacket must be up to the challenge.
As spring creeps across the Northern Hemisphere, there’s no better time to educate yourself on what makes for capable outerwear. Whether you’re replacing a worn-out raincoat or rationalizing the Arc’teryx on your wishlist, here’s a piece-by-piece breakdown of what coats your jacket, inside and out, followed by our picks for the best spring jackets of 2018:
Starting outside-in: the face fabric. As its name suggests, a “face fabric” is the fabric that covers the outside of a jacket. As its name also suggests (perhaps rather poetically), the face fabric is the surface that faces the elements – your first line of defense against cold and wet. If a coat's materials tag calls out its “shell” or “body” as made of some specific substance, that is the face fabric. And when picking out the right spring jacket, facial recognition is essential.
The backbone of the global fashion industry is – surprise, surprise - rather common in outerwear. Cotton is cheap, familiar, and readily dyed and cut, making it a frequent choice for aesthetic-oriented outerwear across the spectrum. From a style perspective, cotton is the most versatile face fabric: corduroy, flannel, denim, and duck canvas are all variations on cotton weaves.
There is, however, a rather dramatic downside. Cotton garments can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, meaning a morning shower can turn into an all-day squish. In addition, cotton fibers lose their insulating properties (i.e. their ability to make you warm) when they get wet. Hanging up a soaked-through hoodie after spring rains is one thing; shivering under frozen canvas on a frosty March morning is a whole other animal.
When it comes to capable natural face fabrics, wool is anything but sheepish. A staple of the West's apparel tradition dating back to pre-Roman Europe, woolen garments are typically defined by their warmth, texture, weight, and rudimentary all-weather capability. Everything from Navy surplus to Burberry’s cashmere topcoats are made of wool – and the reason why goes way beyond hand-feel.
As compared to cotton, wool (particularly merino wool) is naturally moisture-wicking, retaining up to 36% of its weight before feeling wet to the touch or losing insulation. In addition, wool is generally lighter on the environment than cotton. In the spring, a thinner wool overcoat provides answers to morning chills, afternoon rains, and the vexing question of how to dress up without looking too herb.
The world’s oldest fabric is also, performance-wise, perhaps its most capable organic. Leather contains many of the resilient and weather-resistant properties of your own skin, and compared to cotton and wool, is eons tougher against bumps, scrapes, and closing subway doors. Plus, the right leather jacket just looks badass.
Unfortunately, due to how it's made (leather is animal skin; the first step of production is growing then killing live animals), leather is generally quite a bit more expensive than any other common spring face fabric. When bought new, entry-level jackets will still cost a few hundred dollars. A thrift store may be your best friend for under $200. Then, there’s the potential ethical quandary that accompanies leather’s aforementioned method of production. In short: capable but pricy, handsome but divisive, and sometimes really cool ones are worth more than a used car.
Cotton, meet Cotton 2.0. After World War II, American chemical giant DuPont introduced the world to “PETE,” a mix of alcohols and carboxyl acids known as “Polyester.” It was the textile industry’s first mass-produced synthetic fiber, and by the end of the ’50s, had become an integral part of the American wardrobe, known for its stain resistance and pliability. Rather than displace cotton (which was, as is today, still incredibly cheap to work with), polyester was soon integrated into cotton knits to lend performance to the latter and familiarity to the former.
Long story short: the advent of cotton-poly blends coincided with the design of apparel the world now considers “retro outdoors gear.” For an example of premium Cotton Blends, consider the 65/35 Bayhead cloth made famous by The North Face Purple Label. Bayhead cloth is made from a blend of 65% Polyester/35% cotton. Unfortunately, that means it’s still approximately 35% subject to the same downsides that make cotton a four-letter word in the modern outdoors community. Does a suboptimal face fabric make Purple Label's spring jackets any less gorgeous? That's for you to decide.
If cotton was the weak point of a cotton-poly jacket, why not cut out the middleman? Starting in the mid-’00s, a new kind of fabric emerged as a light, breathable alternative to traditional nylon hardshells (more on those in a tick). Called “softshell,” this textile – made of knit polyester, but often including nylon and spandex for extra versatility – would go on to revolutionize light jackets.
In fewer words: softshell is soft, foldable, breathable, weather-resistant, and provides its own light insulation. Its clean, polished aesthetic even influences luxury outerwear today.
Imagine a rain jacket. Now, imagine a winter parka. The smooth, shiny fabric covering each is nylon. Introduced by DuPont in the ’30s, nylon first found a home making women's stockings before gaining fame for its use in Allied parachutes during World War 2. Our lawyers would like me to point out that women's stockings do not make effective parachutes.
Nylon is, at its core, spun plastic threads. As you can imagine, tightly woven plastic can do a pretty good job of keeping out the elements. While nylon may not be as breathable as softshell or as comfortable against skin as an organic fabric, its weather-proof properties make it the predominant face fabric in the world of rain jackets. Case in point: nylon is often the face fabric to which a GORE-TEX waterproof membrane is attached.
The function of insulation is – wait for it – insulating. The most effective way to warm the body involves trapping air next to the skin, then warming that air through the body’s natural heat. Hence, conventional insulation materials like fleece and down are essentially just different ways to suspend air as close to the skin as possible. A light spring jacket may not include a sewn-in insulation layer; if temperatures drop, simply layering a crewneck sweater underneath the outer layer should do the trick.
If suspending air is the job of an insulation layer, suspending an insulating material over a grid pattern (in this case, typically polyester or Thinsulate) maximizes the amount of air it can trap. Non-down quilted layers are cheap, lightweight, and therefore incredibly common while quilted liners are an integral part of the “vintage reference” aesthetic popularized by many of today’s top brands.
Cotton-poly fleece is, rather simply, a cotton textile lined with thick polyester fleece. It traps air by emulating the rich texture of sheep’s wool, keeping cold out and heat in. Seeing as it’s composed of literally the same atoms, the cotton of a cotton-poly fleece has many of the same comparative traits as cotton face fabrics: it’s cheap and versatile, yet anything but weatherproof.
However, that doesn’t mean cotton-poly fleece is bound for the dregs, Nike’s famed “Tech Fleece” garments are typically made from a 67% cotton/33% polyester blend.
Polyester microfleece is a mouthful; think of this as “fleece hits the gym.” Microfleece is a thin, flexible fleece fabric designed for lightweight activity, and is therefore generally more breathable and resilient than its cotton-poly cousins. It is also typically inexpensive compared to other technical insulators like high-pile fleeces or down.
Worth noting: microfleece is a mid-layer in the truest sense. Without a shell layer made of weather-blocking face fabric, all that lightweight breathability will leave you chilled in rain or wind. However, for a lightweight, indoor insulator that could also pull double duty on a hike, it’s hard to go wrong.
Also known as “Sherpa,” high-pile fleece is a two-sided fabric made from cut polyester fibers, providing a multitude of nooks and crannies in which to trap air. Polyester fleece is moisture-resistant, lighter than wool, and above all, breathable, qualities which made it a popular choice among hikers in the late ’80s. The most famous example of high-pile fleece: The North Face’s iconic Denali Jacket, a zip-up made from Polartec, a fleece maker famous for supplying insulation to the US Military. And yes, there's also that Supreme piece.
In 1936, a Seattle outdoorsman named Eddie Bauer introduced the world to down insulation. As it turns out, the natural structure of a goose’s down feathers (or a duck’s – no material difference, FYI) is supremely good at suspending air. If those same feathers were held in a way that prevented them from collapsing into a makeshift pillow (i.e. in stitched pockets), humans could take advantage of their exceptional warming properties. Compared to the heavy wool coats of his day, Bauer’s Skyliner down sweater was a seismic shift for both fashion and the outdoors.
80 years later, down remains the gold standard of insulation. Compared to every other insulator, down is lighter, more packable, and dramatically warmer by weight. Down’s effectiveness is even easily quantified: how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill (i.e. the volume of air it can theoretically trap) is rated as its “fill power,” with most jackets falling between 450 and 900 fill. While a flocking lot of low-fill down will always be warmer than a shred of 900 fill, performance jackets made from high-fill down – like, for example, the 850 fill Arc’teryx Cerium LT – will provide the same warmth at lighter weights than their lower fill cousins. The Cerium LT mentioned prior weighs 10.8oz, yet is warm enough to face nearly any climate on Earth.
However, that’s not to say that down insulation is perfect: if the fabric surrounding down (typically nylon) gets too wet, the feathers inside will stick together, collapsing the air pockets keeping you warm and negating its effects. It is also, like leather, typically more expensive. Famous 100% down jackets include the Moncler Maya, Canada Goose Expedition, and North Face Nuptse.
If that whole “shivery when wet” part raised an eyebrow on down insulation, you’re not alone. Synthetic loft insulation (the name to know: Primaloft) was developed in the early 1980s as a water-resistant alternative to goose down, and while it was originally less potent than down, has since functionally equalized. For many, down vs. synthetic polyester loft is purely an emotional choice: purists may prefer feathers, but synthetic lofted coats like the superb, all-weather Arc’teryx Atom LT would give any down coat a run for its money.
Take an age-old industry standard. Add synthetic fibers for performance when wet. If you’re recognizing a pattern, you’re not alone – the story of hybrid down mirrors many other outerwear innovations.
However, unlike cotton-poly face fabrics, hybrid down blends offer materially significant improvements over their organic cousins with few drawbacks. Synthetic fibers act to wick water away from down feathers, while also typically reducing a jacket’s cost as compared to a pure down coat. While this technology is more popular in winter coats, it’s worth mentioning due to hybrid down’s recent popularity in the outdoors community.
Despite what Seinfeld may have led you to believe, GORE-TEX is more than just a code phrase for “expensive.” Invented in 1969, GORE-TEX was the first breathable, microporous, waterproof membrane introduced to the world of apparel. The truly innovative part of the first GORE-TEX fabric was its waterproof polytetrafluoroethylene membrane - but, since that word is big and scary, GORE-TEX and its direct contemporaries go by the descriptor "PTFE membranes."
Waterproof membranes work by exploiting the pressure difference between the air under your jacket (i.e. above your skin) and the atmosphere outside of it. In the case of GORE-TEX, tiny micropores – around 9 billion per square inch – prevent significantly-larger drops of precipitation from passing through the membrane on size difference alone. On the inside, molecules of relatively warm sweat and water vapor (remember, for air, “warm” = “low pressure”) will naturally rise away from the skin. Because a water molecule is around 700 times smaller than a membrane’s micropores, it will pass easily through. In short: drops of water can’t get in, but vaporized water can get out, creating a waterproof jacket that takes significantly longer to “wet out” (i.e. feel wet inside when the humidity outside your jacket becomes higher than the humidity inside, stopping the vapor “breathing” process) than any alternatives.
While GORE-TEX may have been the first high-performance waterproof membrane, it’s far from the only one on the market: eVent, Dermizax, and NeoShell perform essentially the same with slight tweaks for performance, and often at a lower price point.
But hey, if you like the looks of an Acronym hardshell, a waterproof GORE-TEX membrane is just as guaranteed to keep you dry.
Potent. Powerful. Brand-name expensive. For most conditions one faces off the trail, a GORE-TEX hardshell is luxurious overkill, like driving a Hummer down the motorway. If you’ve got the budget, more power to you; if you’d rather not spend half your rent on an Arc’teryx Alpha SV, Polyurethane (PU) Laminates will keep you warm and dry for nearly every off-piste adventure.
Compared to the pressure gradients powering waterproof membranes, PU laminates are deceivingly simple. A nylon face fabric is bonded to a waterproof polyurethane membrane with holes too small for water to get in from the outside. Typically, a “half-layer” charcoal print is then applied to the jacket’s lining to help keep the PU fabric off the skin. Open and shut.
PU Laminates aren’t breathable to the same degree that PTFE Membranes are and will therefore typically “wet out” within half an hour of constant rain exposure. However, if all you need is a capable shell for the morning commute, it’s hard to argue with the price point of a PU jacket.
DWR (“Durable Water Repellant”) coating is the technical apparel industry’s worst-kept secret. Available in both spray-on and wash-in varieties, DWR is a hydrophobic solution applied to fabrics that makes water “bead up” on contact. More importantly, it’s the reason membranes and laminates work as intended. Without DWR, even synthetic face fabrics would become saturated in sustained rain or snow, dramatically reducing breathability and in turn letting water through. Unfortunately, the same chemicals that give DWR its water repellency also make it less than eco-friendly, making it one of the few true “necessary evils” of the performance wear world.
Yet, due to its effectiveness and relative versatility, DWR coatings are commonly applied to even the most basic wardrobe staples to grant them new life as highly-marketable “tech” versions of popular items. For a GORE-TEX ski jacket, DWR-coated nylon is a necessary part of the performance equation; on a cotton canvas sneaker, not so much. Long story short, if you see a slow-mo video of water beading up on a non-technical piece, it was likely just dipped in DWR before the label came on. Like with anything in life, a little critical thinking goes a long way.
Nature’s solution to DWR comes in the form of beeswax. Popularized by British heritage brand Barbour, cotton fabrics treated with a bar of heated wax exhibit many of the water-repellant properties as DWR at a fraction of the environmental cost. While ultimately not as effective as a synthetic coating, a thorough waxing will keep water out of any fabric porous enough to accept it. In the present, sustainability-minded Swedish outdoors brand Fjallraven recommends wax as the waterproof coating of choice for most of its jackets, including the iconic Greenland jacket.
When two pieces of fabric are sewn together, the sewing needle creates tiny holes through which to pull its thread. Even with all the DWR-coated nylon and GORE-TEX in the world, a needle hole is a needle hole – unless those holes are covered and sealed, water’s getting in. “Taping” a seam (applying a strong nylon cloth with a waterproof rubber backing) ensures that the elements stay out.
Look for taped seams as a sign of quality on performance jackets. If the seams are “critically-taped,” only a few seams deemed most important will be sealed. While “fully-taped” jackets may cost more, if you’re already springing for a top-of-the-line membrane coat, a few extra dollars is worth leaving no holes uncovered. Jackets like the Supreme x The North Face Summit Series jacket show off their high-tech taping in style.
As seam holes create weak points, so do the spaces between the teeth of a zipper. In 1998, Arc’teryx introduced the world’s first water-resistant zipper, a urethane-coated “WaterTight” design that moved the world one step closer to a truly weatherproof winter jacket. Buyer beware: due to their sleek, distinctive aesthetic, sealed zippers are often used as a signaling device for “weather-resistant” in much the same vein as DWR. While no GORE-TEX jacket worth its salt would ever come without a sealed zipper, uncoated cotton sweatpants employ them just as easily when the weather gets cold.
Pulling It All Together
Now that we’ve learned the ingredients, it’s time to put the recipe into action. Below are our picks for the best spring jackets of 2018, with face fabric, insulation, and weatherproof capabilities highlighted below each:
Style and function combined
Face fabric: polyamide
Weatherproofing: Polyurethane resin coating, polyester lining.
Why we love it: Stone Island has built a reputation for its outerwear, leading research into new fabrics and processes. Many of its stand-out jackets can transform between styles or have bold graphic elements, however, this design keeps things simple. With a high neck and two-way fastening, you'll find the brand's iconic removable branding on the left sleeve.
Best Hiking Bringalong
Face fabric: Nylon blend
Weatherproofing: double-woven material, sealed zippers.
Why we love it: and Wander is an expert in creating hiking gear that you want to wear everywhere. What makes this jacket stand out is the breathable nylon and dual zip armpit ventilation which is perfect for Spring's warmer days while the stretchy fabric offers more flexibility than your average shell jacket.
Best Luxury Flex
Face fabric: Polyester blend
Weatherproofing: Taped seams, polyester interior, sealed zippers.
Why we love it: The length of a Parka jacket means that it will keep most of your body protected and this one is not only made from a waterproof polyester-blend fabric but it also has a bold geometric pattern that makes it stand out.
Best Workwear Classic
Face fabric: Organic cotton dearborn canvas
Why we love it: Sure this jacket might not have the latest technology when it comes to waterproofing, there are few fabrics tougher than Carhartt's cotton canvas. Why else would it be a workwea classic?
Best Affordable Option
Face fabric: Nylon
Weatherproofing: Waterproof coating
Why we love it: Not only does this jacket of British designer JW Anderson's design at an affordable price, it is also crafted from water-repellent nylon.
Face fabric: 57% polyamide, 43% expanded polytetrafluoroethylene.
Weatherproofing: Taped Seams, Waterproof Membrane (GORE-TEX), sealed zippers.
Why we love it: When it comes to highly-functional outerwear ACRONYM produces the type that nerds like me drool over. Not only are the fabrics second to none but there are practical details littered across its designs. For example, this jacket includes nine external pockets and a sealed zip that provides access to a side bag should you wish to wear one underneath.
Best Experimental Design
Face fabric: Nylon
Insulation: Polyester padding
Why we love it: Sure this jacket might not be the most functional, there's no hood or even a zip at the front, but sometimes you have to go for style over substance. And the nylon shell material will keep you dry in the areas it covers.
Best All-Round Coat:
Face fabric: Polyester/Spandex (PolarTec Power Stretch Knit)
Insulation: Synthetic Loft
Weatherproofing: DWR Coating
Why we love it: The Atom LT LEAF wins for its combination of warmth, weight, and weather repellency at a modest price. From March ‘til June, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Atom LT is too little jacket for whatever weather spring may conjure. The “LEAF” version shown here features minimalist branding and comes in a variety of tonal colorways.
As you may have noticed from the above, most spring jackets are considered either “all-in-one” coats that combine insulation with weatherproof facing (think your standard North Face parka), or, as individual parts of a layering system that considers insulation and “shell” layers to be separate jackets.
Yes, buying individual layers may get expensive quickly. However, the ability to swap layers in and out – down in the winter, fleece in the spring – provides a degree of flexibility that not even the most breathable down parka could ever hope to match. At the end of the day, the decision to buy layers or a single spring jacket is mostly personal preference.
Whichever coat you choose, with this guide, you’ll be ready for whatever unpredictable weather lies ahead this spring. The days are getting longer - there’s no reason your search for the perfect spring jacket should keep you inside.