At first glance, fleece looks a lot like flannel. It’s a soft fabric, napped on one or both sides. It comes in a variety of solid colors and printed patterns and can be used for loungewear and children’s wear – although you’re not going to see a guy in a fleece suit any time soon – not unless you’re at a very niche event.
The big difference between fleece and flannel lies in the fiber and the weave. Fleece – sometimes called polar fleece – is knitted from polyester, whereas flannel is woven from cotton or wool.
Big deal, who cares, right? You should care!
Because it’s made from polyester, fleece can be much warmer to wear than cotton flannel. It’s cheaper, too. Lightweight polyester fleece is about $3 a yard. The thick heavy stuff – stuff you want to wrap yourself up in before braving the snow outside – is more like $10 or $12 a yard. There’s also a class of fleece known as “performance” fleece, which has greater insulating properties and more tensile strength than regular fleece. As the name suggests, it’s used for garments that are going to get worn harder than your everyday hoodie – performance and athletic wear. Go figure, it costs more.
There’s also a variety called minky fleece. Minky is a marketing adjective used to indicate a longer-than-normal pile to the fabric. Minky fleece is popular for children’s blankets and stuffed toys. It’s very suitable for snuggling.
Fleece is warm. Fleece can be very warm. If you’re going to make a mascot suit from fleece, or something else that’s all encompassing, have a strategy for keeping cool while you’re in it. Conventions are usually overheated and stuffy at the best of times, and you don’t want to get heatstroke.
Fleece is a bit of an odd duck, environmentally. It can be made from recycled plastic bottles – yay! That’s great! That kind of fleece is usually sold under the name PET fleece and some sellers will mention its recycled origins as a selling point. But fleece made from plastic bottles cannot be recycled after you’re done with it. Yeah, believe it or not, fabric can be and is recycled. For instance, rayon yarn can be made from other fabrics that have been shredded and subjected to certain chemical treatments. As global resources become more scarce, fabric recycling is growing in popularity.
PET fleece doesn’t break down in the landfill. It’s kind of the Hostess Twinkie of fabrics. For that reason, alone, I’m reluctant to use it in my projects.
But, that said, it’s cheap, it’s colorful and oh boy, it’s popular. It doesn’t ravel and it’s easy to cut, so that makes it easy to sew. Well, relatively easy. One pitfall to watch out for is that it can be quite stretchy on the bias – when pulled on the diagonal. If you’re using a pattern and it warns you to “stabilize” a curved edge by sewing or fusing something to the wrong side, follow the directions and do as your told, lest your neckline or whatever stretches out and becomes all wonky.
The heavier weights can be challenging because of their bulk. With bulkier fleece, break out your rolling foot and lengthen your stitch.
All fleeces have a nap to them, to one degree or another – just like velvet. If you’re using a pattern to cut a garment, use the “with nap” layout.
Because fleece is fuzzy – sometimes very fuzzy – it can ‘pill’ with wear. To minimize that, wash it in cold water – machine or by hand – and only put it in the dryer on low. You don’t want to iron this stuff at all, you’ll crush the fuzz – possibly even melt it!
Because fleece is a knit you’ll want to use a ball-pointed needle and polyester thread.