Build Your Business:

Redefining Fleece

This over-the-zipper print on a full-zip hoodie sweat is a great example of the cool, vintage looks that can be created using discharge inks on fleece. (Photo courtesy of Forward Printing, Oakland, Calif.)

August 27, 2012

When someone says the word “fleece,” what do you think of? What probably comes to mind is either a crew-neck sweat shirt, which is practically an American icon, or maybe a full-zip hoodie, which has become a streetwear staple for millions of people.

While these two styles remain bread-and-butter basics for the decorated apparel industry, if you’re just the least bit curious, you will find there’s a whole new world to explore in the fleece universe.

Manufacturers are breaking new ground by taking advantage of advances in technology and dyeing and knitting techniques, and they are not limiting themselves to sewing this versatile fabric into only traditional silhouettes.

You’ll find fleece being used for double-breasted pea coats, technical outdoor jackets, fashion cardigans, blazers, jumpers and even bottle koozies, to name just a few examples.

So if I’ve piqued your curiosity, let’s talk about some of the basic facts about how fleece is made and how different components, like yarns, knitting techniques and blends, are being used to make new creations.

Taking fleece down to its most basic level starts with a discussion of yarns. The size of the yarn is one factor that determines the overall fabric weight. The lower the number, the thicker the yarn. Fleece yarns typically range in size from 20 singles to 40 singles.

The higher-numbered, finer yarns are valued for creating a super-smooth surface, which makes a difference when the garment is screen printed. Lower-numbered, thicker yarns are great for creating different textures and grains, and of course, they are used to create more heavyweight, warmer garments as well. Some companies deliberately manufacture fleece with a finer-face yarn, which makes the garment surface easier to print. Sometimes, a 100% cotton-face yarn is used so that the garment can be printed with discharge inks, which work well with cotton.  

The next level to understand is in the knitting. Fleece can be knit using a two-end or a three-end process. The three-end process can be more expensive, partly due to the addition of a third tie yarn. One benefit of three-end fleece is that it is thicker and has more loft. It also creates a barrier between the face and back yarn. If you are discharge printing, for example, you will achieve more consistent print quality using three-end vs. two-end fleece.

The yarn size and the knitting process determine the ultimate weight of the fabric. By using different combinations, it’s possible to make a wide range of fabric weights. For fleece, the lightest recommended weight would be about 210 grams (6.2 ounces). It would be made with a finer yarn, such as 40 singles, on the face. To create a super heavyweight fleece, such as 600 grams (17.6 ounces), you would use a much coarser yarn on the face, such as 21 singles.
A good general guideline to use would be 210-250 grams (6.2-7.4 ounces) for lightweight; 260-300 grams (7.7-8.8 ounces) for mid-weight, and 330-400 grams (9.7-11.7 ounces) for heavyweight. Super heavyweight is about 500 grams (14.7 ounces) and above.

In terms of the end user, weight often is a significant factor when buying fleece. Colder weather demands a warmer garment, which would require a heavier-weight fleece. But, climate is less of a factor with screen printers or embroiderers who may be decorating apparel for national brands or, for example, a tourist resort in Hawaii that has customers from all over the world.

Other than weight, fashion is another factor used when choosing fleece. A heavier-weight garment may have a more generous cut, and it is going to drape differently than a lighter-weight garment, which may have a slimmer fit. If you’re interested in a sweat shirt silhouette, but not necessarily fleece fabric, you now can buy a full-zip hoodie made out of T-shirt jersey. This would be the lightest-weight garment, but it is not fleece.

One factor that is used when determining a fleece blend is how it will be decorated. If it is going to be screen printed, the polyester content is important because polyester tends to migrate when it goes through a dryer. So screen printers prefer high-cotton-content fleece. If the goal is to create a certain look using texture, fabric grain or coloring like heather, this also will dictate the fabric blend. Blending different face and back yarns can create a multitude of different looks.  

Color also can dictate that a specific blend be used. If clients want fluorescent colors, the blend will have to lean more on the polyester side if they want vibrancy. If they want a pigmented, washed color, then more cotton is best.

Here, I discuss some of the more common fleece blends used in the industry, with some examples of the benefits.
• 80% cotton /20% polyester: The more polyester in fleece, the less friendly for screen printers because of ink-migration problems inherent in polyester when it’s run through a dryer. Cotton provides a nice smooth face, which creates a nice canvas for ink, and it also can be discharged.
• 70% cotton/30% polyester: Varying the amount of cotton and polyester in the blend is a technique that is used to create different looks in fleece. At my company, we choose a 70% cotton/30% polyester blend to create a French terry with a heather look. This is just one of many combinations you may choose, depending on the final look that you want.
• 65% cotton/35% polyester: Using an example from my company’s line, we used a 65% cotton/35% polyester blend to create a unique two-color fleece style with the inside of the fleece being a different color than the outside. The inside color also appears in a speckled or pepper pattern on the fabric surface. It also is beneficial for hitting sharper price points.

Just about the only limit to what can be done with fleece is the imagination. Here are some examples of some specialty styles that have been created.

Engineered-print fleece. Engineered-print fleece really is a decoration process, not a specialty type of fleece. It can be created on any type of fleece. It is done by creating the artwork for each section of the garment separately. For example, the front panel, back panel, right sleeve, left sleeve, hood, etc., are cut and printed individually. When it’s assembled, the artwork is matched up across the seams for a beautiful, seamless look.  

French terry fleece. French terry is an unbrushed fleece. The fabric is knitted the same as traditional fleece, but the loop is not brushed so it does not have that fuzziness on the inside. For a true French terry, special yarns are used to reduce the impurities of the inside yarn. It also doesn’t have the loft of traditional brushed fleece, so it has a thinner/flatter appearance.

Lycra spandex fleece. This type is usually high cotton, like 95%, and then 5% Lycra spandex is added to give it a bit of stretch. It’s also used for juniors styles where a snug fit is desirable. The Lycra spandex can make the garment more body-hugging.

Polyester fleece. This type has a different look than cotton. Frequently, it has a shiny surface, and it may repel water. It’s popular as a performance garment, meaning it’s used for active sports and lifestyles.

Raw-edge fleece. This incorporates a specialty sewing technique where, instead of the traditional closed seam, a raw edge is left open. These edges can be almost anywhere on the garment. The most popular places are around the pouch pocket, down the center front zipper seam, cuff seam and at the top of the waistband.

Sherpa fleece. Sherpa fleece is made of 100% polyester fibers. It’s frequently used as a sewn-in — or even a bonded — lining. It’s ideal for keeping in body heat. It also has a very fluffy look when brushed.

Slub fleece. This is made by twisting two different-sized face yarns, creating an inconsistent textured look.

Sweater fleece. This fleece resembles the look of a sweater, hence the name. It is usually made with loosely knitted,
heavier-gauge yarns.  

Two-color fleece. You can create a variety of looks with this knitting technique. One is to have the outside and inside of the fleece fabric be contrasting.  For example, it may be black on the outside and red on the inside. Another look is to knit the fleece so that it shows a hint of the inside color on the outside surface. This creates a speckled or pepper look to the fabric.

Water-resistant fleece. There are two primary ways used to make fleece water resistant. One is to have a high polyester content because polyester naturally repels water. Another technique that is used for high-cotton fleece is to treat it with Storm Cotton, which is a proprietary water repellent finish.
These are just a few examples of the many amazing things that can be done with fleece. Manufacturers continue to come up with variations and new looks that ensure this industry staple will never go out of style.

Brad Rambo is founder and president of Independent Trading Co., a full-line fleece manufacturer based in San Clemente, Calif.. For more information, email or visit