Fleece mid layers have been around as long as me: since the early 80s. We co-existed but never really hit it off. I feel the cold, so mainly bypassed them. No wind resistance, water resistance or durability, nor any duvet factor like down or synthetic puff... and OK, I never liked the look of them either. They were worn by what Billy Connolly calls 'beige people' . However, the fabric has now advanced and diversified quite a bit.
I've noticed the many modern faces of fleece because the fabric's inventors, Polartec (still leaders in the fleece market), keep stealthing the stuff onto my coat rack, inside my jackets. One soft shell is Marmot M1 fabric bonded with Polartec 'Windbloc' fleece; another Arc'teryx knitted zip-up is actually fleece with a crafty 'aesthetic outer' disguise. They seem to have solved all the issues I had with fleece. It's even eco-friendly and offers UV protection now. So I ordered a modern fleece mid layer, a Rab Shadow Hoodie, described quite clearly as an 'extremely versatile stretch fleece'.
When it arrived, the Shadow wasn't beige at all, in any sense of the word. The long length black top had a high neck, a balaclava-like hood and thumb loops. It was stitched together into an ergonomic woman shape from panels of fabric with contrast coloured flat-locked seams. I tugged an arm: it boinged like elastic. The zip-up top had a smooth DWR (durable water resistant) outerface and was made from a dense fabric called Polartec Wind Pro with 'hardface technology' - yet another modern face of Polartec fleece.
I wondered how Polartec's Wind Pro fabric compares with Gore's Windstopper. I assumed Wind Pro cuts a lot of wind, whereas Windstopper cuts all of it because it has a membrane in it - which would make Wind Pro more breathable for more active use. I asked Rab designer Helen Robinson and was told:
Rab designer, Helen Robinson
So how did the jacket perform?
This jacket basically sits on the fence between soft shell and fleece. With a foot in both camps, it offers great versatility. It can be a highly breathable yet also wind resistant outer layer, that's also durable and water repellant. Then, in really harsh weather, it can nestle comfortably under a waterproof hard shell and morph into a breathable mid layer. For walking or standing around in cold weather, I often wear a synthetic puff under it or a down gilet over it.
Fleece fabric was the Eureka! moment for Massachusets-based Malden Mills, now rebranded as Polartec. There's an American-style rags-to-riches story - apparently the company drove themselves to the brink of bankruptcy pouring money into faux fur fabric, as they thought that was going to take off big time. It didn't, but luckily their new 'Polarfleece' did.
The Polartec range of fabrics is now vast, and used by many outdoor gear manufacturers. As well as 'Classic' fleece, 'Sweater Knit', 'Windbloc' and 'Wind Pro', for example, there's also 'Power Shield Pro', a super soft shell fabric that has a hydrostatic head of 5,000mm (very waterproof) and body-hugging 'Power Stretch'.
The DWR (durable water resistant) finish keeps rain showers outside your layers; however be aware that the seams aren't taped, and there are lots of seams. These seams give the hoodie its close-fitted shape, but also let in heavy rain. (The Shadow is classed as water repellant not waterproof). The DWR finish also keeps most muck from penetrating.
When you're moving fast with just a base layer under it, because it's super-stretchy, the Shadow fits your body whatever position you're in. The thumb loops keep your hands and wrists a bit warmer. You can open two hip pockets with mesh inside to vent if you need to. Wind ripping through has always been the Achilles heel of traditional fleece, but the super-tight weave of the Wind Pro Polartec fabric means it has 4x more wind resistance than Classic fleece.
Moving more slowly
With a mid layer underneath, the Shadow proved perfect for cold weather climbing: stretchy, breathable, wind resistant, muck resistant and durable. It fits like a glove and blocks drizzle and showers.
Belaying in it I did get pretty cold though. While a friend switched between 'Time for Tea' and 'Embankment 4' at Millstone (suffering repetitive 'the grass is greener' syndrome) I ended up wearing both my down jacket and his over the Shadow. I did find the benefits of the hood and high neck though – if you zip the jacket all the way up it's like wearing a scarf – if you put the hood up as well then you're snugged into a balaclava (this works best if you have a hat on). Genius!
The Shadow's multi-functionality really shined on a ski mountaineering trip, which was a warm up for the Haute Route. It kept most of the weather out as an outer layer, but didn't make me overheat when skinning uphill, then was still comfortable as a mid layer if I needed to add a hard shell. There is nothing worse than having to take off an outer layer and a mid layer then put the outer layer back on in ming weather, when everyone else is ready to be off and you're still faffing.
Last week, the weather swung to bipolar extremes of whiteout and dazzling sunshine on the Haute Route, we were working hard, rarely stopping unless to put on or strip off ski skins, and the Shadow proved absolutely ideal for these conditions. I wore a warm Merino base layer under it, and put on a hard shell when approaching windy passes and summits or when the sky turned white and closed in. The thumb loops were useful too; keeping my hands warmish and leaving my fingers free when fitting or stripping ski skins.
Superb wind resistance, water resistance, breathability and stretch are the key pluses of the Shadow Hoodie. Nowadays fleece and soft shell are massive umbrella terms, which cover all sorts of garments that you can wear in the varying levels of weather that come below gale force winds and drenching rain. You balance varying amounts of breathability and stretch in return for more or less waterproofing.
The hoodie has some great features that increase its versatility even more – zipping up the high neck protects like a scarf, wearing the hood protects like a balaclava, and the thumb loops can keep your wrists and hands warm. A brilliant item that will quickly become a favourite – luckily it's durable to cope with lots of use.
MORE INFO: on the Rab Website