Q&A: How to choose your perfect winter coat
  • 28.11.17
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Q&A: How to choose your perfect winter coat

Is the cold weather coat a viable replacement for the down jacket? What is concealed inside a truly warm outerwear piece? How to choose and where to shop for the ultimate coat? Finally, how to take better care of your coat so that it could serve you for life?

Is the cold weather coat a viable replacement for the down jacket or the parka?

Hands down the parka is the most versatile and comfortable clothing item to wear in late fall and winter. Parkas are lined and usually hooded coats made from waterproof synthetic fibers. They are wearable and lightweight, protect well from the wind, combat moisture and dirt, almost don't lose shape and, all in all, are a high performance low maintenance items unlike coats proper or fur jackets. Add to this that parkas are intended to blend seamlessly with any other clothing you might wear be it a formal suit or an evening gown.

A quality winter coat, however, is perfectly capable of serving as a viable alternative to both down jackets and parkas. Long past are the days when winter coats were as bulky as a teddy bear costume on a par with sheepskin jackets and fur coats. State of the art insulation makes for the truly warm winter coat without compromising its stylish and lightweight qualities. It is reasonable to assume that such coat wins over the classic fur coat in terms of the price, practicality, and bioethics, not to mention its more on-trend look. The coat is obviously not as lightweight as the parka, it is higher-priced and is not meant to be machine washed, but the beauty and diversity of textures are sufficient to offset these alleged drawbacks.

How the winter coat is different from the trans-seasonal one?

Most trans-seasonal coats are not insulated and their capacity to combat the cold weather depends solely on the insulating properties of the fiber they are made from. Such coats are usually intended for low above-zero temperatures (not lower than +5°). The winter coat proper, however, has to be windproof and sufficiently insulated to withstand low temperatures ranging from 5 to 15 degrees below zero.

For classic winter coats more upscale manufacturers tend to use natural fibers. They are more costly than synthetic fibers and blends but are unsurpassed when it comes to the visual appeal, warmth, tactile qualities and stretch/recovery capability.

All insulated coats made of luxury wools (cashmere, alpaca, mohair, and the like) feature a thin PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) membrane layer laminated to an outer shell fabric - this is a purpose-made breathable textile with durable water repellent coating that serves as a high-tech barrier against the wind and excessive moisture during heavy snowfalls. No matter how well-insulated your coat is, if it's not windproof all your efforts are in vain.

Modern synthetic microfiber thermal insulation materials prove highly effective at maintaining a high ratio of insulation strength to thickness. They do not lose shape over time and do not have to be quilted, which yields thin and lightweight insulated coats and parkas that can contour to the body's curves. This produces an attractive alternative to virtually all kinds of down jackets as the latter are bound to have small diamond or rectangular quilted stitching patterns to keep the down from sinking to the bottom and are also way more bulky. Such materials preserve their essential qualities after the machine wash and dry cleaning and solve the ubiquitous problem of feather leakage. Coats filled this way easily survive temperatures down to 15 degrees below zero.

Other notable materials make use of sheep's wool as their base material. Essentially this is a rayon fiber mesh intertwined with the wool. Such insulation materials are virtually weightless, of high plasticity and add no extra volume. They are incorporated together with the ultra thin membrane in insulated trans-seasonal styles of coats that are perfect for cold fall or warm winter (think 8 degrees below zero) outfits. They are also used for sleeve insulation of classic winter coats, and as complimentary to the synthetic microfiber thermal insulation materials described above in the items intended for extreme cold weather (as low as 25 degrees below zero) to ensure more comfort for the wearer.

Other manufacturers opt for wool and cotton blends with a significant content of natural fibers to produce coats and parkas respectively. Unlike inexpensive man-made fibers, natural materials are "breathable". Oftentimes microporous membranes are employed to facilitate air permeability mechanisms, which, however, certainly adds to the cost of the final product. Yet for most practical purposes a basic 2-layer fabric with water repellent (WR) treated outer surface and polyurethane (PU) coating on inside are enough. The same applies to the coat: wool keeps you warmer than inexpensive synthetic fabrics, while the use of high-tech man-made fibers implies an above-average price point.

Winter coats often feature purpose-made insulation that is sufficiently thin. Its composition is usually as follows: 70% wool, 30% acrylic. This composition has stood the test of time. Thanks to the outer shell layer made of wool it is perfectly fine to wear such coats at ambient temperatures down to 15 degrees below zero, and when layered with a vest or a thin puffer jacket beneath they are capable of withstanding even lower temperatures. It is crucial to understand that temperature ranges are but provisional as the actual temperature value depends on area-specific climate characteristics, your footwear, your headwear, and your scarf, and, after all, on how you approach the wait/walk dilemma in the aftermath of your weekly shopping bout.

Features to look out for when buying a coat and other winter outerwear items

When looking for outerwear it is worth to focus on the quality of materials used, the insulation technology, and the fit.

The latter is a matter of personal taste. It is preferable to choose the styles that are generously sized but are not too bulky . Bear in mind that winter garments come thicker than regular clothing pieces. Even a thin cashmere jumper is thicker than a lightweight dress, which holds even more true for homey cardigans, sweatshirts, and suit jackets. Personal winter favorites include cocoon coats and Y-line off-the-shoulder coats. They are spacious enough to have your staple sweater layered beneath yet don't look "stuffed".

The outer shell layer material has to look appealing and have a soft hand. Testing for deformation qualities is pretty much straightforward: just rub the material in one of its lesser prominent areas as if scrubbing a stain when washing laundry by hand, and then run your hand along this section (in the case of the pile fabric run you hand along the pile). A quality pile fabric recovers its shape, which means it lends itself to easy-care with the clothes brush. If the crease do not disappear completely, then you run the risk of purchasing a difficult to care item that is most likely to get a little bit of a bad rap over time. Pileless thick woollen fabrics may develop bobbles, which is perfectly acceptable for wool, what is more important is their actual properties. If they are easy to get off just like bits of fluff, then it's fine, however if pilling affect the fabric itself and you pull out strands of fibers then think twice before deciding on a purchase.

The lining quality has its say as well. Lining made of synthetics is more wearable and has better abrasion resistance, but, on the other hand, is less breathable and builds up way more static cling. It is common for manufacturers to use linings made of rayon, which is considered a semi-synthetic fiber, to address the body's needs to breath incessantly and to deal with static electricity so pervasive once the temperatures drop. To enhance wearability they opt for very thick lining with satin finish that is otherwise used for fur coats. However, if worn regularly even such lining may thin in a matter of a couple of seasons.

Insulation is a topic of its own. It is preferable for the insulation type and the brand to be well-known and indicated on both the label and the manufacturer's website, with the label set including a sample of it as well. In this case the data on the insulation properties can always be retrieved from the net. As manufacturers are obliged to test their products and publish test results, data sheets for a given insulation solution may be readily available for your to study. Blanket terms like "a lined jacket" or, say, "quality Inuit insulation" tell nothing about actual product specifications. Bear in mind that coats made from staple coat fabrics and faux fur are not windproof - take your effort to learn how this issue is solved in a given product. Unless it's provided with a membrane or some other special technology, the insulation will just not work on a windy day.

It's great when the coat comes belted. On frosty mornings you will certainly appreciate tighter wear comfort, while the word "belted" in itself is enough to keep you going. Winter garments to layer beneath the coat are also all there just like warm scarves, gloves, and footwear. The systemic circulation connects all parts of the human body into one whole, that's why you're doomed to shiver with less than perfect footwear or gloves put on, no matter how impeccably insulated your coat is. Take good care of yourself, nurture yourself, and muffle yourself! Why not convert the energy your body wastes away just fighting against the cold weather into something more productive?

You are well-advised not to limit your pre-purchase inspection routine to checking whether the insulation is in place - look at the fabric weight as well: use 500+ grams per square meter as your reference value appropriate for winter clothing. The GSM number is one of those fabric properties that never make it to the label but it is possible to discern the difference by hand when comparing several coats in a row. Check the composition: blends are better than natural fabrics as they are more durable and less susceptible to creasing and pilling. Higher collars will cover most of the face, while a double-breasted label wrap coat will be better at protecting you from the wind.

5 easy ways to take care of your coat and make it last longer

1. Just like with shoes, allow your coat to rest. For optimum results avoid wearing the same coat for two days in a row. If that's not feasible, at least arrange for it a solid night of rest. The coat needs to be dried out and "take a breath". Even on low humidity days, the coat will still absorb the sweat and moisture from your body. When wet, fabric of the coat takes the shape that you give it in the process of drying out (think a perfect home blow dry). To this end use dedicated hangers strong enough to hold outerwear. Such hangers are provided with shoulder flares that offer several times more support than average. The girth of a hanger is also critical: best hangers come at least 5cm thick at the ends. Choose the right width that is closest to the width of your coat: 39 cm will suffice for the M size, whereas 40-41 cm long hangers will do for the L to XL range sizes. If you don't own a hanger, buy one: repairing a coat damaged by stretching and shoulder puckering will cost you more. Having put a coat on a hanger, spread the coat out evenly: first smooth out the collar, then make sure your closet has enough space to accomodate the coat full length and to freely slide your hangers back and forth, finally smooth out lapels and laps. Overnight coats made of organic fabrics "unshrink" and recover their original shape.

2. Coat cleaning is best when done with a lift off roller brush, but in case you deal with a pile fabric a velours roller brush comes in handy. Such roller brush is capable of not only removing dust and dirt, but also facilitates crease recovery.

3. Take a seriously dirty coat to the dry cleaner: under no circumstance should you wash your coat unless you want to end up with the coat shrunk to the size that suits a toddler.

4. If you need to remove moderate wrinkles, use the the steam generator iron or any of the irons that enable steam ironing, that is to say that most of electric irons current available on the market will do. Treat a wrinkled section with steam while holding the iron's base a short distance from the coat, then brush the pile with a roller brush and finally hang up the coat and let it cool down for a couple of hours. At the beginning/end of the season, it also makes sense to take advantage of professional ironing services (usually available from dry cleaners or clothing alterations and repairs): commercial ironing equipment is capable of restoring your clothes to tip-top shape no matter how damaged they are.

5. Avoid carrying a heavy handbag or one-strapping a backpack as they dig into your shoulder or the forearm. If you still go with backpacks - opt for the ones coated in smooth materials, otherwise straps will rub against your coat, stress the coat fabric and cause it to pill in no time at all.

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