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As the weather gets colder, the roads get icier, and the winds get more blustery, it’s easy to think, Hey, I probably need a new coat. But for many people, that’s where the simplicity stops. There are so many coats to choose from out there—from wool peacoats to down puffers to insulated nylon shells—that simply taking a stroll through your local mall or digging deep into the internet at the start of the season in search of appropriate outerwear can seem a mighty and formidable task.
But you can make the right choice for you by taking into account a few factors. Here’s what to consider, according to a textile expert.
Determine what you need a coat for
First things first: What and where do you plan to wear your new outerwear? For example, the J. Crew Cocoon coat and L.L. Bean Rugged Ridge parka are both widely considered to be good-quality coats, but they fulfill different purposes: The J. Crew coat is a great option for commuting to and from work and dressier occasions on cold days, while the Rugged Ridge is ideal for a ski trip. So think about the typical winter forecast of where you live, your lifestyle, and what you like to wear in general before you go shopping.
Choose wool for damp and cool (but not frigid) weather
In general, wool is a good bet for a winter coat. It’s natural, breathable, and helps keep you insulated by trapping body heat between your skin and the dense material. And, because it's sourced from a sheep, it can help keep you dry, too. “Wool has some natural oil on it, like you or I have on our hair, so it repels water,” says Deborah Young, the assistant chair for textile science at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). “So it will keep you dry—not in a monsoon, but it will take moisture from the atmosphere and keep you warm when it’s wet.”
Because of this, wool is a good option for areas with cold, damp atmosphere, or a light drizzle—there’s a reason why the characters in BBC dramas are always shown wearing wooly button-up peacoats—but not as much for serious rain or snow. Wool does have a saturation point, and once it reaches it, you’ll probably be more soggy than you’d like. “It just holds onto that water and gets heavy,” says Young.
One common complaint people have about wool is that it’s itchy and causes irritation to the skin—but it doesn’t have to be that way. “Good wool shouldn’t do that,” says Young. If possible, get your hands on a wool coat before you buy it to ensure it feels good on you.
Choose down for arctic-like temperatures
Down—the small, ultra-soft feathers that come from the undercoat of a bird, usually a goose or duck—is warm because of tiny air pockets that form between the feathers that trap in body heat, keeping the wearer feeling toasty. Goose down is considered warmer, but duck down can be more affordable. “Down has always been the cadillac [of fillings],” says Young. “It has the highest weight-to-warmth ratio of any filling, so it will keep you warm [without weighing you down]—as long as you stay dry.”
That’s right: Down’s one, er, downside is that it isn’t water-resistant, which can be rough going if you get caught in a rainstorm and your coat doesn’t have a waterproof shell (though both of our picks below do). Soggy down can’t trap air, so you’ll end up wet and cold, explains Young.
If you’re getting a down coat, you should check its fill power, which is a numerical rating of the “loft” (basically fluffiness) of the feathers, to make sure it works for you. Fill ratings can range from about 300 (appropriate for above-freezing temperatures or as a base layer beneath a shell) to 900 (or visiting-Alaska-in-January warm)—the higher the number, the warmer the down will be.
Choose synthetic fill for water-resistant warmth with less bulkiness
Synthetic materials aren’t automatically inferior to down and wool when it comes to winter coats, according to Young. In fact, some manufactured fibers can have benefits over the natural ones. “Natural fibers are fabulous, but they have their limitations because they’re already ‘made’—we’re just shearing them off the animal,” she says. “Synthetics are engineered. In their early incarnations, they had this plasticky feel that felt cheap. Today, polyester can outperform natural fabric because it’s been engineered to do so. ”
This is especially true of synthetic insulation in winter parkas—almost always some kind of polyester fill—which can keep you as warm as a down fill without as much puffiness. It’s also hydrophobic, meaning it repels water, unlike natural down. Synthetic fill also tends to be more affordable than down. On the con side, synthetic insulation may be heavier in weight and less packable than down.
Some manufacturers also combine synthetics and natural fibers, another process that earned a bad rap over the years. But Young says it doesn’t deserve its reputation—although good-quality 100 percent natural fabrics can be luxurious and keep you warm, they tend towards the expensive side. Blended materials keep winter outerwear more financially attractive. “The purpose of blends is to blend the best of both worlds,” she says. “[For example,] sometimes a less-expensive wool can be scratchy. Blending it with a little polyester makes it softer and it also makes it less expensive. It’s about softening it and lowering the cost. It doesn’t necessarily lower the quality.”
Know what to avoid
Most winter coats are made of some combination of wool, down, polyester, or acrylic, so if you stick with those, you should be OK. But if you live in a cold climate and happen to come across a coat made entirely (or almost entirely) of rayon, it’s probably not going to be the best option. “Rayon is soft, it drapes beautifully, and it looks good, but it won’t keep you warm,” Young says. “It’s more decorative, as opposed to functional."
Inspect your finalist for signs of quality
A coat’s warmth can be determined by is fabric, thickness and, with some brands, a recommended temperature range. But you also want to pay attention to overall quality to ensure it lasts more than a season. “If you’re going to buy a coat, it’s an investment,” says Young. Much like sweaters, there are certain things you can evaluate on a coat to determine whether it will last a long time, like its lining, seams, buttons, and zipper. “You don’t have to be an expert to see if there are threads hanging off of a coat, or the buttons feel cheap,” Young says. “To look for quality, you want to look at the details. Check the buttons [to ensure they lay flat] and make sure the seams are straight and the hem is even, look for loose threads, and make sure it has a good lining in it.”
Also, try the coat on before you buy it (or before you take the tags off, so you may return it). If it feels itchy or seems like it might let a chill through, it won’t last very long—and, even if it does, you probably won’t want to wear it anyway.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
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