One way to save on heating costs in the colder months is to wrap up warmer indoors – and to wrap up warmer outdoors, since warming ourselves up after growing cold outside accounts for heating usage, just as does maintaining our temperature inside.

Some years ago, after spending a period in a cold and mountainous country and finding myself rather ill-equipped in terms of clothing, I was looking to buy a new jacket. I went into an outdoor store in London and asked a shop assistant for advice. She told me about a particular kind of insulating material now being used in many of the newer mountain-sport jackets and asked whether I knew what it looked like. I replied that I didn’t and the assistant disappeared upstairs, returning after a minute with a little patch of gauzy white material which she proceeded to place on my palm.

Give it a couple of seconds“, she said.

I waited – and in barely any time at all, the bit of hand beneath the patch became discernibly hotter! The stuff turned out to be PrimaLoft, and it gave me a very palpable demonstration of different materials’ heat-giving properties. Here are four clothing materials to consider for keeping warm, both indoors and outdoors, saving your hard-working boiler some of the trouble.

1) Down

A particularly effective natural insulator, used in bedding and outerwear such as jackets. It is obtained from birds; specifically, the very fine feathers found beneath the coarser surface feathers. The fluffiness of down gives it loft and enables it to trap air and retain heat. There are various types of down depending on the kind of bird from which it is obtained, including ‘eiderdown’ – which as a word isn’t simply a crude simple unit, I discover, but a compound noun composed of ‘eider’ and ‘down’, signifying down feathers obtained from the female eider duck.

2) PrimaLoft

Mentioned above, PrimaLoft is actually a brand (hence the curious capitalisation) and according to its official web site, the insulation ‘was originally developed for the U.S. army as a water-resistant, synthetic alternative to down’. Given the source of down, and the manner in which it is sometimes obtained, there can be an animal cruelty issue with that material which PrimaLoft avoids. Another advantage is that unlike down, PrimaLoft maintains its loft – and therefore most of its insulating capability – when wet.

3) Wool

WoolYou know what, though? Despite its advantages, I never actually bought a PrimaLoft jacket that day in London. They were pretty pricey and I didn’t anticipate returning to the mountains anytime soon. So for everyday purposes I stuck with the winter coat I already had, which was made of wool. Coming from sheep, wool has comparable animal cruelty issues to down. Like the synthetic PrimaLoft, however, this natural material goes on insulting when wet, due to its fibres containing a crimp which prevents them clumping together and retains trapped air intact. Wool is used for outer wear like the above two materials, but is also an ideal material for mid-layer clothing such as pullovers, and base-layer clothing such as thermal underwear, where the crimp of its fibre again performs a heat-conserving function – this time by wicking moisture away from the bare skin.

4) Polyester

Layering of clothes can be important in keeping warm, with air being trapped between garments serving as thermal insulation. Often in combination with other synthetic materials such as spandex and nylon, polyester is frequently used in base layer clothing. Synthetic base layers can be specially developed to wick moisture from the body in a similar way to wool, although unlike wool the wearer may be less prone to rashes from contact with the skin. On the other hand, some people seem to be allergic to such synthetics and certain health-conscious folk maintain that clothing made from such materials contain harmful and invisible toxins.

[Photo by pippalou and clarita]