The very word ‘parka’ comes from the Aleut language, a Russian dialect connected with the Nenet people. It was their word for “animal skin”. The first parkas were made from the hides and fur of seal and caribou.
The native peoples who wore them needed something to keep them warm and dry in the harsh, snowy climate. They were worn in different numbers of layers based on season and were custom tailored to the individual. The Inuits had practical parkas for hunting and parkas decorated with intricate beadwork or animal teeth just to be worn around the tribe.
The modern parka is made of modern materials. These materials are often manmade, but some find that no artificial material can beat the warmth of all natural down. Other people prefer their parka to be cruelty-free, whether to a living animal or the environment.
These days, real fur is about as popular as Cruella De Vil at the Westminster Kennel Club. There is debate on whether or not wearing wool is cruel. Whether or not shearling is cruel depends on how you feel about lamb chops.
And fleece isn’t what you think it is! Let’s look at the different types of material modern parkas are made out of.
Polyethylene terephthalate, better known as polyester, is the result of a chemical reaction that involves petroleum, air, and water. This artificial fiber is thermoplastic, which means that it can be melted down and then reformed. It is extremely water-resistant.
While this means it can keep water out, it also means it doesn’t absorb or wick away moisture either. It isn’t very breathable nor is it a sustainable or biodegradable material. Polyester does have being durable and waterproof in its favor.
It can also be made out of recycled water bottles.
Nylon was invented in 1935 by Dr. Wallace Carothers for the DuPont company as a cheaper alternative to silk. It is made from the byproducts of oil refinery. Different formations of the polyamide polymers used to make nylon results in different types of material.
Like polyester, nylon is a thermoplastic man-made material. However, it is more durable and weather resistant than polyester. Nylon is waterproof, but not breathable.
However, this does make it even warmer than polyester. Both materials are resistant to wrinkling and mildew.
The modern parka is typically a shell of a water-resistant material stuffed with an insulating material. One material used in insulating parkas is down, the warm and soft under feathers of a duck or goose. Down is fluffy and so forms thousands of miniscule air pockets which trap in the warm air and retain heat.
This aids in keeping the wearer quite warm in the cold winter weather. Down is warm, but not at all water-resistant. It will not be a good insulator if it gets wet and will take a rather long time to dry.
Polyester is a versatile material. The fibers can be woven into small, intertwined filaments that mimic lofty clusters of down. Getting wet will not change its insulation properties.
The fine particles can trap in heat almost as well as down. Synthetic insulation is heavier than down, but it is more breathable and easier to dry out. Synthetic insulation is less expensive than down and is hypoallergenic.
Down is held to be warmer than synthetic insulation, but synthetic insulation may be just warm enough and is superior in many other ways.
Greek myths and nursery rhymes have led us to believe that “fleece” is just another word for wool. Maybe it was at one time, but not anymore! Today, fleece is a synthetic fabric made to simulate sheep’s wool.
The fibers used to make fleece could be polyester, cotton or a blend of the two. It’s a great insulator that repels water and is actually quite breathable. Unlike natural wool, fleece is hypoallergenic.
It should be noted that fleece is prone to piling and its texture makes it prone to static.
Also known as faux fur, this may be used to trim the hood and cuffs of a parka. It’s far less expensive than the real deal and no minks had to die. It has the same texture as real fur but can come in literally any color.
Faux fur is usually made with acrylic polymers. It is lightweight and springy, simulating the texture of fluffy fur. Pile resists water so that it dries quickly.
It is super durable compared to real wool, repelling insects and mildew as well as standing up well under UV light. Methods to create pile results in a quality product at a low price.
Wool is a natural fiber spun from the sheared natural fleece of sheep, goats, rabbits and other animals. The wool used in winter coats like parkas is generally from sheep. The shearing process is painless to the sheep and even keeps them comfortable in the summer.
Wool can be woven into a variety of fabrics and is surprisingly durable. This elastic material retains heat very well, Steam cleaning will remove any wrinkles from wool. Sometimes wool can be a little too elastic and can be easily twisted out of shape.
Shearling is the tanned skin of a sheep with the wool still attached. It is leather and wool in one product. It is that rare combination of both insulating and breathable.
It can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture and still not feel wet. The lanolin in shearling makes it antibacterial and easy to clean. Shearling is strong and durable, requiring minimal care.
It is resistant to wind, fire and static. It is a versatile fabric that only vegans and people with severe wool allergies will have a problem with.
The modern parka is most likely to be made with synthetic materials. However, these materials are built to match and even exceed the capabilities of natural materials. Thermoplastic materials such as polyester, nylon or acrylic do not biodegrade easily.
However, they are quite durable, meaning it will be quite a long time before a garment made with these materials will ever end up in a landfill. What’s more, they can be manufactured from recycled materials. A material that is both insulating and breathable is hard to come by, but necessity is the mother of invention.
If there is a demand for a material that is neither smothering nor too permeable to be practical, there will be a supply. Parkas are typically built with the purpose of keeping the wearer warm in cold weather, but they need not be sweltering.