Pursuit of Parka

Photo: vtarmynavy.com

Not really my look. Photo: vtarmynavy.com

At the end of last winter, I got fed up with my winter parka and ditched it. It was a department store jacket made by Esprit. I loved it when I bought it because I thought it was cute and it was my first jacket insulated with down (although I have no problem with synthetics).

My old jacket before its retirement

My old jacket before its retirement

I wore it for 4 winters. Since the surface of the jacket was made of light-weight polyester taffeta, it continually shed feathers through the jacket fabric, all over my closet and my car. It turns out it was lined with a combination of down and feathers – I didn’t know enough to avoid that mix. Feathers are sharp and pointy – which you know if you’ve ever had a feather pillow!

It was warm, but on rainy winter days, I had to switch to a rain jacket with a fleece sweater underneath. I didn’t like needing two jackets. I finally lost patience last winter. I had changed jobs and was walking to work every day. I’d often get caught in rain or snow squalls en route. Not only did the jacket soak through, but the feathers stank!

I also have a wool-blend coat that I wear for dressier occasions. It is warm too, but it can’t get wet beyond a mild drizzle, or it also smells bad and takes forever to dry!

By not keeping my old parka, I wanted to force myself to get a new one early in the season. I thought I had only two criteria: warm and waterproof. But really I had a lot: warm, waterproof, long, flattering fit, hood, removable faux fur trim, cuffs inside the sleeves, and big outer pockets. The new one would have to keep me completely dry for at least 15 minutes, and be warm enough for our annual 2 weeks of -20ºC days in January (this will sound wimpy to anyone from the Prairies!)

I started shopping early in October, when the new season’s jackets were just coming in. I checked the sales flyers every week, and swooped in to view anything promising. None of the department store parkas were marked as waterproof. Some said water resistant, but most had no labels or ratings. I didn’t want to end up with another dud like my old one, so I decided it must be clearly marked as guaranteed waterproof.

Next I checked the websites of some stores and brands that I recognized as winter or sports wear. But I drew the line cost-wise and didn’t consider Canada Goose, which start at $695! I immediately got confused over water resistant, water repellent and water proof. Every brand defines them differently. Some fabrics were sprayed or taped. There was a scale showing that some could absorb x amount of water under test conditions! But not many brands participated in the ratings.

I started looking in sports stores for a “technical” jacket, rather than in fashion shops. I would have to pay a lot for a brand like Columbia or Patagonia. I was surprised that most of their jackets were made for “street wear” or “city wear,” which is code for “keeps you dry long enough to get from your house to your car.” So even those premium brands only had a few waterproof jackets. One thing I didn’t expect is that most winter sports jackets are not very warm because they assume you are very active with your snowscooter (for example) and that you wouldn’t be out if it were raining or blizzarding!

So I made this great find. Canadians will laugh. There is a store called Mark’s which is located inside Canadian Tire stores (these are hardware/builder/auto stores). Mark’s sells work wear but some fashion stuff. On my way to Mark’s, I saw that Canadian Tire itself was selling a women’s parka. I thought it might be good because, hey, they do rugged stuff for construction workers and hunters. It was tagged as warm, waterproof and windproof, and I could even get a funky colour! I was feeling very smug about my anti-fashion, cheap parka. Until I walked to work in the rain and it soaked right through in 15 minutes! I would not even rate it as water resistant. Definitely not suitable for snow shovelling, dog walking, or any “real” winter wear, despite the label. I took it back.

I went home and trawled through web pages making a list of jackets that were guaranteed waterproof. I was concerned about the time frame for ordering a jacket online because I needed it now, and what if I had to do an exchange through the mail? I trekked back to the sports stores. They only carried 2 or 3 of the brands I’d researched.

So what did I get? A North Face “Brooklyn” jacket, which sounds like city wear but was supposedly guaranteed waterproof. I paid at the top of my price range hoping it would be an investment for years to come. It was only available in black or khaki green, so I chose the green, which is somewhere on the olive/sage spectrum. They strangely call it “black ink green.” I was fearful about paying so much money for a coat, and was determined to return it if it weren’t perfect!

Naturally, it hasn’t been cold out. We even had 12ºC days this week! I normally wear a winter jacket when it gets down to about 2ºC, and as I mentioned, our worst is about -20. So far I have only been able to test it at 0-2º and of course it is fine for that. Yesterday I came home at 9 pm in a downpour and quickly switched to the new parka to test its water resistance. I walked around the block (1 km) in the driving rain and I am happy to report it passed with flying colours. The water beaded up and rolled off it like a proper raincoat, even though it feels like brushed cotton. I hung it up and it dried in no time.

I am vain enough to admit there was another waterproof parka at Mark’s I didn’t buy because it was unflattering on me, despite costing way less.

I never imagined it would take me two months to find a jacket for Canadian winters that really stands up to the weather, even on a generous budget. Apparently the criteria I set are for “extreme conditions,” but I think they are just normal.

Have you ever devoted a lot of time and energy to the “perfect” item of clothing?

By the way, the store where I bought the parka has a 60-day return policy. If it is not warm enough in mid-January, that sucker is going back!

Update Nov 2015: The jacket is fantastic and it got me through our worst winter ever. Unfortunately, North Face has discontinued it. The nearest match for the 2015/16 season is their Dunagiri parka.

44 comments

  1. be careful about cleaning them. i had a waterproof anorak which was really very waterproof until foolishly i put it in the wash and the detergent removed all the water proofing. i find women’s waterproof jackets extend right to the knees, unlike the men’s which seem to end about mid thigh. i would love it if men jacket gets down to the knees too but it never happens. i suppose it looks too sissy to have it down to the knees for men.

    • I was wondering about that; thanks for the warning. Yeah, I have noticed the difference in length too. Maybe guys feel the longer length restricts their stride?

      • i am curious as to what they tell you in regards to cleaning it? what are the cleaning directions on that garment?
        as for the knee length men’s clothing… i wonder whether the makers call them coats. haha. so they would say to me if u want coats get u to the coats dept. though with me so short, their coats will be like down to my ankles.

      • I checked the tag; it says machine wash, tumble dry low, no bleach, no iron, no dry clean. I would be afraid to try it, though! I agree about the coats – women’s parkas are so long now that I thought they would be called coats!

  2. It will definitely be tested for a warmth where you live. Be cozy.

  3. I love your choice. I have a Seeland coat which hunters use (even though I don’t hunt) a big investment but toasty warm. I also have an old original Barbour wax jacket which comes to my knees, it still smells of wax unlike the modern versions but it’s the only coat that will cope with continuous downpours. Well I am in England you know x

    • Seeland sounds like a great choice; we don’t have that brand here but lots of other hunting jackets. The hunters prefer camo prints, though! I have heard of waxed jackets but have never seen one; an old-school technology and I bet it will last forever!

  4. Gam Kau

    I have a LandsEnd long down parka which is very light and warm, but barely water resistant, making me prone to coming home a soggy mess after an early morning dog walk. It looks nice, just not that practical. Then I have a past knee length long LLBean raincoat with a wool liner which is warm enough in winter if I wear layers. Practical, but not particularly attractive. Then I have an Eddie Bauer hip length parka with a removable fleece liner that is very warm and also waterproof. It looks nice, is practical, but not truly long enough for wintery weather! So 3 parkas, none completely satisfactory! Parka quest continues…

  5. EcoCatLady

    Interesting… in these parts when it’s warm enough to fall as liquid, it’s also too warm for down. BTW, what’s the difference between a parka and a coat? I thought parka, coat and jacket were interchangeable terms… silly me.

    • Hi Cat, we get a lot of weather between -2 and +2 C (-5 to +5 F) when it keeps changing from snow to rain and back. On days when it’s +2, raining and windy, it feels really cold with the windchill and a winter jacket is better. I think here on the coast we get a lot of cold winter rain.

      Well, I see parkas as a sub-category of jackets. I would say it needs a fur-trimmed hood, and be appropriate for cold winter weather, before it qualifies as a parka! But the lines are blurred because there are fashion parkas that don’t stand up to cold weather very well, and there are also parkas as long as coats, which seems to be the trend this year!

      • EcoCatLady

        Well… that weather sounds positively miserable! Rain is fairly strictly a warm weather phenomenon here.

  6. I also have a really tough time finding jackets & coats but for different reasons! I like to be able to move comfortably in all of my clothes, and I always have this issue with jackets where I can’t comfortably lift my arms above shoulder height. I haven’t heard others complaining about this, so I think it might just be my body proportions (long arms, broad shoulders, long torso) that make everything ill-fitting on me. I usually end up with jackets that are a loose-fitting shape, or are too big, which is good for layering at least!

  7. Alice

    Well done, that’s stylish and it seems to be a keeper! I wish that you will have a warm and dry winter wearing it! I wish that I had devoted more time when I was looking for a jacket; some years ago, I bought the first Columbia that caught my eye and zipped up easily. Well, it turned out that it is an XS (which wasn’t even my size back then let alone now that I have gained some weight). It still fits bit it’s tight and the worst is that the sleeves are way too short. It would have been an ‘investment’ as it was bought on discount and it’s the warmest I have ever had. I keep it though as a reminder 🙂

    • I know what it feels like to make a choice too quickly and have to live with it for a long time! Now when I see something I like in a store, I go home and look it up and think about it for a while.

  8. That is just the coat I have been looking for – I think it is a great choice – wish we had a Marks over here. We were told you wash waterproof jackets in real soap like Lux soap flakes to preserve the waterproofing.

  9. Nice find 🙂 I love the length – I am really tall and have trouble finding jackets that are long enough. Having said that though, I don’t own a parka at all, just a raincoat for hiking. I also have a wool coat for winter, but only wear it 2-3 times a year because it’s not cold enough here! I also had trouble finding it and ended up buying it from Ripcurl (a surf brand).

    • I bet the thought of warm winter parkas is nauseating to you right now because of your summery temperatures! I wonder if warm winter wear is only available in the areas of Australia where the seasons are more dramatic?

      • Fiona

        Even down south, I’ve never seen lovely ‘fashion’ parkas like you bought (but still waterproof and properly warm.)

        We seem to only have technical outerwear: lots of Goretex jackets, oilskins (Japaras) and then down suits for skiing. I have a 20 year old Goretex that is great – but sadly, not a fashion item!

      • I had an old Goretex jacket for 20 years, too! I think we only have oilskins for fishing folks – and they are probably synthetics now.

  10. Fiona

    Love your choice – very stylish and a good colour. My mind can’t compute on every other level though! From where we are, it’s like you are living in an Extreme Adventure reality TV show. If I was going to walk to work in snow I think I’d wear a down snowsuit so I could survive. I love your jacket but it doesn’t look survivalist enough for the conditions. And who are these Prairie people?!

    • Thanks. We would say our winters are moderate compared to other areas of Canada, as proven by us getting cold winter rain so often, and not always snow. When I lived in Saskatoon, the temperatures went down to -40 but it was very dry; not much snow. For those conditions, a lot of people liked long down coats; and fur was not unheard of (less so now, I am sure, because of protests). My parka has 550 fill down which is for “everyday” conditions. But even the most expensive Arctic parka from Canada Goose only has 675 fill down (rated to -30+). What really counts is how windproof it is and whether it can be fastened snugly around the neck, cuffs, etc.

  11. Holly

    Oh boy, does this resonate with me! I spent may fruitless hours last February trying to find a replacement puffy coat for the one I had which was truly worn out. It’s my main coat for work, worn whenever it gets below 32*F/0*C. That’s pretty much our temps for most of December through mid-March, though we have anomaly years where it’s warmer. Our lows get as low as -22*F/-30*C, with -5*F/-20*C being fairly common. I’m not Prairie, but pretty close. 😉

    My requirements for that coat was that it had to cover my butt, have a detachable hood, not contain down, be a color other than black, reasonably cute and a little less casual than a parka. I have a different jacket I usually wear for casual, but not when it is totally frigid. So the puffy coat can’t be so dressy as to not work for casual wear as well.

    But I simply could not find a coat or jacket which would work. What is it with coat sizing? It’s all across the board! I was trying on coats up to 3 sizes larger than my usual clothing size and they still did not fit right. I got so discouraged at the process that I gave up and finished the winter looking like a forlorn and hapless street person. By the end of March that old coat had a broken zipper and a hanging patch pocket. It was so worn out I wanted to burn it or shred it by the time the slightly higher temperatures in April set me free from it.

    This October I decided I would not spend hours again. I would simply go online and find a coat which would meet my requirements, and I’d be ready to roll when the cold temperatures hit. And guess what? I got it right the first shot out of the gate this time! But I was due, it was payback for those fruitless hours last February.

    I paid more than what they are selling it for now, but I’m glad I didn’t wait as the cold temperatures came in November this year. http://www.kohls.com/product/prd-1777951/apt-9-hooded-puffer-jacket-womens.jsp
    I guess the moral of both of our stories is “if at first you don’t succeed…” So yes, yes, there must be a coat for everyone, even if takes many hours to find it.

    • Lovely jacket, Holly! I’m glad it didn’t take extra effort this year. Did you get it in blue? I found it discouraging last winter when I realized I needed a new jacket. The winter outerwear was sold off in January to make way for the spring lines, so not much hope of getting a new winter jacket in Feb or Mar!

  12. I hear great things about North Face. It is pricier but you’re paying for quality and it’ll last you longer. I spend a lot of time researching my purchases. Occasionally, I will go with my gut but normally I’d agonize about it forever – mostly because I’m just indecisive though. ^__^;

  13. Thank goodness buying cold weather clothing isn’t top of my list of needs lol
    Trying to find a new pedestal fan that fits my needs is my problem at the moment 🙂
    Air con is great but not always necessary
    Cathy

    • Funny, we got a new heating system this year that can be run for air con in the summer. We get maybe 3 weeks each summer when it might be necessary 🙂 We think it’s blazing hot when the temperature gets over 26 C!

  14. I can’t begin to understand how hard it would be to get a coat that can take the cold, the wet and look stylish! Living in France, a wool coat was enough (it doesn’t really snow, and heavy rain seems uncommon). That being said, buying coats in Australia is a waste of time in my experience, they aren’t usually suitable for any sort of Europe or US style cold, so my wool coat I bought in 2006 is still in circulation (aside: must replace the lining, as the split repairs are excessive!)

    I love that you have such a long returns period, it’s increasingly hard to return things in Australia, consumer law doesn’t really let us ‘change our mind’ – I can only hope that big multi nationals with permissive policies will increase the competition locally.

    • I can’t think of any equivalent situation here! Maybe if I planned a trip to Australia in January and needed clothes? There is no way I could find anything appropriate for +40. I would probably wear jeans and a hoodie and bring my parka because I would need it to get to the airport. Then I would arrive and pass out from heat stroke because I would not be acclimatized! I’d have no idea how to take care of myself in that weather. (On my 2 trips to Washington DC, it was 38, and I could barely stay outside 20 minutes before fleeing for air conditioning!)

      The returns policies here keep getting better.

  15. Nice jacket! I love North Face products and in Seattle it was the only kind of coat I wore (actually I usually paired, as you did, a fleece NF jacket under a NF rain shell for optimal warmth and waterproofness). In Vegas it never really gets cold cold so all of my winter gear has been stored away for a couple of years.
    p.s. How you survive -20 winters is beyond me!
    p.s.s. Happy Thanksgiving (that’s American Thanksgiving as I realize your Canadian Thanksgiving was in October)!

    • What is the coldest place you’ve lived, April? It is tough finding something for both cold weather and rain/waterproofness. I am finding the 2-in-1 jackets (shell and fleece liner) are not as available as they used to be, and many of them are too short, just waist length. I was surprised to find the jacket I bought is supposedly fashionable. I was on campus at a local university last week and every other college student was wearing one, same style, same colour! But next year they will be on to something new and I will hopefully have mine for a decade 🙂 – looking like a very unfashionable granny by then!

  16. Yay! I’m glad to hear you found one you like. Hopefully this will be your last winter coat purchase for a while! It’s been pretty warm here too, only a few days with highs below freezing so far. 🙂

  17. The Brooklyns were £300 here, but you can find them reduced to £220 – very expensive, I very nearly went with a NF Metropolitan last year, but bought something else instead. Our winters are milder than yours (for the most part), and I thought I might find it too hot…although ask me in January and I might regret that decision!! 🙂

    Love your choice!

    • Thanks. The Canadian price was $379 and I got it for $322. Then it went on discount this week so I took my receipt back for a price match and my final price was $252 and a free toque, LOL! That is still very expensive for me but I am trusting it will last. So far it has stood up to two rain storms and -6C so I am encouraged!

  18. What a long process for what, I think, would be a necessary item. I’m struggling to think what to wear in London in March. 2 to 12°C is very cold for me (the temp in March). I do have ski parkas (for me a parka is something that is water resistant and padded) but I want to look stylish. Dilemma!

    I thought Canada would be the home of waterproof, stylish, warm jackets?! If you can’t get one, where on earth would you be able to?

    • It’s sad when even Canadians don’t need proper winter jackets because all they do is walk from their front door to their car. I would have thought there would be a lot more available because people have to walk their dogs in the rain and snow!

  19. Pingback: Keep on Marching | An Exacting Life

  20. Pingback: Jackets and Boots | An Exacting Life

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