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).
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.