Though hardly exciting, a midweight fleece is one of the most useful of outdoor garments, equally handy as your main jacket in fair-to-middling weather, and as a midlayer in colder and windier conditions. Typically a lot less windproof than softshell, fleece tends to be stretchier and more breathable, and while its warmth-for-weight virtues often go unsung, every climber or hillwalker should probably have one (only one?). For many years an old Mountain Equipment Shroud was my midweight fleece of choice. Aside from being a midweight fleece with a full-length zip and a hood, this new version shares little but the name. This is the humble midlayer taken to a higher level, retaining the breathability and versatility of fleece while adding weather performance a bit closer to that of a softshell. Looks like I've got a new favourite.
As a branch of the fashion industry, albeit a specialised niche with performance and functionality at its heart (we'd hope) the outdoor clothing trade is driven by fashion's need for constant novelty. Most products go through changes and updates as the seasons turn - sometimes slight tweaks that it's hard to see as genuine improvements, but occasionally a more radical overhaul. It's the latter case with the new Shroud.
There's a Shroud for men, and one for women - though the women's version is not offered in plus sizes. At 1.83m (6 foot) tall and reasonably broad, I'm fine in my standard men's size Large. As a midlayer its 'active fit' is fairly close, so you'll get it over a long sleeved baselayer, but there isn't excess fabric to bulge and get in the way.
The Shroud seems to be made for gibbon arms: on me there's some excess length in the sleeves, and while that does mean nice warm wrists it is a bit annoying having the cuff sitting on the heel of the hand. At the same time I find the body a fraction short - often my experience with Mountain Equipment clothing, though we're all built differently and those with a shorter trunk won't have this issue. At the front the hem sits only just below my waist, and while the rear drops a lot lower I'd have preferred a couple of centimetres more at the front to really keep the midriff covered. My previous Shroud (circa 2013) is noticeably longer.
The arm articulation could be better on me, too; despite the fabric's stretch I do get more hem lift than I'd like when the arms are raised. Slip the Shroud under a harness, though, and I find it's pinned in place and does generally stay tucked. I've worn it as a midlayer on several winter mountaineering days this season, and tend to forget it's on - in a good way.
I make my size L 531g (ME say 520g, size not specified), which for its thickness and general warmth seems very fair. Weight-wise it's on a par with other midweight full-zip hooded fleeces in my cupboard, in Polartec Powerstretch and similar, whilst offering a bit more weather performance and at least as much insulation.
Two different fleecy fabrics are used strategically. In the bulk of the jacket it's something called Cycloknit, which is just brilliant. On the inner face this has a thick, furry, pile-like texture that's lovely and snug against a bare arm. With its fluffy loft this side feels like it's trapping warm air really effectively, and for its middling weight and thickness I do find the Shroud a very warm layer. It is significantly warmer, for instance, than my old more traditionally fleece-like fleece of the same name.
While it's furry inside, Cycloknit's outer side is densely knitted, giving you more the look and feel of a softshell than a standard fleece. I've found this has appreciably better wind resistance than typical fleece fabrics, and it's a bit more effective at shrugging off snow and light moisture too. When wearing the Shroud on the move in changeable winter weather I've been able to get away without adding a shell for longer than I might have imagined. It may not have quite the weather resistance of a full-weight softshell, but I'd be willing to bet it's stretchier and more breathable than most, and seems very quick drying too. Mountain Equipment say it's a halfway house between traditional fleece and double weave softshell, and I'd agree that's a fair summary.
Even though Cycloknit itself is pretty stretchy stuff, the Shroud also has small panels of something called Pontetorto Tecnostretch 238, a lighter weight stretch fleece, under the arms and in the cuffs. This boosts breathability in the armpits, which can't be a bad thing. I can't say it's adding much to my mobility.
The simple elastane-bound hood is snug-fitting, with a nice high collar that gives welcome chin coverage when it's windy. There's no volume adjustment or structure in this hood, but if it's windy enough to need it then you're going to want a shell over the top anyway, at which point you'll be using the Shroud's soft hood under a more weatherproof one.
Though it's stretchy, I struggle to pull this hood over a helmet - doing so gives me too much hem lift. It's soft and low-profile enough to fit underneath instead, but I find the chin strap of a helmet and the high collar of the Shroud don't work well together, so it's uncomfy on the throat and looking upwards is compromised unless you zip down the collar. For climbing, you'll probably end up not using the hood, and as a bit of a hood-on-every-layer sceptic, I'd have liked to see a hoodless version of the Shroud. It's good on a windy walk-in, or a cold hillwalking day of course, so I'll concede that midlayer hoods do have their uses.
Cut into the fleece to give you somewhere warm to put your hands, the two zipped lower pockets are large enough to hold a hat or gloves. With an open mesh lining, they can double as impromptu vents too. However they're placed low, so become more or less unusable once you're wearing a harness or rucksack hip belt. Admittedly, for a midlayer this is far less of a concern than it would be in a shell. A large chest pocket is also provided, and I use this a lot more than the hand pockets anyway since we all need somewhere warm and out of the way to carry a phone in winter.
A lot of midweight fleeces have a hem drawcord. My old Shroud does, but the new version doesn't, and while there's a lot to be said for simplicity I think the fit and general feeling of snugness might have benefitted from having some way to tighten the hem.
The Shroud's name seems a bit ominous, but let's assume it's homage to a couple of famous ice routes, not what you'd be wrapped in if you fell down one of them. I've been very attached to the new Shroud this winter. I love its warmth, its weather-resistant feel, and its practicality, and if I could personally have benefitted from a longer body and a bit less hem lift, I've no doubt others will get on better with the cut. There's no denying that £160 is an awful lot to pay for a midweight midlayer, but then this is not your average fleece.
Mountain Equipment say:
A warm and highly mobile fleece jacket for cold weather mountaineering and ski touring. Densely knitted, high loft Cycloknit fabric is combined with lighter and lower bulk Pontetorto® Tecnostretch fleece inserts to make this an exceptionally warm technical layer. Sufficiently windproof to be worn alone in better conditions it's also a formidable mid-layer under a shell in severe weather.
- Sizes: S-XXL (men) 8-16 (women)
- Weight: 531g size L (our weight)
- 259g Cycloknit fabric; wind resistant and warm
- Bluesign® approved Pontetorto® Tecnostretch 238 fleece inserts
- Elastane bound hood
- Active fit
- YKK® centre front zip
- 2 zipped hand pockets with concealed zips
- Napoleon chest pocket