Oct 10, 2023

The Evolution of Fleece, From Scratchy to Snuggie


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By Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein

Even in the heyday of the polyester age — during the height of John Travolta and white bodysuits — when people wanted to stay warm, they still wore wool. And that venerable material had its downsides. It was notoriously itchy. When it got wet, it stank. And moths liked to eat it.

By the late 1970s, however, Malden Mills, a Massachusetts textile maker that specialized in baby bunting, began experimenting with polyester's outdoorsy potential. Under the direction of the mill's owner, Aaron Feuerstein, a team of engineers wound superfine polyester yarn into a dense fabric resembling terry cloth, only lighter. After its fibers were brushed, the fabric's volume greatly increased; they also provided insulation and could wick water away.

In 1981, through an unusual collaboration with Yvon Chouinard, owner of a little-known mountaineering outfitter called Patagonia, Feuerstein introduced his invention to the burgeoning sportswear market. "We had the finest technical group, engineering group and research group in the textile industry," recalls the father of fleece. "We built performance into the fabric. We were so proud of what we did."


The first-generation fleece, called Synchilla (as in synthetic chinchilla), was used in Patagonia's seminal Snap-T pullover (1985), which was subsequently made famous by family ski trips across the Northeast. "For many, many years," says Rob Bondurant, vice president of marketing at Patagonia, "Synchilla was the Kleenex of fleece, if you will."

Within a decade, however, fleece had become an inescapable element of daily life. And just as the fabric's lightness appealed to sportsmen, its colorfulness, lack of fur and relative inexpensiveness made it, in a word, trendy. Scott Schulman, who runs the Sartorialist, a popular style blog, is reminded of the transformation that jersey went through after Chanel used it in her early collections. Before that, he says, jersey "was thought of as underwear fabric."

Eventually, Lands’ End, L. L. Bean and others incorporated fleece in everything. "In the late ’90s, Gap had it to the max," explains Ingrid Johnson, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. According to Nate Simmons, director of marketing at Polartec, the successor company to Malden Mills, "It completely changed the way the world dresses for cold weather."


Ever since its early days, fleece has been continuously improved. The yarn — now about as fine as cashmere — was honed to prevent the fabric from pilling and wind from blowing through. As a result, the unmistakable fuzzy material is unusually lightweight and warm — an unreasonable expectation only a synthetic could fulfill. In 1993, Patagonia and Polartec began exploring how to make fleece from recycled content. The first iterations, however, were fraught with issues; they were also scratchy. By 2006, though, they were able to make recycled fabrics at costs comparable to the original.

Beyond embracing environmental issues, fleece's greatest impact has probably been on the eco-chic fashion industry that blossomed around it. No longer does a man, come winter, have to hide his svelte figure beneath dowdy layers of down and wool. And no longer does he have to wear it outdoors. Lands’ End, for instance, uses fleece for monogrammable dog jackets with reflective trim, bean bag covers and Christmas stockings. Of course, for $10 anyone can enjoy the Snuggie, a fleece blanket-cum-smock that no mountain climber ever could have imagined.


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