We might love it, but we're not the biggest fleece fanatics in history. Mythical as he is, that mantle would go to Jason- who took his Argonauts- sounding like some proto-Paragon Sports boosting squad- crew on a mission to find the Golden Fleece back in 800 BC. That was one hell of a garment — shorn from a very rare winged ram and guarded by a dragon. Pelias knew that thing had bragging rights. With a single snap pocket, that thing could have pushed fashion forward by thousands of years. But the robes and cloaks stayed, and the whole fleece situation ended messily. Fleece gave us the original performance fabric — wool — from the very start until infinity.
When legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led the Nimrod Expedition to the Antarctic between 1907 and 1909, he opted to wear Jaeger fleece lined trousers but a Burberry coat for extra swagger, with the then brand-new gaberdine fabric being the WINDSTOPPER of its day. Old tech met new tech. Pure wool would be used in hardcore expedition outfits for years to come. But fleeces got heavy, stayed wet when they did get wet, and they smelt of sheep, or camel. To be truly effective, they were bulky as hell too.
By the mid 1950s, U.S. Navy Antarctic expeditions included nylon fleece elements that dried a little quicker than natural equivalents. Helly-Hansen didn’t just make those colorful coats that the Mobb wore — this Norwegian brand was a relentless innovator that helped create the principle of the layering system, in which the fleece would become essential, Helox PVC gear. Working with Norwegian Fiber Pile Inc. in 1961, they launched Fiberpile synthetic fleece.
The 1965 edition of the ‘U.S. Naval Polar Manual’ recommends wearing minimally conductive fleece to create a dead-air space. It recommends a wool pile and Orlon (the original acrylic fiber) pile or Epernyl nylon fleece manufactured by New York’s Official Fabrics company, or Fialon nylon fleece. Synthetics are prised in the manual for their lack of shrinkage, water shedding, durability, elasticity and, ominously, a lack of foreign body reaction in a puncture wound. They lose points for melting in flames and turning brittle and cold. Probably best to avoid the terrifying sounding nylon-fiberglass combination textiles which, “are said to be almost explosive and burn like magnesium.”
With its warmth, temperature regulating, fire resistant, moisture wicking and water repellent ways, this was the technology of its time. Camel hair fleece in a sleeping bag was a big deal for a moment after the benefits of wool were extolled in the late 1800s and the brilliantly named, Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woolen System Company was founded.
Credit: 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition
There are ethics in synthetics. You'd think that the outcome of a chemical process would be a soulless mess. Bland, identikit, in step gear. The original outdoor CEOs and founders were an industrious bunch – as exploratory in problem solving as they were in vertical climbs and arctic adventures. Rest in peace Doug Tompkins. Salutes to Wayne Gregory, Yvon Chouinard, Gerry Cunningham and the other living legends.
Solid-fiber polyester Patagonia Pile (not dissimilar to the Helly-Hansen invention) had been part of the range at Chouinard’s Great Pacific Iron Works store since 1977. His 1978 book ‘Climbing Ice’ mentions the issues with wool and his predilection for pile at the time, “A day spent in the wet arctic winds of Scotland will turn any wool-dressed climber into a solid popsicle.” Wind, pilling and bulk were issues with it, though experiments with a shell outer were already in place. North Face’s Wilderness Fleece, felt-like bunting pile, nylon piles, polypropylene pile and a lighter pile called Borglite were all vying for this part of the market.
Malden Mills had been in business for decades, established in 1906 as a wool knitting facility that had several military contracts though the First and Second World Wars. It moved to Lawrence, MA in 1956. They’d been successful in developing fake fur in subsequent years, and by the late 1970s, Malden Mills was messing with ways of weaving polyester into a new kind of fleece. This breakthrough had the potential to be resilient, warm, moisture wicking and easy to dry, so they’d team with rock climber, and rock star to gear fans, Chouinard, to realize its potential. Originally released in 1979, the Polar-fleece fabric was a deep pile masterpiece — Time magazine would go on to hail the company’s synthetic fleece as one of the 20th century’s greatest inventions. You can see its early eccentric brilliance in the Patagonia Retro-X design today.
Gary Warnett lived and wrote in the United Kingdom. Before his untimely passing he was kind enough to lend us his near encyclopedic knowledge of modern sportswear to gather a few thoughts on fleece as both material and moment. You can read an archive of his wonderful verbiage at his personal site, Gwarizm. Rest in Peace, Gary.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. All photos property of respective owners.
The early 1985 release of the Patagonia’s Synchilla Snap-T, with its Polartec material is a defining fleece moment. The more accessible, ultralight, fuzzy fleece formula was set there and then. It didn’t pill, it didn’t absorb water, and it didn’t shed. Chouinard’s trademark preoccupation with environmental awareness was in place already, and former Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein is, unlike the wolves in place elsewhere, a famously fair man who, after some significant boom time (the company capitalised on its innovation relentlessly) lost much of the Lawrence facilities in a winter 1995 fire caused by an exploding boiler and steadfastly refused to lay off 3,000 staff or use the misfortune as an excuse to take things overseas like so many rivals.
As the 1980s progressed, other fleece icons emerged alongside the Snap-T. Columbia’s Bugaboo, with its easily united shell outer and Jaegor fleece liner (something that Berghaus had developed with their Gemini walking jacket) turned the Portland-based brand into a powerhouse, becoming an instant bestseller. Few buyers had any intentions of taking their coat to the ski slopes.
Another Portland institution would enter the arena when Nike got in on the act to create their All Conditions Gear category. Keen to enter a notoriously picky marketplace with some pinnacle product, they hired former Patagonia designers to create the original 1989/1990 collection that included the Makalu Jacket — their flagship fleece. Named after the fifth highest mountain in the world and using Polartec technologies rather than the proprietary Nike fabrics that came later, stretchy, lightweight PolarPlus and a more traditional PolarLite were combined for the Makalu. Vast chest pockets, abrasion resistant panels on the shoulders to stop that fleece from prematurely balding when the backpack straps rubbed, plus some familiar colors that correlated with some cult trail footwear made this design memorable.
In 1993, Patagonia pioneered a fleece made from recycled plastic soda bottles that created a new blueprint for the material’s potential. And for Polartec, the colors just kept coming, in multiple thicknesses. According to Hal Espen’s peerless 1998 New York Times article ‘Fleeced’, by that point in time, “Malden fleece comes in more than 100 styles, nearly 5,000 colors and 1,000 patterns.”
The Patagonia Synchilla look would be homaged by a then-youthful Supreme in their winter 1997 collection, with a basic creation made with a distinctly Polartec handfeel that altered one of the original must-have box logos to add an NYC skyline. It was a cease and desist baiting move, but a particularly respectful one. Polo used Polartec, and some Hilfiger, Nautica and Polo Sport fleece pieces made an impact at street level. Timberland even lined their boots with Polartec fabric. The Wu’s most underrated, Cappadonna announced, “Now it's my time, Asian Wu-Wear, cap and fleece wear,” on 1996’s ‘Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance’.
Alas, Malden Mills couldn’t escape bankruptcy forever, and Polartec ended up with Versa Capital in 2007. The North Face, Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, Mountain Equipment, LL Bean, Rab, Marmot and many others still use its output. It’s a supplier to the U.S. military too.
Nowadays, we’re familiar enough with polar fleece to apply our own stereotypes to the wearers. GAP-clad college folks with flip-flops and bootcut denim helped drive it to the middle of the road rather than the far-flung corners of the world it was created to cater to. We’ve associated it with nagging mothers and bland dads trying to style it at the weekend. The fleece has become so resolutely anti-fashion, that it was practically a method of birth control — sexless in its cosy functionality. But those those who know, it’s still the fabric of kings and queens. We embrace the unflattering cut that was oversized for system wear.
Hell, we should even respect the purity of vision that leads that old lady round your way to walk the dog in that oversized design with the wolf baying at the moon — zero irony, trend-free and purchased solely on its merits. You can pick any canine you want (word to SkyMall), but if that’s not to your liking, now Kim Jones — a man fully aware of fleece’s connection to streetwear — has homaged the Retro-X on the catwalk for Louis Vuitton, as did Joseph Altuzarra for his namesake line. Those cheapskate hikers who call Patagonia PataGucci (presumably while wearing something that Chouinard at least had a hand, or at least a finger, in pioneering) would need mountain rescue assistance if they saw those high-end price tags.
Proudly fake. Authentic in its intentions. Super soulful. Fleece is forever.
Credit: Patagonia Worn Wear
(Nike ACG advertisements.)
(ARENA Catalog Volume: One 'Fleece' images.)
(ARENA Catalog Volume: One 'Fleece' images.)