The Mill That Invented Synthetic Fleece
The factory was very fine;
He wished it all the modern speed.
Yet, after all, ‘twas not divine,
That is to say, ‘twas not a church.
So said Robert Frost in his 1936 poem, “A Lone Striker”, of the factory that in 1956 would become Malden Mills and the future birthplace of that miracle fabric, synthetic fleece. Fleece is something that is now so successful and ubiquitous that we’ve come to take it for granted, but in 1999, Time Magazine named it one of the 100 most important inventions of the 20th century. High praise for that fuzzy fabric favorited by outdoor enthusiasts and fashionistas alike.
Today, we’re talking fleece. No, not the natural kind born from sheep, but the manmade synthetic that you can find in many Patagonia pieces. So join us on a journey through the history of this relatively new synthetic.
The modern wool substitute was birthed by a mill, that for nearly 80 years, had been expertly milling the original fleece since 1906. Malden Mills was founded by Henry Feuerstein, a Hungarian immigrant, who after middling success in apparel, blew the last of his fortune ($50,000 at the time) on a mill in Malden Massachusetts, in a Hail Mary move that really paid off.
Feuerstein began by producing wool workman’s sweaters and bathing suits. If you needed any impetus to create a modern synthetic with all the good properties of wool without the bad, having to wear a wool bathing suit would probably suffice. It sounds silly (and deeply uncomfortable) to a modern audience, but wool was the de facto performance textile of its day. Wool doesn’t break down in water and to a certain extent, wicks away sweat and moisture. That’s why, despite its weight and itchiness, it was used in most athletic garments.
By the 1950s, Malden had established a reputation for excellence in quality and R&D. The vertical integration in their factories allowed them to dye, print, and finish in-house. This gave them greater power to innovate and advance their products. Their expertise had been called upon by the U.S. Army, being contracted to outfit soldiers in wool knits during both World Wars.
Post-war stability and a boom in synthetics made Malden want in on the action. DuPont had created nylon in the 1930s, spandex was currently in development, and Feuerstein sensed that the market was about to profoundly change.
Synthetic Fabric Boom
Henry Feuerstein’s grandson, Aaron, had by this time, taken over. He would usher in an era of profound change for his family’s company, but not without a fair share of missteps along the way. In 1962, the company opened a knitting factory in Maine, which bucked the national trend of moving manufacturing jobs south and west, where real estate was cheaper. Aaron chose to prioritize proximity to Boston, where he would have access to a more experienced and scientifically-inclined work-force.
Aaron’s first big gamble was on synthetic fur. With a new generation of fur activists, Aaron assumed that people would need an ethical alternative to the mink coats that had been so popular in the 1930s and 40s. Malden dominated the faux fur market, but the demand turned out to be far less than he anticipated. Bankruptcy loomed, employees were laid off en masse, but then salvation came.
The answer to Malden’s problems was synthetic fleece. The breakthrough came in 1979 and was almost immediately snatched up by Patagonia, who used the warm, light fabric in their iconic Snap-T fleece pullovers. The 100% polyester fabric could draw away moisture from the body, cut wind, and keep you warm all at once. It was a natural choice for outdoors brands and by 1983, Malden was out of the dire straits.
Rather than growing the fabric naturally, fleece can only be made with polyester, a plastic that is made by a chemical reaction from petroleum and petroleum derivatives. This material is heated into a thick syrup that, upon hardening, can be spun into thread to be woven into fabric. By brushing the material, the fibers break down and develops piles which resemble the piles of natural shearling. The result is a warm, waterproof, and very soft fabric; artificial fleece was nothing short of a textile miracle and Malden can take the credit. Polyester doesn’t absorb water or body odors and has twice the insulation properties of wool, its nearest organic competitor.
Fleece is far more versatile than wool. Wool is water-resistant to a point but then starts to soak up moisture, which makes it even heavier and more unwieldy. Once it does take on moisture, wool also tends to smell. It is made from animal hair, after all. And, wool is tricky to launder and can’t always be thrown in the washing machine, but fleece doesn’t need to go to the cleaners when it’s dirty.
Since its invention, fleece has changed and advanced. The threads are even finer now, almost like cashmere, and today’s versions are even more resistant to wind and water. It’s now possible to make fleece from recycled plastics, which was a deeply flawed process in the beginning, but now costs about the same to make as brand new fleece.
Fleece is everywhere now. Its comfort and versatility made it a must-have fabric for all kinds of non-REI people. In fact, the place you’re most likely to encounter fleece these days is probably your couch, perhaps in Snuggie form, but surely in the blankets you swaddle yourself in when it’s time to chill out.
Malden Mills has since rebranded to Polartec, which continues the legacy. The great invention of the 20th century shows no sign of slowing down and depending on your lifestyle, you probably encounter synthetic fleece more than the wool that inspired its creation. Malden never patented their invention, so now makers the world over can get in on the synthetic goodness, but for the originators, go back to Polartec, whose efforts to improve their creation have never ceased and who are devoted to keeping you warm and dry in all conditions, whether couch-bound or mid mountain-climb.