How Fleece Conquered the World

There was a time in the late 1990s when fleece suddenly became ubiquitous in my life. I blame Old Navy. Their boldly-hued, fuzzy pullovers dominated every commercial break during the holidays and clothed everyone in my high school.

Before then, the Mark Zuckerberg favorite was a material for people who did things outdoors. But once clothing retailers realized fleece had appeal beyond the REI crowd, they created their own versions and blanketed the market with it. And from that point, there was no turning back.

Fleece hadn't been around all that long when it exploded onto the back of every frat-boy in the country. It wasn't sold to the public until 1981. Before fleece, there was wool. There's evidence that Swiss lake dwellers used the stuff as far back as the 7th century B.C. In fact, historians believe it's kept our bodies warm farther back than we have a recorded history.

But wool's got some character flaws that modern science sought to improve. First, it sucks up water. And when it does, it smells. Like wet animal. It's also a pretty heavy material to begin with, so getting water logged turns an already sizable sweater into something that feels like that cape you wear while getting an x-ray. Don't even get me started on the itch factor.

Plastics solved many problems in the 20th century. Why not the wool dilemma?

Enter Malden Mills Industries, which got its start in 1906 with wool bathing suits (yep) and sweaters. During World War II, they won military contracts to produce uniforms. But after the war was over, they saw a shift in the fabric landscape. Polyesters were incorporated into everything from tires to carpets to clothing. Nylon, which was invented in the ‘30s by DuPont, became an instant hit. Spandex, which we may or may not be thankful for, was invented in the '50s. New high-tech fabrics were popping up all over the place, and Malden Mills wanted in on the action. They set out to make a plastic sheep-replacer to help them climb to the top of their industry.

They started by spinning plastics into yarn. Weaving the yarn into fabric with tiny loops on one side created a thin fabric—but when brushed, the yarn broke down into individual fibers and the loops puffed up, improving the fabric's texture, thickness and insulation without increasing the weight. The innovation happened in the factory, not the lab, partly because Patagonia was pushing for new fabrics. Doug Hoschek, who marketed the new textile, knew it would have an huge impact in the outdoor community, so Malden Mills worked aggressively to get that crowd on board.

The invention pulled the company out of near bankruptcy. By the early 90s, Malden was using recycled plastic bottles for their fleece fabrics, adding "sustainable" to their already attractive talking points.

Then in 1995 the Malden Mills factory burned to the ground. The owner, Aaron M. Feuerstein, generously continued to pay employees even when they didn't have a work to come to, which subsequently sent the company under water again.

Around this time, fleece's cozy qualities became apparent to companies like Old Navy and Gap, which hawked the by-the-fireplace version of the garments. Cheap imitations flooded the market, which made it even harder for struggling Malden Mills. Feuerstein was booted as CEO, and the company survived despite intense competition by nabbing government contracts. Malden Mills re-branded itself Polartec.

The story has a happy ending: the company and the fabric survived and thrived. Thanks to new textile technology from Polartec née Malden Mills plus a catchy (and probably annoying, I'm hoping to never remember the tune) Old Navy jingle, a fleece garment, baby blanket, toy, Snuggie, or dog jogging suit will find its way under pretty much every Christmas tree in the whole wide world this weekend.