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History of Fleece

Fleece is defined as: a) the yield of wool shorn from a sheep or similar animal; b) a synthetic fabric with a soft deep pile. These two definitions of fleece reflect its very history.

Throughout the ages, man has tried many manners of clothing to keep warm. The use of wool for clothing dates back to some of the earliest civilizations. In the Iron Age, prior to invention of shears, wool was plucked by hand or by bronze combs. In medieval times, wool trade was a booming business. In England, for example, wool exports bordered on a European monopoly and were a significant source of income to the crown. During the Renaissance, Medicis of Florence built their wealth and banking system on wool trade. Spain allowed export of valued Merino lambs only with royal permission. German wool - based on sheep of Spanish origin, overtook British wool, and Australia's colonial economy, based on sheep raising and the Australian wool trade, eventually overtook that of the Germans by 1845.

However, while fleece from sheep and similar animals kept people warm, and while the industrial age greatly simplified the process of refining fleece fibers such as wool, natural fibers had one thing in common: they didn't really keep you warm when wet. They were also heavy and several layers were required to provide significant insulation in very cold weather.

Before the 1980"s, bracing for the cold meant bundling up under layers upon layers of heavy fabric that restricted movement and performed poorly when wet from internal and external sources. Then, in 1981 a company called Malden Mills invented Polarfleece, and later on Polartec, and forever changed the way the world dresses for cold weather.

A textile mill in Lawrence Mass., Malden Mills called its first fleece fabric Polarfleece, a name still widely used as a generic term for all outdoor polyester fleeces. The fabric was revolutionary. It wicked moisture away from the body, it was warm and dried quickly. But its long-term disadvantage was an unattractive pilling on the surface after only a few uses.

Patagonia, a clothes manufacturer in Ventura, Calif., was an important company to ride the wave of this new era of high-tech fabrics. Owned by Yvon Chouinard - a climber, craftsman and entrepreneur - Patagonia was developing sportswear for a strong contingency of outdoor sportspeople. The company field-tested garments made from new fabrics under the most extreme conditions before endorsing a fabric for its customers.
At Patagonia's request, Malden Mills developed Synchilla, a double-face fabric that had a non-pill texture. The development of Synchilla set record sales during the 1980's, when the company's sales almost doubled from one year to the next over a period of two to three years. Patagonia retained an exclusive on the product until 1987; since then Malden Mills has marketed the fleece fabric under the name Polartec.

Polartec, an improved version of Polarfleece, has a greater flexibility for range of motion, different weights for a variety of uses, and in general has a much nicer hand. Most importantly, it also has a pile surface that did not pill.
Modern day fleece is made from 100% polyester, much of which is from recycled plastic items such as soda bottles. Polyester doesn't absorb water, break down in appearance, or absorb odors. Thus, fleece insulates when wet and provides twice the insulation properties of wool and four times that of cotton. Modern day fleece is soft to the touch, extremely light-weight, and dries quickly. Since it is light- weight, fleece ensures that one perspires less and remains cooler and dryer during periods of inactivity, while retaining the body's heat exceptionally well during periods of greater activity. Like the soda bottles it comes from, fleece is also very durable and can last for years.

Garment layering is the long-accepted practice for staying warm in cold weather. For example, long underwear and outwear such as fishermen"s oilskins have been around for 100 years. Great technical strides have been made in recent years in the under or "base layer" of clothing and in the outerwear or "shell" layer. However, in cold weather it is the intermediate layers that really make the difference in comfort, and this is where fleece comes in. Although fleece can be worn as an outer layer, the middle layer is where fleece fits in best.

During the first decade of the introduction of fleece, all fleece fabric was generally the same except for the "weight" or thickness of the fleece weave. The operating rule was: the heavier the weight of the fleece, the more insulation it provided. Two hundred weight fleece, for instance, is much more insulating than one hundred weight. Today, however, today, Malden Mills produces an array of technical fleece fabrics available in more that 180 different styles ranging from summer-weight, extra dry and extra stretch, to wind and water resistant fleece fabrics. These innovations make fleece the ideal "all weather" fabric.

There are currently a variety of fleece products available to suit every occasion. Fleece is no longer reserved for only jocks and athletes. Indeed, fleece has found a home in adult and children"s clothing, on the job site, and in every branch of the military! In fact, in 1999 Time Magazine named Polartec fleece "One of the hundred great things of the 20th century." today's line of fleece products includes jackets, pants, liners for clothing and sleeping bags, blankets, scarves and hats - - just to name a few. There are also a number of other fleece manufacturers of varying technical qualities - Columbia, Tsunami, Colorado Trading - with products ranging from fashion garments to trekking accessories.

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RSS | August 24, 2019

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