Piles of Gold: The Rise of Synthetic Fleece

Man wearing a fleece walking on rocks
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A fleece was my first great love. Forget favourite toys, first pets, or childhood crushes — the single thing that most often colours recollections of my preschool years is a fleece jacket. It was ocean green and had a bunch of white, Wes Anderson-looking fox faces all over it. It’s all I remember wearing around that time and various family photos seem to tell the same story.

I don’t know what ever happened to my fox fleece. It’s possible I wore it down to a pile of synthetic dust, or that some other five-year-old gorp enthusiast nicked it during nap time. Probably, though, I just outgrew it and moved on, which is also what happened with me and fleece in general. 

In my teenage years, I would come to shun the fabric altogether. At that time I was trying to style myself as an indie rocker and, in my middle-of-nowhere town, fleeces suddenly felt like the purview of the soccer moms and farm-reared kids who seemed to look askance at my new wardrobe of skin-tight jeans and band Ts. 

An affinity for Fleet Foxes had obliterated all my affection for fleece foxes, in other words. It was only a decade or so later somewhere in the 2010s that I — along with the rest of the world — fell back in love with fleece. In fact, my own experience matches pretty neatly the historical trajectory fleece has taken (the bit I’ve been around for, anyway).

Vintage workers handling wollen fleeces
Fleece in the days before polyester
Image credit: Museum of New Zealand / Public domain

The famed outdoor goods brand Patagonia gets the credit for bringing synthetic fleece to the masses, beginning back in the ’70s and ’80s. Before that, fleece as a material was pretty exclusively associated with shorn sheep or — in the rare cases of Jason and the Argonauts or the Brooks Brothers logo — gold. Thanks to Patagonia and a Massachusetts textile maker called Malden Mills, polyester would replace wool to become the material du jour of the modern fleece.

Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard started looking into synthetic fleece for use in mountaineering garb in the ’70s. As a climber and keen outdoorsman himself, Chouinard was well aware of the shortcomings of wool (once the go-to performance textile, used in everything from swimsuits to cold-weather gear). It can be itchy, hard to clean, and all too attractive to moths. Then, when you add water into the mix, it gets heavy and smelly when wet, in addition to taking a long time to dry. Chouinard realised that polyester, a synthetic fibre that can be brushed and piled to resemble natural shearling, didn’t share these shortcomings and could be ideal for use in insulating garments. 

After gathering some early and ultimately ill-suited polyester samples (including a roll of fabric originally intended to make toilet seat covers), Patagonia eventually paired with Malden Mills, a company that had formerly specialised in making baby bunting and faux fur. By 1985, Synchilla (as in synthetic chinchilla) had resulted from the partnership and was being put to use in the first Patagonia Snap-T pullovers. Throughout the ’80s the two companies continued to develop their fleeces, working on preventing pilling, for example, and experimenting with the bright colours and bold patterns with which Patagonia fleeces are still associated.

Synthetic fleece jumpers and jackets were a hit and other brands wanted in on the action. Since they were eye-catching and relatively cheap to make, outlets like L. L. Bean, Lands’ End, and GAP started flogging fleecy garments by the cartload. It meant that by the 1990s — the heyday of my own first brush with the material — fleece had made the jump from athletic outdoor clothing to everyday casual wear.

This transition from sporty to quotidian wasn’t great for the fleece’s reputations (not unlike what happened in the case of sweatpants, which I’ve written about elsewhere). Fleece garments in the ’90s and early 2000s came to stand for everything that was middle aged and Middle American; for the suburban and therefore the substandard, from the perspective of the haut monde anyhow. Synthetic fleece — the erstwhile space-age material that once helped us scale the highest peaks — had reached its nadir by becoming mainly associated with bland, branded corporate wear and slobby, sleeved blankets. In short, fleece had become irrevocably uncool.

Or so it seemed, anyway. In recent years, fleeces have returned to mainstream fashion in a major way. There’s no telling precisely what kicked off the resurgence, but at some point the tide turned. Fleeces started showing up in photos of fashionable types like Shia LaBeouf, Ezra Koenig, and Kanye West. Patagonia started expanding their offerings and remaking retro versions of older garments. More expensive brands like Kapital and Wacho Maria started selling them for several hundred dollars a pop, which, as it happens, is also what some vintage Patagonia will set you back these days. 

Man wearing a Patagonia Retro-X fleece jacket
Image is my own / All rights reserved

The fleece comeback makes sense in a lot of ways, despite its bad rap circa the turn of the millennium. Apart from the inevitable recursive churn of fashion trends, all of those formerly fusty-seeming fleeces of yesteryear fit perfectly into a contemporary embrace of ‘ugly’ fashion (cf. Birkenstocks and bucket hats, for example). They are also unbeatably comfortable, which is always appealing in clothing but has become all but requisite during pandemic times. 

Then there are the sensibilities of ever more environmentally minded consumers to consider. While synthetic fleece which doesn’t biodegrade is itself not particularly appealing to eco-friendly shoppers, garments fabricated from 100% recycled materials by companies like Everlane and L.L. Bean have proven very popular. Patagonia started using recycled materials in their fleeces all the way back in 1993 and Polartec (the present-day incarnation of Malden Mills) is currently working on biodegradable and corn-based incarnations it hopes to bring to market soon.

Not too long ago I bought one of these recycled numbers myself and it quickly became a go-to whenever the mercury dropped below 15°C (59°F). Now, as we turn the corner into autumn after many months spent in short sleeves and swimsuits, I can finally revert to those halcyon kindergarten days and move into my favourite fleece for the foreseeable future.