If we lose our snowcapped mountains, how will we shred?

A quarter century after inventing recycled fleece, Polartec continues to lead the outdoor industry with sustainable innovation and cutting-edge material science.

The brand that invented synthetic fleece has expanded the limits of outdoor exploration.
Photograph by Morgan Pihl

Three days after the mill burned down, Aaron Feuerstein, then 70 and white-haired, stood before his workers. It was just before Christmas, 1995, and Malden Mills employees were braced for the worst. With the insurance settlement, Feuerstein could presumably have closed the business founded by his Hungarian-Jewish grandfather in 1906 and retired quite comfortably. But he announced that he would rebuild—and keep every worker on the payroll. It was reported that everyone wept, including the news crews.

Feuerstein had good reason to be confident, even standing in the ashes of his mill. In 1981, his team of engineers had developed a dense polyester fabric that stayed warm when wet and dried quickly. It was the first synthetic alternative to wool insulation. They called it PolarFleece®. Years later, Time magazine would name it one of the 100 best inventions of the 20th century.

The brand that invented synthetic fleece is now called Polartec, and it has expanded the limits of outdoor exploration. “What people have accomplished wouldn’t have been possible if we’d stopped innovating at wool,” says David Karstad, creative director and vice president of marketing at Polartec, which has recently been acquired by Milliken & Company.

Polartec didn’t stop innovating at fleece, either. In the mid-90s, the company turned its attention to environmental sustainability, and pioneered the process to knit recycled polyester yarn made from plastic water bottles into performance fabrics. Since then, the brand has diverted about 1.5 billion bottles from landfills and continues to lead the outdoor industry in both performance fabrics and sustainable innovation.

When PolarFleece fabric first hit the market, the timing was right. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, was dissatisfied with wool, cotton, and nylon clothing for alpine climbers, and was on the lookout for something new. Polartec and Patagonia collaborated to improve the pile and make a softer, double-faced fabric. In 1985, they created Synchilla® (synthetic chinchilla) fleece for Patagonia’s iconic Snap-T pullover.

Around the same time, Chouinard was walking around a sporting goods show in Chicago when he saw polyester football jerseys made by Milliken. They had developed a process to etch the surface of polyester so it was easy to wash and wicked moisture. That became the basis of Patagonia’s enduring Capilene® long underwear, launched in the same year and season as Synchilla® fleece.

“Those were the heydays of the outdoor industry’s beginning,” says Karen Beattie, a senior product manager who has been with Polartec since the 1980s. “We identified needs that were not being met for gear and clothing, so those were the problems we started working on. We wanted to enable someone to have a better experience without being distracted by discomfort.”

And yet, polyester and other plastic-based fibers rely on fossil fuel extraction. Polartec and Patagonia collaborated again to design and manufacture performance fabric by utilizing plastic water bottles instead of virgin plastic resins, and in 1993 they created the first-ever recycled polyester fleece.

It was an incredible breakthrough, one that Karstad remembers well. He was fresh out of college, working at a fledgling adidas America. “We got these purplish and greenish pullovers made of fleece,” he recalls. “This was the first time we’d seen fabric made from recycled bottles. It was all so new.”

Right at the height of the recycled fleece moment, the Polartec mill burned down, and a series of other setbacks followed. But the story was far from over. Polartec engineers continued to advance the quality of recycled fabrics, and in 2005, the brand partnered with a manufacturer that was developing higher-quality, lower-cost recycled yarns. That was the commercial tipping point that enabled Polartec to replace a large portion of virgin product with identical recycled versions.

Performance and durability requirements can make it difficult to find commercially available recycled polyester yarns, but as technology advances, Polartec keeps up. The brand has more than 200 styles made with a minimum of 50 percent recycled content. The goal is to reach 100 percent recycled content across all products. “It’s very much a part of who we are and what we do,” says Beattie.

But according to Polartec President Steve Layton, these days recycled content is table stakes. The next level of sustainable manufacturing is circularity—polyester products made from recycled content that can themselves be recycled.

“That’s going to be the key moving forward,” says Layton. “To be able to take a Polartec sweatshirt at the end of its life and put it in the recycling bin, the same as a plastic bottle—that’s the ultimate goal.”

Now that Milliken has acquired Polartec, that level of innovation is even more promising. As a global manufacturer with more than 150 years of textile expertise, Milliken is akin to a large research university and has long championed sustainable efforts.

Layton, a longtime Milliken leader tapped to head the Polartec business in June, says the acquisition paves the way for scientific advancement in recycled performance textiles. “I get excited when I think about how many material scientists and engineers we have in research and development within Milliken,” he says. “Our plastics team has already made some important strides in [recycling] polypropylene. Hopefully we can apply it to polyesters and go from there.”

He reveals that dedicated teams of material scientists and engineers at Milliken are working on different areas of sustainability for the Polartec brand. They’re developing fabric with recycled content, researching biodegradable fabrics, and looking into combining synthetic fibers and hemp. “There’s a lot of great energy behind it,” says Layton.

A quarter century after the invention of recycled fleece, Polartec is well-positioned to keep leading on sustainable fabrics. “We can’t solve the intractable problems created over the last hundred years of industrial apparel-making, but we can certainly change how it impacts the planet going forward,” says Karstad. “If any industry can do it, it’s the outdoor industry, because it’s dependent on having an outdoors to explore.” After a beat, he says: “If we lose our snowcapped mountains, how will we shred?”