R.I.P., Reuse, Recycle:
The Myth of Fleece

Jamie Lauren Keiles on the Rise and Fall of Fluffed Polyester

  • Text: Jamie Lauren Keiles

To find the golden fleece and win the throne of Iolcus, Jason (the Greek mythological one) gathered the Argonauts, sailed the treacherous Bosphorus Strait, arrived in Colchis (now modern day Georgia), wed the king’s daughter, ploughed a field with dragon’s teeth, and defeated the fighters that rose from its furrows to claim the golden fleece in his name.

Arguably, this grail was worth the effort—the one-off pelt of a golden-haired ram!—but that’s not to say that you should pack your things for Colchis. Today, an equally kingmaking fleece can be purchased for something like $400, from a brand like ADER error or Sandy Liang. Accounting for trade offs of time versus money, these jackets are more or less attainable than Jason’s. He who succeeds in obtaining his own might find himself set on his local scene’s throne, whether in Iolcus, or Brooklyn, or elsewhere.

Fleece has become the fabric of the moment, or maybe the fabric of five minutes ago. From NAPA by Martine Rose to Wacko Maria to Issey Miyake’s pleated take, the luxury fleece is now so ubiquitous that a soft avant-garde has emerged to turn coat, declaring the fabric outdated and passe. (“Wake up sheeple!” says the oracle at Grailed.)

But long before the status fleece was over, its brief history had not even begun. Polyester fleece, also known as polar fleece, didn’t come around until the late 1970s—relatively recent, as textiles go. The first iterations were produced by Malden Mills, a Massachusetts fabric manufacturer which specialized in winter clothes for infants. Lighter and faster-drying than wool, the product was ideal for the unique needs of babies.

Polar fleece begins as polyester pellets. (Think of the “beans” inside a Beanie Baby.) From there, the pellets are melted into threads—cashmere soft and gossamer thin. This angel hair is then drawn up inside a pasta-hungry beast of a knitting machine, which shits out a sheet of half-finished fleece, loopy on one side, and smooth on the other. To balance the mass inequality of loops, a sharp and careful wire brush combs out the threads on the towel-ish side, and pulls the free ends to the opposite face.

Today, fleece remains open-source alchemy.

This process fluffs the fleece by five-hundred percent. (Considerable threat to that sole golden ram.) Here is what was meant in The Graduate by plastics—dinosaur bones, into oil, into pellets, into thread, into cloth, into warm baby clothes. Malden Mills did not patent their invention, making the fabric available to all. Today, fleece remains open-source alchemy, myth trickled down to us mere chilly mortals.

Fleece first arrived on the adult market through a chance collaboration between Malden Mills and Yvon Chouinard, the founder a then-new outdoor clothing company. Together, the duo developed something sleeker, a fleece called Synchilla that looked more like boiled wool. With its debut in 1985, the Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T Fleece would come to define the outdoorsy GORP aesthetic—understated, but iconic; indestructible, but plush. This sweatshirt helped to put fleece on the map, retaining its subaltern status as “gear” even as the fabric itself trickled out into the mainstream.

Throughout the late 80s and much of the 90s, fleece was the stuff of the milquetoast middle class. The Gap turned away from its libertine roots, debuting an iconic line of logo hoodies. For graduates of the class of ‘95, these fleeces declared a kind of trendiness, sans risk. The same might be said of the North Face full-zip jacket, which today still persists as the unifying coat of popular kids from the North Side of Chicago.

By Christmas ‘98, Old Navy had caught on, recommending “performance fleece” as the ideal gift for the whole family. Commercials for the product went far beyond mere clothes, advertising the utopia of fleece—neutral, inoffensive, affordable, post-racial. How did those fleece-lovers come to know each other? The ethos of fleece was the lack of an ethos. Its family was the family of man, which is just to say, a group of globalized consumers.

By the wake of Y2K, fleece had become just a corporate giveaway—the perfect non-item to gift to the masses. Stadiums handed-out branded fleece blankets. The left-chest-logo, half-zip fleece assumed its new role as pro team-building gear. An Ebay search for “conference + fleece” turns up a wealth of biz-caj plastic clothing: this fleece vest from a Starbucks’ convention, this so-called Burger King “manager’s coat,” this Goldman Sachs x Patagonia collab. In 2008, the Snuggie would ascend, a robe for the consumer priest with no religion. The wearable blanket would not survive the threadbare days of the great recession.

Though most polar fleece uses post-consumer plastic, the fabric itself is not recyclable. We don’t know what happened to Jason’s golden fleece, but a lot of that swag produced in our time in still in existence as landfill, deferred. According to one 2011 study, washing a single polar fleece jacket sends 1,900 fibers to the water supply, an unaddressed practice known as micro-pollution. Patagonia acknowledges this trash, but consumers seem content to just accept the term recycled. If buyers ever had a problem with fleece, it more likely came from aesthetic concerns.

So how did we get from the trash giveaway to the fuzzy, half-grand status coat? How did fleece redeem its reputation? Casual wear as a luxury trend might be traced back to the sweatsuits of the nineties, or earlier, to the t-shirts of the fifties. It might be ascribed to Silicon Valley, with its sweatshirt-friendly conference rooms. The mainstreaming of the hundred-dollar sneaker would teach us to shop for our clothes in terms of specs, forging a bond between function and fashion. By the time athleisure arrived, dressing for comfort was no longer subversive.

They seem to deny their big-box history, rebranding polyester as luxurious and scarce.

Fleece is both a consequence and foil to that trend. If Lululemon leggings suggest passive, schleppy chicness, then a $400 luxury fleece embodies a more deliberate comfort. Luxury fleeces tend to overstate their chill; they impart an aura of comfier-than-thou. While trends like the overblown Balenciaga sneaker rely on exaggeration as a joke, these jackets proclaim plush humorlessness without any wink at the cheapness of their fabric. They seem to deny their big-box history, rebranding polyester as luxurious and scarce. The overfluffed Ollie from Sandy Liang wants you to know that it is comfortable on purpose. This fleece mechanic jacket from Dickies subverts its classic masculine cut with its anodyne, babysoft choice of a fabric. (It goes without saying our softboy-in-chief would emerge as an early adopter of the trend.)

One notable exception to this smug coziness was on view at the most recent Undercover show, where matted fleece robes and tattered fleece shawls were presented as the sick clothes for a pending epidemic. There, we saw fleece at its least luxurious—and most eager to reflect upon the illness of the moment. In an era of mass neoliberal despair, what makes more sense than a coat knit from oil, masquerading as an eco-friendly option? What’s more deluxe than pure dinosaur bone? Fur will degrade; Paul Manafort's ostrich skin coat will turn to dust. Long after the oil wells are empty, and the drama of our current moment turns to myth, polar fleece will outlive its buyers, filling up the landfills even after we’re all gone.

Jamie Lauren Keiles lives in Queens, New York and writes regularly for The New York Times Magazine.

  • Text: Jamie Lauren Keiles