This article was written a year or two back, but seeing as we've just taken stock of a momentous new, modernised version of the ol' Retro X Patagonia fleece, now seemed like a decent time to refresh our minds on the origins of fleece.
This may sound mental to some folks, but it wasn’t that long ago that fleeces didn’t exist. Even as recently as the 1970s, mountaineers were forced to rely on heavy and cumbersome wool jumpers for warmth, and the staff of animal sanctuaries and National Trust visitor centres around the world had absolutely nothing to wear in the torso-region.
Something new needed to be found, and fast! Luckily, in the south of California a wild and free-spirited falconer/rock-climber/madhead named Yvon Chouinard with a relatively-young clothing company called Patagonia was on the case, searching for something both warm and lightweight. “It’s not so much that anything was wrong with wool, but I think Yvon was just looking to make a garment that would dry more quickly and be lighter weight than wool while providing the same, or better warmth.” Explains Patagonia’s Mark Little.
Pre-fleece Yvon Chouinard, angry at the lack of lightweight, synthetic wool alternatives.
As ever, the answer lay in the North Atlantic — or, to be more precise — the weird synthetic pile sweatshirts worn by brave and courageous fishermen in the North Atlantic. These were made of something called Fiberpile (designed by Helly Hansen back in 1961 with the help of a company called Norwegian Fiber Inc), and although they were bulky and clumpy, they just about did the job — they just needed a bit of fine tuning.
Meanwhile, in distant Massachusetts, a textile company called Malden Mills (apparently famous for manufacturing fake fur coats) had been experimenting with ‘brushed polyester yarn’. Yvon got wind of this and was soon working in cahoots with them to develop the ultimate outdoor fabric.
An old advert featuring some early, chunky Patagonia fleece action
First came a chunky, felted fabric called Bunting, and then, in 1985, the floodgates were thrown open and Patagonia’s earth-shattering Synchilla fleece fabric was unleashed into the world, in the form of a simple-yet-mighty-effective garment called the Snap T Pullover.
“Synchilla was the next generation of our ‘Bunting’ family which sold gangbusters in the early 80s. The goal was to make a garment that would dry quick, be light weight and give you the most warmth. What made it unique was that the ‘fur’ was an uneven fiber (unlike pile fleece). The unevenness trapped heat better, by warming the air in between the negative space, it also kept the fleece from pilling.” exclaimed Mark.
As well as the revolutionary fabric, the ultra-stripped-back design of the pullover was also hardly run-of-the-mill, as Cyndi Davis, the designer who cooked up the Snap T with Yvon, explained, “Part of the goal was to be light, so we ditched the zipper and designed the nylon snap front, saving a lot of weight. We also wanted it to dry quick, so we found swimwear fabric to create minimal binding on the cuffs that would have some elasticity. We also ditched the hand pockets since it would be used as a layering piece and only made the concession to put a small chest pocket on there to keep something small.”
Here’s what a 1985 Patagonia catalogue had to say on the subject, “We took it on a forty day kayaking trip to South America, used it all fall fly fishing in Wyoming and Montana and then took it on a trip to Nepal, where every day for 21 days we put on our jackets in the morning, wrapped them around our waists at midday, and used them as pillows at night. We even washed them in a yak watering bucket with Chinese lye soap so strong it faded the freckles on our hands and mangled our sweatpants. Back in the Maytags in our R&D department they were laundered and dried repeatedly, and in the end the material still looked great. It never shrank, pilled or pulled out of shape.”
These things sold like synthetic hot cakes, and soon brightly coloured fleeces could be spotted at climbing walls and camping barns across the land. In 1987 Patagonia published an essay called The Question of Color, explaining their heavy use of purple. “According to a study, people who liked purple had a strong need for new experiences and a higher percentage of them had gone skiing in the last year.”
A bold fleece wearer.
Not ones for resting on their laurels, Patagonia pushed fleece even further, and by 1993 they’d started making them out of recycled Panda Pop bottles. Turning old plastic bottles into warm, flexible items of clothing for humans to wear sounds completely mental, but it's apparently not as difficult as it sounds. “The fiber was made from bottles, turned to pellets then spun into fiber. For our current fabric, the bottles are collected through an agency, cleaned, and then bought by the yarn supplier who turns them into chip or flake for extrusion into filament yarn. The quality of recycled polyester is, in most cases, indistinguishable from virgin polyester. Anywhere between 29 to 35 bottles are used to make a single garment.” Said Mark.
These days every outdoor company worth their salt makes a fleece of some sort, but there’s a certain Californian ja nai sai quoi that sets Patagonia’s apart. Oi Polloi boss-hogg and man of the outdoors Nigel Lawson eloquently put it into words, “I suppose it’s sort of halfway between a hippy and a rock climber. It sits in both camps. It’s kind of like a pair of New Balance running shoes — sometime you can laugh at people wearing them, other times they look amazing. It’s a design icon. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Berghaus, it reminded me of some of the Mountain Equipment stuff, and yet, it looked like something we never got involved with in Manchester. Yeah, it’s a bit gaudy, but it’s fucking cool. It’s an original."
Thanks to everyone at Patagonia for their help with this.