Opening the fleece treasure trove, part I: Patagionia

I’ve grown into something of a fleece fanatic since I got into fashion. The cause of my fanaticism can be directly traced back to one Philip T Anand, his expansive collection, and his awesome website: Arena Catalog. It’s only ever received a single installment, but I’ve spent hours pouring over every part of that one volume, soaking in all of its information. That is, until the site went down almost a year ago. As I would later discover, Anand had taken a hiatus from the internet, and in his absence, there was nobody around to maintain his site. I mustered up the courage to email him about Arena Catalog’s disappearance from the net, not expecting a reply, but to my surprise, my request was met—and then some. A collection with the size and variety of Anand’s can’t be amassed without connections and knowledge, and I was lucky enough to have both of these imparted onto me by the archivist. I gained so much information that I felt obligated to share.

So, without further ado, the first installment in a series covering fleece’s biggest players, from its “creators” to its current innovators. Stick around, you might learn something.

You can thank Patagonia for the stuff that enters your mind when you recall “fleece” as a material. There’s probably a close association between the two in your head already, with the Patagonia fleece being a staple in every white college kid’s closet. But once upon a time, those fleeces weren’t just a basic piece of loungewear. They were the cutting edge of alpine technology. And without Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, they wouldn’t exist at all.

Chouinard is (not was, he’s still alive and older than methuselah) a pretty cool guy. He taught himself blacksmithing(!!!) and used his skills to craft his own climbing gear when the products of the time didn’t suit his preferences. There was interest in his creations, so in the late 50’s he started Chouinard Equipment in order to sell them. It was a solo operation, with products being sold out of his shed, but demand slowly grew larger than what Chouinard could supply alone. After partnering with other like-minded climbing enthusiasts, Great Pacific Iron Works would open as the first patagonia store.

Chouinard Equipment’s wares were products of necessity, innovation, and lots of hands-on testing. Patagonia’s iconic “Synchilla” fleece, leading the industry in comfort and sustainability, wasn’t any different. Chouinard details the process of its creation in one of his books, Let my People go Surfing (he’s a surfer too!). Back in the day, most climbers made do with a combination of down jackets and cotton or wool layers. The Patagonia team was looking for something previously unseen in the climbing world.

Of course, fleece as a material had been used to keep people warm for generations, but something about the fake furs utilized by North Atlantic Fishermen stuck out to Chouinard and his comrades: It could stay warm much more easily in wet conditions compared to cotton, wool or down. With this new idea, the team went looking for a reference fabric—they eventually found it in the form of a toilet accessory at a clearance sale. In the years prior, faux fur had been something of a fad, with the material adorning just about every household item. But the bubble burst, and Malden Mills, one of the largest faux fur manufacturers, was freshly bankrupt. Upon inspecting the fabric used in their products, Chouinard and his wife realized that it would function quite similarly to what they were looking for. A toilet seat cover would become the first Patagonia “fleece”.

The earliest prototype was far from perfect, as one might expect. According to Chouinard:

“It had a couple of drawbacks: a bulky, lumbering fit and a bad-hair-day look, thanks to fibers that quickly piled. But it was astonishingly warm, particularly when used with a shell. It insulated when wet, but also dried in minutes, and it reduced the number of layers a climber had to wear.”

It was clear from the prototype that a synthetic pile material could be used in climbing wear. Patagonia would bring Malden Mills back from bankruptcy, using their facilities to produce further iterations of the fabric. It went from a stiff, single-sided material that piled like nobody’s business, to a softer material in the form of Bunting, to Synchilla, double-sided and entirely pile-less, essentially being developed into the perfect mid-layer material in around a decade. The final Synchilla fabric is nigh identical to today’s fleeces, with one crucial difference: Composition. Being a synthetic material (made from plastic polymer) comes with the extra advantage of being better for the environment than animal products, and in the nineties, Patagonia moved to production of Synchilla fleece only using recycled plastic bottles, a couple decades before companies like Nike would make similar moves. Speaking of Nike, they weren’t sitting idly while these advancements in fleece were being made. Always innovation and profit focused, they were cooking up their own products as the market for fleecewear expanded.

But that’s a story for another time.