What is fleece?
By Gabi Goddard
Imagery by Patagonia.
We’ve had a blast learning alongside you about viscose, modal and Tencel, which were once (be honest) just words on a clothing tag until you realised those words had ethical implications. And by blast, we mean the sound that a metaphorical bomb makes exploding in our heads when we realise that our hopes for a fabric’s environmental impact have been… well, blown up. But fleece isn’t going to be like that, right? Because fleece is just the shorn woolly coat of a sheep. Totally natural.
Except that’s not what you’re actually asking, is it? You’re asking…
What is polar fleece?
Because, just like every other once-daggy item or style of clothing, high fashion co-opted polar fleece and now it’s in your local Uniqlo.
Micro fleece, polyester fleece, polar fleece fabric. They’re all names for that soft, fuzzy material they make those zip-up jumpers and jackets out of at Kathmandu. You probably had a purple one in year four. It wasn’t cool until now, so get your mum to dig it out. You can say it’s cropped.
That doesn’t give me enough information; what material is fleece, exactly?
What is fleece made from? It’s a polyester-based fabric, which means, sadly, it’s a petrochemical. A plastic. That being said, we want to do a brief dive into the history of polar fleece because in many ways, the story of fleece is… kind of ethical!
How was fleece ‘discovered’?
Fleece was developed by Malden Mills, which was owned by a cool guy named Aaron Feuerstein. We say he’s cool because he’s the type of guy who would do things like manufacture locally (in his hometown in Massachusetts, USA) and if his mill burned down he wouldn’t take his business offshore, he’d rebuild the mill and while it was out of service he’d keep all his workers on the payroll. Actually, by ‘type of guy who would’, we mean he literally did. His mill burned down in ’95 and then Feuerstein filed for bankruptcy in 2001, but he said he’d do it all again because, ‘we are charged with acting not for the moment but rather for the larger goal’.
So that is the awesome guy who pioneered fleece, which means we find it hard to dislike even though it’s plastic. Sure, it’s 2020 and we have pretty clear vision around what plastic does to the environment, but this guy didn’t know that when his team of engineers invented it.
Malden Mills realised polyester had the potential to keep you warm like wool. But, instead of becoming damp and smelly when wet, and being quite heavy in order to be warm enough, polyester fibres could be used to create a fabric incredibly lightweight (perfect for outdoor recreation) and water-repellent.
Malden Mills teamed up with one of the most famous brands-with-a-conscience right as it was starting out; Patagonia. Together, they released polar fleece adventure gear.
Naturally, our mate Aaron purposely didn’t patent the fabric, so it was cheaply and widely available to everyone in the United States very quickly.
How is polyester fleece made?
Polyester fibres are spun into yarn, which must be very fine in order to be knit closely and tightly into a dense fabric. That fabric is then brushed out, making it much bulkier. It is that bulk, or pile, that creates the extra insulation. Because the original yarn is so fine, it is incredibly light, regardless of its new thickness.
What is bamboo fleece? How is it made?
Bamboo fleece is basically the same as polyester fleece, except that the process for procuring those original fibres that are then spun into yarn differs. Bamboo fibres are made in the same way as viscose, modal and Tencel fibres. You take bamboo, turn it into pulp, chemically process the sh*t out of that pulp, and when it’s the sticky liquid known as ‘viscose’ (because of its high viscosity), you push it through something called a ‘spinneret’, and tiny little noodles of liquid come out the other side that are dried out and then spun together. It’s not natural or eco-friendly, and in our opinion, it’s greenwashing to lead people to believe it is. The one exception to this bamboo rule is bamboo linen, which mechanically takes fibres from the bamboo plant and weaves them together. It’s expensive and very rare. And bamboo fleece is not it.
What is micro fleece fabric?
Fleece comes in several different weight categories. Those categories are separated by grams per square metre (gsm); fabric is bought by the square metre. The higher the gsm of a fabric, the heavier it is and the thicker. Micro fleece is the lightest gsm category, with <100 gsm. The categories tend to increase by 100gsm each jump. A heavyweight fleece, good for wearing in arctic temperatures, would have a gsm >300.
Is fleece sustainable?
Unfortunately, polar fleece has pretty significant environmental implications. Not good ones. As we’ve mentioned, the majority of fleece is made from non-renewable fossil fuels. Crude oil becomes petrochemical which is turned into fabric—this process releases toxins into the air. Those toxins are detrimental to human health and the ecosystem. We know the impact of fossil fuels on greenhouse gasses, and we should also take into consideration the number of oil spills that occur and are catastrophic to the environment.
Then there’s the aftercare. Any polyester, nylon, elastane, acrylic, spandex or acetate product is going to release microplastics into the environment, particularly through washing. The microplastics end up in the ocean, in fish, which means those plastics become part of the food chain.
Unfortunately, fleece takes things a step further. The nature of the fabric—it’s fluffiness—means the microplastics easily become airborne. If you pinch a fleece right now, and pull, some of the fibre will come away in your fingers. Simply going out on a windy day can mean the microplastics are making their way into the environment.
So, no. Polar fleece is definitely not sustainable.
Are there more sustainable ways of incorporating fleece into my wardrobe?
Places like Patagonia make an effort to reduce the environmental impact of their fleece’s by using 80% recycled polyester. As a fun fact, their Synch Snap-T Pullover is the same design as the first fleece released by Patagonia when they teamed up with Malden Mills all those decades ago.
Yuki Threads are even better, using 100% recycled PET for their fleece. Even their polyester trims are recycled!
You can also buy your fleece secondhand. The author of this article is currently wearing a children’s Kathmandu piece she bought on Ebay for fourteen bucks.
These options deal best with the first of the environmental problems we mentioned. They significantly reduce or completely take out of the equation the waste in resources and contribution to global warming. But there is no doubt that by the simple act of owning and wearing plastic-based fabrics, we’re hurting our environment. It’s a tricky balance, being a part of a world that is not yet circular with its resources and sets us expectations based on the items it assumes we have access to.
Say you’re a rock climber in a cold climate, and every small bit of extra weight makes your adventure more difficult; fleece is perfect for you because they are unreasonably warm for their light weight. The expectation is that you can lift yourself further without getting frostbite thanks to fleece.
That was an extreme example. Maybe you have children and you’re trying to keep up with a full-time job and being present for your kids; the hassle of washing and drying wool could make you cry when you’re just coping as it is. It’s a world where we no longer have the luxury of time for chores like we once had. In our grandparent’s day, daily chores inevitablytook a lot more time (no washing machines) and everyone (every woman usually)set aside extra hours to do them.
So to conclude our thoughts on fleece? Well, we don’t want you to beat yourself up because you own a fleece. But we’re also not sure fleece should continue to be made, even if the design is clever and the creator had a conscience.