It’s hard to imagine a world before fleece and other technical fabrics. In large part, that’s thanks to Malden Mills—the textile company you know today as Polartec—which revolutionized the outdoor adventure world by inventing technical fleece and fabric technologies for all conditions. This year, Polartec turns 40. And to mark the occasion, we created an interactive timeline experience that looks back at how the brand ushered in the modern era of performance outdoor apparel by inventing the widest range of fabric technologies in the world, enabling a whole new generation of modern adventure and fabric innovation that continues to this day. Translation: Polartec has radically changed how we dress for basically every activity—for the better—more times than we can count. But the 11 innovations below stand out as some of the brand’s most important and game-changing inventions.
1981: Fleece Is Born
Malden Mills creates a new breed of polyester pile fabric by “napping” it—combing it with a cylindrical wire brush to break the loops on the pile and tease the fibers upward. The first fleece is born. The fabric is light, soft, and fast-drying. But it has problems. Notably, it “pills” like crazy. That is, light nappy fuzz balls form on the surface of the fabric. But the warmth-to-weight ratio is great, as are the breathability and durability—advantages welcomed by a few outdoor-market pioneers.
1993: Fleece Goes Green
A Polartec-Patagonia partnership spurs the launch of recycled fleece. Canada’s MEC also signs on to spec the fabric in jackets and sweaters. The first recycled fleece is the color of the discarded products it was made from: soda-bottle green.
1994: Polartec Invents the Art of Layering
Power Dry, Polartec’s first next-to-skin fabric, realizes the dream of outdoor clothing companies (and U.S. Special Forces, for whom it was initially developed)—it wicks moisture from the skin to the outside. The first of hundreds of Power Dry base-layer tops and bottoms come from Eastern Mountain Sports and Patagonia, which calls it Capilene, and launches a revolution in the art of layering.
1998: Polartec Launches the Soft-Shell Revolution
With the launch of Power Shield, Polartec invents a game-changing apparel category: soft shells. For the first time, a jacket material can be weather-resistant enough for most conditions while providing breathability unheard-of in any kind of standard windbreaker or shell. It’s also soft, stretchy, and blessedly quiet. The key: the fabric does the venting, not a membrane.
1998: Power Grid Revolutionizes Layering
Power Grid, a grid-backed refinement of Power Dry, is developed for Patagonia’s Regulator line. R1 becomes an icon of active-sports layering and Power Grid becomes a staple for nearly every outdoor brand—because channels in the fabric backing allow it to do more (wick, warm, breathe, compress) with less material, less bulk, less weight.
2011: NeoShell Breaks the Waterproof-Breathable Mold
Instead of working to make a waterproof membrane more breathable, Polartec turns the challenge on its head—waterproofing a breathable membrane instead—and comes up with NeoShell, the world’s first and best breathable waterproof technology. The sauna effect is a thing of the past, as are pit zips—and NeoShell’s supple, four-way stretchiness is a far cry from stiff waterproof shells. It’s a hit across categories and earns top honors from gear reviewers throughout the industry. In 2014, Outside names a NeoShell-equipped snow-sports shell from Eddie Bauer Gear of the Year, and Gear Institute selects the Bomber Gear Palguin Dry Top for Paddling for its Best New Gear Awards. In 2020, Blister Gear Review names NeoShell the “most influential fabric of the decade.”
2012: The First Active Insulation
Of all the groundbreaking Polartec fabrics, Alpha might be the most innovative. Its release kick-starts an entirely new category—active insulation—and dramatically streamlines the traditional layering process. It’s originally developed for the U.S. Special Forces, whose troops need insulation that will both dump heat and moisture as they carry heavy packs through the mountains of Afghanistan and keep them warm when they stop, often in cold, miserable conditions. To achieve this unheard-of level of versatility, Alpha employs a knit construction with the full structural integrity of a fabric and creates downlike dead-air space without the need for breathability-reducing container fabrics. This combo of breathability and warmth changes the way the world dresses for any chilly endeavor, from cycling to skiing, running to urban strolls. More than any technology before, Alpha eliminates the need for multiple layers.
Alpha is an instant and enduring hit, garnering prompt honors and rave reviews from Backpacker and Elevation Outdoors (the Rab Strata Hoody), Men’s Journal (the Marmot Alpha Pro Jacket and Westcomb Tango Hoody), and National Geographic Adventure (the Marmot Isotherm Hoodie), among others.
2015: Wool Gets Techy
Polartec Power Wool harnesses the best of wool while overcoming the shortcomings of even contemporary fine merino. The bicomponent fabric places soft merino wool against the skin and durable synthetic on the exterior, creating a warm-when-cool, cool-when-warm microclimate while readily wicking moisture. Unlike wool on its own, Power Wool is durable and won’t get soggy. Gearmakers like TNF, Burton, and Mammut quickly employ Power Wool, and gear testers laud the results—Power Wool products earn top honors from Gear Institute (Best New Gear), Gear Patrol (Best of Outdoor Retailer), National Geographic (Gear of the Year), and more.
2015: Polartec Delta Provides True Metabolic Cooling
Delta is introduced to a warming world as Polartec’s first fabric platform for hot conditions. The trick is a deft blend of both hydrophobic and hydrophilic yarns in a knit structure that promotes airflow and keeps just the right amount of moisture against the skin. Delta functions something like a swamp cooler, using the body’s own perspiration as a cooling mechanism but without any concomitant clamminess. The fabric is a hit with fitness brands like Rhone, outdoor brands like Outdoor Research, and cycling brands like Pas Normal. Gear Patrol names Delta one of the Best New Products of 2017.
2017: Polartec Introduces a Better Insulating Fill
Polartec debuts Power Fill, an insulating fill made of 100% recycled material that requires 0% virgin crude and 0% plucked geese. The fill’s matrix of hollow fibers is light and compressible and doesn’t retain moisture. The Bight Swelter—named one of Gear Patrol’s top “synthetic down” jackets of the year—exemplifies Power Fill’s place in the world of alpine mountaineering.
2018: Power Air Takes Fleece to the Next Level
Polartec announces Power Air, the first fleece fabric engineered to minimize shedding. Sweden’s Houdini introduces the Mono Air, built with a spandex-free version of Power Air, Houdini demonstrates the potential of circular recycling—meaning fabric can be recycled endlessly with no loss of quality. The initiative is open-source, challenging the international apparel industry to follow suit. Backpacker acknowledges the gains made by Power Air with an Editors’ Choice Green Award, and R&D World recognizes the fabric with an R&D 100 Award.
2021: Polartec Celebrates 40 Years of Innovation
Four decades in, Polartec continues to lead the industry in sustainable science and performance innovation.