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What is Polartec Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • November 25, 2020 • 8 min read

Fabric name Polartec
Fabric also known as Polartec fleece
Fabric composition Synthetic fibers designed to imitate genuine wool fleece
Fabric breathability Depends on the type of Polartec fabric - usually high
Moisture-wicking abilities Depends on the type of Polartec fabric - usually low
Heat retention abilities Depends on the type of Polartec fabric - usually high
Stretchability (give) Depends on the type of Polartec fabric
Prone to pilling/bubbling Depends on the type of Polartec fabric - usually medium/high
Country where fabric was first produced United States
Biggest exporting/producing country today United States
Recommended washing temperatures Depends on the type of Polartec fabric - usually machine-wash cool or cold
Commonly used in Jackets, shirts, rain shells, fleece, sweatpants, tights, turtlenecks, parkas, vests, base layers, hats, sweaters, blankets, gloves

What is Polartec fabric?

Polartec is an American textile brand that primarily produces synthetic imitation fleece. Over the years, Polartec has expanded its offerings to produce a wide variety of different fabrics, and some estimates indicate that this brand now produces more than 400 distinct textiles. Polartec fleece, however, remains this brand’s most popular textile product, and this fabric is included in a variety of types of outerwear produced by notable sportswear manufacturers.

Polartec fabric technical specifications

There are significant differences between the various types of Polartec fleece currently available, and fleece is not the only fabric that the Polartec brand produces. All types of Polartec fleece are, however, united around the core characteristics that initially made the original Polartec fabric so wildly popular.

Perhaps most importantly, Polartec fleece weighs significantly less than genuine wool fleece. This type of synthetic fabric comes in a variety of weight variations ranging from 100-300 grams per square meter (gsm), with each variation being much lighter compared to wool fleece that offers comparable insulation. A 100gsm Polartec fleece garment, for instance, provides roughly the same insulative benefits as a 500gsm wool fleece garment while only being ⅕ as heavy.

Unlike normal wool, Polartec fleece is extremely hydrophobic, and it holds less than 1% of its weight in water. While this attribute is often seen as a benefit, the hydrophobic nature of Polartec fleece also means that it is not moisture-wicking, which can make this fabric uncomfortable when worn directly against the skin.

Polartec fleece can melt when washed at high temperatures, and since this fabric generates significant amounts of static electricity, it is highly prone to attracting lint and hair. While Polartec fleece solves many of the problems inherent to natural wool fleece, it remains just as prone to pilling as natural fleece.

History of Polartec fabric

The history of Polartec begins with the formation of the Malden Mills corporation in 1906. This textile manufacturer was continuously on the brink of bankruptcy throughout the first 75 years of its existence, and it was only in the 1980s that Malden Mills finally achieved significant commercial success due to its invention of Polartec fleece.

First developed in 1981, Polartec fleece offered a few clear advantages compared to natural wool, not the least its reduced cost. This new Malden Mills invention became popular not a moment too soon. Earlier in 1981, the company had been forced to lay off more than 100 employees after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In partnership with Patagonia, which was a small mountaineering company at the time, Malden Mills launched Polartec under the name Synchilla, a contraction of “synthetic” and “chinchilla.” At the time, chinchilla was a name used for a particular type of wool fleece, and Patagonia and Malden Mills hoped that this trade name would evoke an association with genuine fleece.

By the early 1990s, Synchilla had been renamed as Polarfleece, and it had become an extremely popular material for skiing apparel. Malden Mills invested more than $10 million per year into synthetic fleece innovation, and in 1991, the Polarfleece product line was trademarked as Polartec Climate Control Fabrics.

Sponsoring the 1992 Winter Olympics and launching recycled fleece lines, Polartec continued rising to prominence until a televised United States Consumer Products Safety Commission exposeé linked Polartec to recent instances of synthetic fleece catching on fire. By a strange turn of fate, the primary Malden Mills factory burned down that same year, presenting the company with significant setbacks.

Rebuilding debts forced Malden Mills into another bankruptcy in 2001, but the company was bailed out in 2005 when the United States Congress appropriated $21 million to purchase Polartec garments for US soldiers. Malden Mills filed its final bankruptcy in 2007 and was reorganized as Polartec, LLC. The company has not experienced any significant financial setbacks since.

Polartec fabric today

Today, Polartec counts each branch of the United States military as a client, and this company also provides fabric to The North Face, L.L. Bean, Marmot, and dozens of other prominent sportswear companies. Polartec closed its primary factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 2016, but this company still manufactures the majority of its products in the United States. In recent years, Polartec has diversified its offerings significantly to remain competitive with rivals like W.L. Gore and Associates and Columbia Sportswear.

How is Polartec fabric made?

Polartec now produces hundreds of different types of fabric, and its offerings are not limited to fleece. Synthetic fleece fabric made by Polartec, however, is made using a universal process regardless of its subtype:

1. Polyester production

Many types of Polartec fleece are now made using recycled substances such as melted-down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. New or “virgin” polyester fabric can also be made by reacting terephthalic acid with ethylene glycol under high heat. In either case, a viscous liquid is formed that is then extruded through a spinneret to form fibers. The spinneret can be equipped with customized holes to produce fibers with unique shapes.

2. Knitting or weaving

Next, a knitting or weaving machine at a Polartec production facility combines polyester fibers to produce a fabric that approximates the look and feel of genuine fleece. This fabric is produced in long, wide sheets.

3. Dyeing

As of 2010, Polartec used a 12-hour, pressure-cooker process to dye its finished sheets of fabric.

4. Additional treatments

Depending on the intended application of the fabric, Polartec may also subject its polyester fleece to durable water repellent (DWR), flame-repellent, or other types of treatments. Once properly dyed and treated, Polartec fleece is ready to be shipped to an outerwear brand for incorporation into finished products.

How is Polartec fabric used?

Polartec fabric is primarily used in apparel. Originally popularized as an alternative to fleece jackets, Polartec is also now used in sweaters, sweatpants, shirts, hats, and a variety of other outerwear applications. Certain types of Polartec fleece that have been designed to be moisture-wicking are used as base layers. Since Polartec has significantly expanded its textile catalog in recent years, this company now also produces waterproof fabrics that are commonly used in rain shells, gloves, and other applications in which water resistance is desirable.

Where is Polartec fabric produced?

While Polartec now has factories in Shanghai, China and a variety of other foreign locations, this company still produces the majority of its fabric in the United States. Though Polartec closed its Massachusetts headquarters in 2016, it still has manufacturing facilities in its home state as well as in New Hampshire and Tennessee.

How much does Polartec fabric cost?

Polartec fabric varies in price depending on the subtype of fabric in question. Classic Polartec fabric is relatively inexpensive, but versions of this fabric that have been designed to be waterproof or fire-resistant may be more costly. The most expensive type of Polartec fabric is NeoShell, which Polartec released recently as a competitor to GORE-TEX, OutDry, and similar waterproofing textiles.

What different types of Polartec fabric are there?

Polartec now produces dozens of different types of fabrics, and each of these textile products has unique attributes. To simplify matters, we’ve assembled these products into four separate categories, and we’ll also list the fabric weight variations Polartec offers and provide brief summaries of competing textiles.

1. Polartec base layer fabrics

The products in the Polartec base layer category are some of the newest offerings this company has produced, and they counter the common complaint that Polartec fabrics are not moisture-wicking or particularly breathable. Products in this category include Polartec Power Dry, Polartec Power Grid, and Polartec Power Wool, which combines polyester with genuine merino wool. Of special note is Polartec Delta, which is ideal for warm-weather athletic activities due to its reduced wet-cling and elevated touch points.

2. Polartec insulative fabrics

The insulative textiles Polartec produces are all variations on this brand’s original fabric. Polartec Alpha, for instance, is a slightly upgraded version of this brand’s original polyester fleece, and Polartec Alpha Direct is a similar alternative that has additional moisture-wicking properties. Polartec Fleece is the new name for Polartec’s original fleece product, and other fabrics in this series include:

  • Polartec Hardface
  • Polartec High Loft
  • Polartec Power Air
  • Polartec Power Fill
  • Polartec Shearling Fleece
  • Polartec Thermal Pro
  • Polartec Wind Pro

3. Polartec weather protection fabric

Polartec launched its NeoShell fabric in 2011 as a direct competitor of other waterproofing materials like GORE-TEX, OutDry, and eVent. Since then, NeoShell has been included in a wide variety of products made by Polartec’s contracted brands. Polartec also offers a few other weather protection fabrics such as Power Shield and Power Shield Pro, which are variants of this brand’s original synthetic fleece. WindBloc is another example of a Polartec weather protection fabric, and this textile provides insulative, waterproofing, and windproofing properties.

4. Polartec flame-resistant fabrics

Polartec developed its flame-resistant fabric line exclusively for the United States military in 2003. At the time, synthetic fabrics had a tendency to melt when exposed to the heat generated by IED detonations. Today, Polartec also includes its flame-resistant textiles in consumer products while continuing to supply these fabrics to the US military. Here are some examples of the flame-resistant fabrics that Polartec offers:

  • Polartec Power Dry FR
  • Polartec Power Grid FR
  • Polartec Power Stretch FR
  • Polartec Power Wool FR
  • Polartec Thermal Pro FR
  • Polartec Wind Pro FR
  • Polartec Power Shield FR

Polartec also produces custom flame-resistant fabrics for workwear and military applications.

5. Polartec fleece weight variations

Polartec fleece has traditionally been offered in grades designated by micron thickness. Since Polartec now offers so many different types of fabric, the textiles this company produces may no longer be separated by this variable. Conventional types of Polartec fleece are, however, still sorted into 100, 200, and 300 micron thickness options.

6. Refrigiwear fleece

Refrigiwear is a competing brand that, like Polartec, produces insulative garments. While Refrigiwear is more focused on highly insulative workwear for cold-weather environments, this brand also produces polyester fleece with similar attributes to Polartec fleece.

8. Alternative water-resistant fabrics

Since Polartec now produces NeoShell and waterproof products, this brand directly competes with GORE-TEX, OutDry, eVent, and similar textiles that also have waterproofing properties.

How does Polartec fabric impact the environment?

Synthetic fleece has a remarkably negative impact on the environment. Polyester is a petrochemical, which means that it is made from petroleum oil. A variety of environmental contaminants are released during the polyester production process.

Since it is designed to replicate genuine wool fleece, synthetic fleece is composed of loose fibers. As a result, it is one of the largest contributors to microfiber pollution. Studies indicate that washing polyester fleece one time could release as many as 1 million microfibers into the water supply. Polyester fleece is also non-biodegradable, so it stays in the environment for decades or even centuries before degrading.

Polartec fabric certifications available

Polartec received OEKO-TEX certification for all of its products in 2005, which indicates that this brand uses sustainable processes to produce its textiles. Products that brands produce using Polartec fleece are not eligible for further certifications.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.