Polartec | The History Of An Outdoor Brand That Changed The Game

A deep dive on some of Polartec's most revolutionary moments in outdoor clothing

Polartec are running a photo competition. Find out more about it, and how to enter, here.


It’s now 40 years since PolarFleece first came into the world and changed the way people, in the outdoors, think about performance textiles. A decade later, after ten more years of collaboration, innovation, and refinement a higher level was reached. The name of this level? Polartec.

“It was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a game changer”

Polartec, and the people behind them, have been doing good things for a while now. It was, however, in 1981 when the seed of the tree that they’d eventually grow into was first planted. This was the year they created a synthetic fabric technology that was more lightweight, breathable, and faster drying than anything that had ever come before it. It was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a game changer.


Historians of the human race like to split things up into BC and AD. When it comes to documenting the story of outdoor clothing however, for those in the know at least, it’s more about BP and AP – ‘Before Polartec fleece’ and ‘After Polartec fleece’.

“This fabric established itself as the benchmark for insulating materials”

That might sound like hyperbole but, honestly, it can’t be stressed enough just how well this fabric established itself as the benchmark for insulating materials. From the moment it rocked up, the way we started dressing for outside adventures far away from the front door was irreversibly changed. It was like a bolt of lightning, one that would spark life into an industry that had started to go stale.

Established in 1906 as Malden Mills, it wasn’t until 1991 that Polartec – the brand – was introduced to the world. The history of this company is one steeped in firsts. In 1993, for example, they served up the first performance fabrics made from post-consumer recycled plastics. Nowadays, it’s common place to find companies thinking about sustainability and environmental impact but back then that really wasn’t the case.

In 2010, Polartec took their commitment to the green cause even further when they started working with Repreve and began creating 100% upscaled polyester fabrics. Dig further into this part of the brand’s story, and you discover that to date they’ve upcycled over 1.8 billion bottles into performance fabrics. Whichever way you spin it, that’s an incredibly impressive number.

“To date they’ve upcycled over 1.8 billion bottles into performance fabrics”

Another milestone in the story of Polartec was the creation of High Loft in 1998. One of the big selling points of this development was that it had a properly fluffy quality that allowed it to be compressed down into small spaces for travel. From a purely performance point of view, it provided increased warmth through the creation of more air pockets across the fabric. This trapped heat superbly, and provided balanced breathability.

Plushness enhanced how well High Loft performed its primary function while also reducing the weight of the fabric. By cementing their understanding of expanding materials, and the high warmth benefits this can bring, Polartec were able to launch out further and further into the realms of outdoor gear innovation.

Pictured: Patagonia x Polartec recycled materials fleece
Pictured: Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man fleece with Polartec High Loft

Everywhere you look in the Polartec backstory, you can see how one moment of invention has fed into another; in turn, feeding into another and another and another. Never a company to let the world pass them by, one of the statements they live and die by is: “Just because it has never been made, doesn’t mean we can’t make it.”

Unlike your Chesney Hawkes of this world, Polartec are the opposite of a ‘one hit wonder’. In 1998, they didn’t just serve up the excellent High Loft. They served up Power Grid as well. For those not clued up on it, Power Grid saw Polartec bring a patented grid construction knit to proceedings.

This grid construction had the three-fold benefit of increasing warmth and breathability, while also reducing fabric mass. Power Grid was proof that sometimes a simple, minimalist, idea can be just the thing to maximise performance in the outdoors.

Since the turn of the millennium, Polartec have continued to cook up new ideas; illustrating time and time again the heightened level of innovation they can bring to the pot.

There’s been Polartec Power Stretch, designed with movement very much in mind. This was then taken even further with the release of Polartec Power Stretch Pro, a seriously stretchy fabric that brought increased durability and abrasion resistance to the table. Throughout everything, Polartec have never forgotten that getting outside is fundamentally about moving around. The history of the brand’s developments fully reflects that.

More recently, there’s been Polartec Power Air – a progression that’s seen the brand go head to head with the scourge of microfiber shedding. Microfibers, if you weren’t already aware, are bad for both the environment and human health.

“Polartec… understand that a simple approach is sometimes the smartest one”

How does Power Air tech work? Well, in layman’s terms, you’re looking at raised surface structures that are cleverly knitted into a single piece of fabric. These form individual air pockets. Air, of course, has proven itself over and over again, to be the natural’s world best and most efficient insulator.  Polartec, as we’ve touched upon already, understand that a simple approach is sometimes the smartest one. This is that idea in action once again.

Power Air has a unique construction that encases the fibers within air pockets. Not only does this provide warming benefits, it also drastically reduces shedding in the wash and over time through general wear and tear. Studies have shown that it’s proven to shed five times less microfibers than other mid-layer fabrics.

Pictured: Arc’teryx making the most of Polartec Power Shield

Polartec Power Shield and Polartec NeoShell are other fine examples of how Polartec, over the years, have been able branch out and continue their revolutionising approach in new areas. Power Shield rocked up and shifted the way we think about soft shells, with a fabric that managed to increase warmth, protection, and breathability while also reducing stiffness and noise.

“Neoshell showed what can happen when a fresh train of thought is brought to the realm of waterproofs”

Not satisfied with merely conquering the world of fleeces, Polartec Neoshell showed what can happen when a fresh train of thought is brought to the realm of waterproofs. The big selling point of Neoshell is that it manages to be both incredibly effective at fighting off all forms of moisture while also being very good at circulating airflow. This fusing together of waterproofing and breathability makes it the kind of kit you can get out in, and get active in, no matter what the weather’s doing.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Polartec have also played a significant role over the years in developing clothing for soldiers. After discussions with American military, the brand were able to develop an advanced breathable insulation technology that dries quickly, retains warmth, and circulates airflow. Known as Polartec Alpha, it’s now standard issue gear for U.S. Special Forces and is worn in some of the world’s most extreme environments.

Without access to a time machine, there’s no telling what the next forty years will look like. What we do know though is that if the people at Polartec are half as innovative in the next four decades as they have been in the last, those of us who love the outdoors are in for a treat. Bring it on.


To find out more about Polartec’s Family Album Photo Conest, click here

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