Aaron Feuerstein - Fleece pioneer, labor-management hero

Passing Date

Aaron Feuerstein, who helped to develop polyester fleece as a foundation of activewear, and won national praise after he refused to lay off employees after a devasting fire at his Malden Mills plant in 1995, died November 4 in Boston of pneumonia. He was 95.

Feuerstein joined Malden Mills after graduating from Yeshiva University in 1947. The textiles manufacturer moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts in the 1950s.

In the late 1970s, Feuerstein worked with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard to adapt the mill’s polyester baby-bunting material into an insulator that Patagonia marketed, in 1981, as Synchilla. Malden sold it with great success, under the name Polarfleece, to other outdoor clothing makers, including skiwear companies. In 1986 Malden changed the fabric’s name to Polartec. The company then figured out how to make polyester fiber from recycled soft-drink bottles as an environmentally friendly upgrade to his manufacturing process.

On December 11, 1995, the factory in Lawrence burned to the ground. Feuerstein refused to lay off hundreds of workers, and instead invested hundreds of millions to rebuild the plant.

His response to the fire made Feuerstein a celebrity. The Boston Globe christened him the “Mensch of Malden Mills.” He received scores of civic awards and honorary degrees, and used the public spotlight to criticize companies that didn’t appropriately support their workers.

However, the mill’s two-year rebuild opened the fleece market to competing firms. Feuerstein lost control of the company in 2001, and after an ownership change, Malden Mills became Polartec Inc. in 2007.