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Ski Business: Better Than Wool
In the early ’80s, skiers finally learned to stay dry and warm.
Photo above: In the 1980s, Patagonia's fleece top helped launch the technical skiwear category.
Those of us who began skiing before 1980 remember bundling up in layers of nylon, wool and down. In dry weather we were warm. In wet weather we shivered and headed for the lodge, then waited overnight for the soggy insulation to dry out. Around 1970 a lot of ski parkas were made with synthetic fiberfills, which dried more quickly—but they still soaked up cold rain and wet snow, driving us indoors.
Forty years ago, in 1981, everything changed. We got polyester fleece, which resisted moisture unless submerged, and waterproof/breathable shells to protect the fleece from wind and wet. Skiwear companies educated us to layer. It helped that high-speed detachable chairlifts, introduced that same year, cut in half the time we spent in the rain. Over the next five years, skiers discovered they could get in a dozen runs even in a Sierra blizzard.
The skiwear revolution, of course, has a backstory. In 1941, Dupont laboratories invented nonporous acrylic and polyester fibers, introduced commercially after World War II as Orlon and Dacron. As fabrics, they resisted soaking and staining, especially when treated with water-repellent chemicals. They became popular for upholstery, carpeting and clothing. In 1961 the 90-year-old Norwegian company Helly Hansen, a maker of foul weather gear for seamen, partnered with the firm Norwegian Fiber Pile to create a thick acrylic pile sweater that became popular with Swedish lumberjacks and Norwegian fishermen.
Ten years later, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard began looking for something better than wool and down for mountaineering gear. As he wrote in his book Let My People Go Surfing:
We decided that a staple of North Atlantic fishermen, the synthetic pile sweater, would make an ideal mountain layer, because it would insulate well without absorbing moisture.
But we needed to find some fabric to test out our idea, and it wasn’t easy to find. Finally, Malinda Chouinard, acting on a hunch, drove to the Merchandise Mart in Los Angeles. She found what she was looking for at Malden Mills, freshly emerged from bankruptcy after the collapse of the fake fur-coat market. We sewed up samples and field-tested them in alpine conditions. It had a couple of drawbacks: a bulky, lumbering fit and a bad-hair-day look, thanks to fibers that quickly pilled. But it was astonishingly warm, particularly when used with a shell. It insulated when wet, but also dried in minutes, and it reduced the number of layers a climber had to wear.
Those first thick pile sweaters were boxy, but Chouinard worked with Malden owner Aaron Feuerstein and product manager Doug Hoschek to adapt the mill’s polyester baby-bunting material into a soft fleecy 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.
In combination with waterproof/breathable shell materials like Gore-Tex, fleece kicked off a trend called “technical skiwear.” Stretch pants were exiled to the high-fashion corner of fine-weather skiing, and technical skiwear makers celebrated their boom at “poly parties.” (see “Crazy Ski Promotions,” January-February 2021 issue.)
By the mid-90s, Malden figured out how to make polyester fiber from recycled soft-drink bottles. In 1995, Malden’s factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, burned to the ground. Over the next two years Feuerstein rebuilt the company, but the interruption 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.
Seth Masia is president of ISHA. His last article for Skiing History was “Alpine Revolution: Three Years that Shook the Ski World,” in the January-February 2021 issue.
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