Work Fleeces: From Chemical Goo & Recycled Water Bottles to Smart Workwear!

Work fleeces are almost everywhere nowadays – I don’t know quite how many different fleece garments we have on the Stitch & Print website but I DO know that fleece revolutionised workwear (as well as outdoor gear) in the early 1980s when Malden Mills needed a new product to survive in the cut throat textile trade! That early surge shows no signs of disappearing – I reckon that about 35% of the custom workwear that we sell is made of fleece.

But what is the fleece itself made of?

Polyester is the answer – known as terylene or Dacron back in the 1940s – and made by reacting two chemicals, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol (aka antifreeze) together to create a polymer.  Today, a lot of fleece actually has a high content of recycled polyester, up to 80%, and most of it comes from drinks bottles.  This recycling isn’t just good in terms of removing the plastic bottle waste from landfill but it’s also more energy efficient than making new or virgin polyester.

Going from liquid polyester to a fleece garment takes a number of stages, as you’d imagine, with some familiar from other textile manufacturing and others unique to fleece.
Firstly, the chemicals are mixed and heated under pressure to create polyester (or PET for short).  As this cools, it forms a viscous liquid that can be extruded through a disk with tiny holes (a bit like a showerhead) called a spinneret.  As the liquid sprays out of the spinneret and comes into contact with the air, it hardens into fibres which are wound on to a spool and form a structure a bit like a think rope, called tow.  The tow is then pulled through the heated rollers of a drawing machine (a bit like a mangle) to create longer, stronger fibres with the polymer PET molecules aligned.  It then goes through a crimping machine to make it crinkled and folded like an accordion before being dried and cut into short lengths for baling – it’s beginning to look a lot like wool!

The fleece production process from now on also seems to be very like wool with the cut tow going through a carding machine to align the fibres and then into a spinning machine to twist strands into a finer finished yarn.

Most fleece garments use fabric in a block colour and this is made by dyeing the polyester yarn and drying it again before the knitting process. However, patterned fleece fabric is made by printing on to finished fabrics, just as with other textiles.

But back to fleece.  The manufacturer now has their coloured polyester yarn but how does this become the fleece that we know and love?  First it is knitted to create  a continuous tube of cloth, about 1.5m wide and several hundred metres long.  To achieve the fuzzy texture, this knitted material is next fed through a napper, which runs mechanical bristles along the cloth (usually on both sides of the fabric) to raise the surface fibres.  These are then trimmed to an even length in a shearing machine and that gives you the textured piled fabric that we know as fleece.

By its very nature, fleece is durable, water resistant and with moisture wicking properties to keep you cool and it dries quickly and is light, soft to the touch and, best of all, warm because of the way that it traps air in its fibres.

Fleece can also be given other properties by spraying it with a textile finish such as anti-pilling (to prevent pesky bobbles) or waterproofing or by layering it with other fabrics such as Lycra to give it additional stretch for sportswear and work fleeces for specific conditions and industries.

A majority of the work fleeces that we customise and sell are made of what’s regarded as regular or medium weight fleece (about 370g per metre and also known as Polar Fleece 200).  You’ll also come across microfleece which is aka 100 and weighs about 240g per metre and then there’s heavy weight fleece, aka 300 and with a weight of about 400 or more grams per metre.
So browse the website and have a look at our huge range of fleece jackets, fleece hoodies, fleece hats, fleece gloves and everything else that you can possibly think of to be made in fleece – even hi vis custom fleece workwear garments.

In the 35 or so years that fleece has been on the market, it has proven just how adaptable it can be and the developments in making it from recycled polymer just add to its benefits.  Who knows what we’ll be making from fleece 35 years from now – but it’s already been into space!