Wearables Business

Versatile Fleece – Fleece product history and review

Versatile Fleece – Fleece product history and review

Byline: Kim Mitchell

It wasn’t that long ago that wearing fleece was considered a bold anti-fashion statement. In those days your only fleece option was athletic sweats, usually grossly oversized and available in heather gray. You wore them to the gym or to clean out the garage, but generally when wearing fleece sweats you took extraordinary measures to keep from being seen in public.

As aerobics became increasingly popular through the early 1980s, lowly fleece became a bit more acceptable. But in the mid-’80s, something happened that would literally change the face of fleece.

Lawrence, Mass.-based fabric manufacturer Malden Mills introduced a new synthetic variation of fleece called Polarfleece. It was pricey, but its warmth-to-weight ratio and ability to wick away moisture and dry quickly made it the darling of athletics and active people everywhere.

By the early 1990s Polarfleece, and an abundance of imitators, had made its way into the retail marketplace and its functional appeal was quickly matched by fashion-forward colors and styles. Then at the end of the decade came a new generation of microfleece fabrics, with an even tighter knit, less bulk, a softer hand and greater resistance to pilling. With the onset of that new breed of fleece, it lost some of its outdoorsy, novelty value and began moving into mainstream casual wear.

Today Malden Mills retains the trademark on Polarfleece (and Polartec), but the everyday term “polar fleece” now encompasses a wide range of fabrications and products almost all of which are versatile and affordable.

As autumn approaches, it’s time to look for a hot product to pitch to customers as the weather turns cooler. Well, it appears that nothing will be hotter this fall than fleece. New textures, piles and a cornucopia of styles continue to lead in retail and wearable promotional products categories. Whether your customers are looking to enhance their incentive programs, events, gifts or corporate catalog programs, they’ll love fleece for its universal appeal.

With variations of polar fleece and microfleece on the market, fleece is increasingly perceived as a high-end item. That perception is accurate. Compared to traditional fleece, polar fleece can be expensive. An imported polar fleece jacket in an adult size runs about $15 to $20 wholesale.

“In the corporate market fleece is still very much a price-driven purchase,” says Gina Barreca, marketing communications manager for Avenel, N.J.-based supplier Vantage, which offers three brands with fleece products: Vantage, Velocity and Greg Norman Corporate. To that end, she continues, basic crewneck sweatshirts still make up the largest percent of industry sales, with outerwear items falling second, followed by fashion fleece.

In the traditional, or basic fleece market, cotton/poly blends are surpassing 100-percent cotton fleece. In fact, in the wake of polar fleece flooding the market about five years ago, the traditional fleece market stayed relatively flat from 1999-2001.

But recent data from CREST (Capstone Research sales data from more than 30 industry wholesalers) indicates that basic fleece is experiencing significant growth, versus a year ago. In March, April and May of 2002 fleece tops were up 8.6 percent versus a year ago and for the month of May alone fleece tops were up 12.5 percent versus a year ago, says Bill VonDohlen, marketing manager for Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Hanes Printables fleece.

At the same time, polar fleece still remains very strong because of its versatility in layering and the ability to cross over into a number of different seasons. “Sales will continue to be strong in these categories,” says Sheila Jardine, merchandiser for Toronto-based Ash City, which offers fleece products in its Elements and North End brands, among others.

The marketplace is wide open, says Sabrina Bradford, marketing manager for Atlanta-based Russell Artwear, a division of the 100-year-old Russell Corporation that offers fleece products to the industry with the Jerzees and Russell Athletic labels. “Customers range from schools to corporations.”

What’s selling now

High-pile fleece, like Malden Mills’ Polartec and Vantage’s Vantek are extremely popular in cool weather regions and in a myriad of jacket, vest and pullover styles.

“In the retail fleece market, active and sporty styles are forecasted to be the top trends for 2003,” says Vantage’s Barreca. “We’ll continue to see growth in the polar/nordic fleece categories. Microfleece styles are especially popular because the lighter-weight fabric has seasonless appeal. Less bulk is also important when the garments are worn for sport activities.”

Fleece outerwear remains the top seller at the Denver-based Colorado Trading & Clothing Co., says Tina Schmitt, director of sales for special markets. Outerwear is followed by microfleece and fashion fleece, she adds. “Our biggest sellers are our classics – vests, jackets and pullovers.”

Falling somewhat from grace is the sherpa or berber fleece, known for its very plush look and textured appeal. “Sherpa fleece has generally been replaced with newer textures and fabrics with surface interest,” says Ash City’s Jardine.

Vantage’s Barreca agrees. “The polar fleece category has almost completely replaced sherpa styles that were trendy three years ago,” she says. “Many manufacturers took the most popular sherpa silhouettes and switched out the two fabrics. Since fashion fleece is not a typical buy for the corporate market, there isn’t a lot of room to support too many different trends.”

However, the sherpa look still has fans. Resort markets in particular seem to drive some demand for sherpa styles, says Colorado Trading & Clothing’s Schmitt.

Fleece styling also has come a long way with the addition of plackets, open bottoms and vests, although in basic (traditional sweatshirt) fleece the crewneck remains style king. But even the king looks spiffier these days thanks to high-end details such as V-notch collars, pull tabs on zippers and color blocking.

“Finishes are playing an increasingly important role in creating different effects for seasonal and aesthetic changes as well as to create performance properties,” says Russell’s Bradford. “There are also increasing requirements for functional and practical properties.

Vantage’s Barreca agrees that textural interest remains an important trend particularly for fashion fleece. “Activewear influences will produce more styles with high V-necks and zipper plackets, she says. “Golf fashions will also drive new designs, so we will also see more traditional styles with banded bottoms.”

A key element in fashion fleece is the detailing, says Brandy Webber, marketing coordinator for Minnetonka, Minn.-based Premium-Wear Inc., which offers fleece products in its Page & Tuttle, Field & Stream and California Outerwear lines.

“The added extras of dyed-to-match buttons, pockets, adjustable cuffs, coverstitch detailing, adjustable hems for custom fits and rib cuffs are features that help us stand out in the world of fashion fleece,” Webber says. “Offering alternatives to the traditional fleece sweatshirt is extremely important in order to keep the fashion fleece industry thriving.”

Colorado Clothing’s Schmitt agrees. “Trends are becoming more streamlined and basic functional pockets are being concealed. People are looking for a more technical garment.”

Fabulous microfleece

The new generation of microfleeces have propelled fleece into the workplace and broadened its appeal, manufacturers say, thanks to its tighter knit, less bulk, a softer hand, and greater resistance to pilling.

“Microfleece has replaced heavier fleeces as it provides a lighter weight and feel while keeping the distinct look of fleece,” says PremiumWear’s Webber. As customers demand more comfort and ease-of-movement, microfleece becomes increasingly popular, she says, adding that unique detailing adds to the products’ value.

To that end, Webber notes that PremiumWear’s Page & Tuttle microfiber fleece (style #1300) is made from 100-percent microfiber polyester anti-pill fleece and features include a contrast collar, inside storm flap with striped binding and chin guard, front zipper closure, set-in hemmed sleeves and self-fabric cuffed sleeve end. It comes in black, charcoal, mariner blue, navy and pine green and comes in sizes S-4XL.

To understand the appeal of fashion fleece, one need not look further than Alternative Apparel’s full-zippered hooded fleece with kangaroo pocket, aka style AA563.

“Our AA563 style has the thick fashion rib on the garment bottom and sleeve cuffs giving it a very unique look,” says Alternative Apparel’s Stephanie Ives. “Fabric quality is very important. The feedback that we have received from our customers is that they love the heavyweight feel of our fleece fabric. They associate the heavier fleece with higher-quality garments.”

Fashion fleece’s popularity transcends markets, appealing to adults, youths, men and women, agrees Ash City’s Jardine. “I don’t think that fashion fleece is restricted to any one market. There is something for every age group and end use.”

“Fashion fleece is being used across the board,” says PremiumWear’s Webber. “It is perfect for any type of program as it compliments men’s and ladies’ fashion sense. It is perfect for any company store and is even used as uniforms.”

Fashion fleece is certainly becoming a more important commodity in that it can be worn for leisure or casual office environments and offers an excellent alternative to more expensive sweaters, Jardine notes.

“Trends in fashion fleece seem to lean toward fabrications with textural interest, somewhat traditional styling which allows it to cross from office to leisure and attention to fine details,” Jardine continues. “The high V-neck is certainly an important fashion statement as is the open hem bottom and cuff.”

Ash City’s Elements line of fashion fleece includes casual garments, such as a classic fleece and a poly fleece. “They incorporate quality materials, dynamic colors, distinctive styling and superior performance,” Jardine says. “Within the poly fleece we highlight the corded poly fleece with its wonderful textural interest and fine attention to details.”

Being introduced this coming season is a new collection of North End flatback rib fashion fleece. “Perfect for the office or leisure activities,” says Jardine.

New and old twists

For all the focus on polar fleece and its variations, price considerations keep basic or traditional fleece in high demand. The traditional sweatshirt still makes up the largest percentage of overall fleece sales.

“Pricing is very competitive in the basic sweatshirt category and allows a buyer to purchase a garment at a very reasonable price,” says Vantage’s Barreca. “The low price points also keep decoration options open. For example, screenprinting and embroidery both work well for these garments.”

“Our basic style AA561 crew fleece is our best seller,” says Alternative Apparel’s Ives. “Our fleece product line is more unique that just the ‘traditional’ sweatshirts as we pigment dye them, but it is still the traditional crewneck style.”

Alternative Apparel doesn’t carry any polar fleece styles. “We don’t feel there is a huge demand for it in our industry,” Ives says. “In my opinion, traditional sweatshirts are still hot! We sell them daily to the fashion market. I personally don’t see a drop in our fleece sales as microfleece has been introduced to the market. Sales of our fleece sweatshirts have remained steady since microfleece was introduced.”

Likewise, at Hanes the emphasis is on traditional basic fleece in four different fabrics across a variety of styles. It also offers several coordinating fleece styles and colors for adults and youths to meet the demand for fleece school and team uniforms. But there is nothing traditional about Hanes’ approach toward color: The company’s fleece is available in 20 different hues.

“Looking at CREST data for the market, there is growth in the basic fleece category,” Hanes’ VonDohlen says. “I think consumers continue to be drawn to sweatshirts for their versatility – you have so many options in terms of weight, color, styling and price. Fleece provides warmth, is great for layering, offers a phenomenal value and can be worn virtually year-round.”

“We are very upbeat about our Hanes Ultimate Cotton 10-ounce 90/10 cotton/polyester line which includes a crew and pullover hood style as well as the new Hanes Ultimate Cotton full-zip hood introduced this year,” VonDohlen continues.

“Consumers love the hand as well as the pullover and full-zip hood styling,” he notes, adding that Hanes’ patented PrintPro fleece, a high-stitch density fabric, offers an excellent print and embroidery platform.

Back in the hood

Driving the growth of basic fleece are hooded styles – both pullover and zip hoods, says Hanes’ VonDohlen. “Hooded styles like a full-zip hood or a pullover hood started as popular styles for the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds, but they have developed into full-blown fashion statements for fashion models to soccer moms, he says. “The popularity of hoods also goes back to their inherent versatility.”

Describing hoodies as “a huge part of today’s fashion landscape,” he adds that consumers are wearing fleece and fleece-hooded tops as workout wear, jackets and casual layering pieces. At the same time, that inherent versatility requires that PPDs offer their customers a variety of styles and weights, he says.

“Hooded styles are very popular with the Gen-X/Gen-Y crowds,” says Alternative Apparel’s Ives. “They tend to appreciate the fashion-forward details and hip, different look.”

While crews do still sell best, says Russell’s Bradford, they are followed closely by hoods, particularly cropped and oversized hoodies.

Other popular styles are revamped bomber or tracktop silhouettes, Bradford says. She adds that that silhouettes incorporating an “’80s vibe” with the revival of casual sportswear inspired tops is a key fashion statement. Other popular stylings include full-on bottoms with relaxed full-legged silhouettes. Emphasis is moving from the hip to fitted waist details, she adds. New from Russell for 2002 is a hooded pullover sweatshirt (#1803Z) and an adult striped-trim lapped V-neck (1804Z).

Suede, sand and comfort

One of the biggest looks, continued from last year, is texture. Sueded and brushed fabrics have a softer feel and make garments less stiff and more sweater-like. Pique and pebble fleeces also are stepping into the spotlight.

For its part, Russell Artwear’s Jerzees brand this year enhanced its top-of-the-line Zclass fleece collection with additional styles made from its 10-ounce, 90/10 cotton/polyester fabric.

“These are the only garments in the Artwear channel constructed of combed ringspun yarn. The yarn is produced with an added combing action which rid the yarns of additional short cotton fibers and provide a softer hand,” says Bradford.

Bradford says this ringspun yarn is essential to Russell Artwear’s 10-ounce collection of premium, fully-loaded styles featuring feld seams, Radicispandex trims and innovating styling. New for this year is the 1803Z hooded pullover sweatshirt and 18047 adult striped-trim lapped V-neck.

Colorado Trading & Clothing Company is looking to offer a new twist with micro chenille. “We are using this fabric for throws, robes and several silhouettes in sweaters,” Schmitt explains. “It is 100-percent polyester like fleece, but it has an extremely soft and luxurious feel and it is affordable and washable, which makes it more desirable than most chenille. Sales have been great in the retail market. We’re just introducing the products to the promotional market and so far they’ve been well-received.”

PremiumWear is hoping that a sanded finish crewneck will stand out from the crowd. The company’s Page & Tuttle ultra-sanded crewneck fleece (style # 90799) is a blend of 80-percent ringspun combed cotton/20-percent sanded polyester fleece with sanded finish. The 10-oz. crewneck features coverstitched detailing throughout, 2×2 rib cuffs and bottom band, fashion rib inset at center front and back neck patch.

Also from PremiumWear is the Field & Stream Outfitter fleece pullover (style #7035), a 65-percent polyester/35-percent rayon brushed Alpaca-style fleece with anti-pill finish. Weighing in at 8.7 ounces, it features 2×2 rib henley collar and self-fabric cuffs, quarter-zip placket with nylon braid pull and fatigue seam detail and twill neck tape with novelty elastic cord loop and back neck patch, on-seam waist pockets, even hem with adjustable elastic cord, and barrel stopper for a custom fit.

Sueded finishes are fueling Vantage’s fleece sales. The company’s Vantage brand, which offers eight styles of fashion fleece, has found its sueded cotton fleece crew (style 3140) and a half-zip Vantek Fleece Pullover (style 7130) to be its big sellers, says Barreca.

“The sueded cotton crew is a step up from the traditional sweatshirt,” says Barreca. “The fabric is extremely soft, 11-ounce heavyweight sueded cotton and the garment features upscale details such as a V-patch, self-goods side panels, a locker patch, twill tape in the neck and double-needle stitching. The pullover is popular in cooler regions and across age groups, with both men and women.”


Today fleece has become a fashion statement. And whether it’s loud, funky colors such as daffodil and tangerine or more corporate-friendly shades such as sage or deep red, there is a color available to suit everyone’s taste.

Although there is certainly an important role for more fashion-forward fleece, we see more growth opportunities in basic fleece with the right color mix,” says Hanes’ VonDohlen. “Color is extremely important from traditional colors to heathers to brights. Hane’s ComfortBlend Crew is available in 20 colors from charcoal heather and denim blue to orange and daffodil yellow.”

The bright, bold color stories from the last two years are being replaced with more traditional color palettes, says Vantage’s Barreca. “Look for shades of blue, like indigo and ocean and new variations of natural and stone.”

Russell Artwear’s Jerzees’ Zclass fleece is available in a variety of colors, including black, sandstone, true navy, white, mallard green, African violet, and Baltic blue. PremiumWear offers a myriad of colors such as admiral navy, black, deep red, grey heather, harvest and lake.

Color is a major factor when targeting different age groups. For its part, Alternative Apparel has found success with a vintage, “old school” look, says Ives. “All of our heavyweight fleece pieces are pigment washed with extra enzyme and silicone for that washed, worn look. These pieces have a tremendous amount of appeal with the younger crowd.

“We offer our fleece garments in a variety of colors but also keep them available to custom dye any possible color that our customers can think of,” Ives adds.

Unisex appeal

Suppliers and promotional products distributors alike have stepped up their focus on women’s styling. While special styling and silhouettes are imperative in women’s wearables such as jackets, plackets and sweaters, fleece is one area where unisex styling seems to be more acceptable. That alone makes ordering fleece less troublesome for many customers.

Vantage sees more requests for women’s styles in jackets and windshirt styles, says Barreca. “Requests for women’s fleece have been minimal. In the outerwear category, fleece most definitely has the most unisex appeal.”

“We have found that the unisex fleeces has always worked well,” says Ives. “I personally feel that active women are moving towards more fitted fleece garments but the majority still like the bigger, more traditional cut. We are considering adding a smaller fleece sizes for 2003 and will always have custom manufacturing available for customers who want fleece styles different from what we carry.”

Others agree that there is potential for women’s fleece products. “Fleece has traditionally been a unisex product,” notes Bradford. “However, Jerzees is strongly considering a women’s line of fleece products.”

“We introduced women’s fleece in 2002. The sizing and specs are modified to enhance the fit,” says Nad Zakem, president of Montreal-based supplier Bulletin. “We have a garment-dyed crewneck and full-zip front hood with front pockets. It comes in putty, yellow haze, light blue, canyon red, and basic black.

“Our biggest-selling items are the reverse garment-dyed 10 cotton fleece styles,” Zakem says. “We will introduce a ladies reverse style for 2003. The fabric in the reverse fleece is very soft and cozy. The styling lends itself to casual dressing.”

Kim Mitchell is a Denver-based writer and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.

Innovations making inroads in fleece decoration

One of the great things about basic jersey fleece is that it readily lends itself to both embroidery and screenprinting, although the latter is used a majority of the time on traditional sweatshirts due to its generally lower cost. Lofty polar fleece-type fabrics, however, are much better suited for embroidery, suppliers and manufacturers agree.

Applique and direct embossing also are two good options that work on sweatshirts or polar fleece. Having an embroidered sample to show customers is always a good idea, they add.

Because of the higher cost of fashion fleece, and the textures involved in fashion fleece, embroidery can be a nail-biting experience for all but the best decorators.

“With our name-drop programs, offering suede appliques and innovative designs in fashion fleece is looking better than ever,” says PremiumWear’s Brandy Webber. “This is an industry that depends on the use of embroidered goods for survival and fashion fleece is no different.”

Decoration has taken a completely new turn at Alternative Apparel, says Stephanie Ives. “In the beginning, we focused on the basic screenprint and embroidery designs. Now, we have experimented with more complicated screenprinting techniques as well as embroidery. We have recently introduced a new applique program where customers can select a background material (such as felt) and use it in conjunction with embroidery to create an extremely unique decorated product. We have had a huge success with this program as it offers variety and is a change from that ‘same old’ embroidery.”

Embroidery is the preferred method of decoration, says Tina Schmitt, director of sales for special markets at Colorado Clothing Co. Designs on their fleece apparel are typically embroidered on the left chest. Centered designs are more popular in the resort market on the micro chenille products, Schmitt says.

Vantage Marketing Communications Manager Gina Barreca says smaller center-chest embroidered designs are ideal for fashion fleece garments and are becoming more popular than full-chest embroidered designs. “The stitch counts are usually lower and more of the garment remains visible,” she says. Another new angle is to offer an additional embroidery zone under the zipper. “This placement is fairly new and usually well-received when suggested,” she says.

And, Sheila Jardine, merchandiser for Toronto-based Ash City, says many end users are looking for a more subtle approach via locations such as the lower hem end on an open bottom fleece; the back neck below the collar or band; or the lower sleeve edge. Kim Mitchell

Tip-time: Embroidering on fleece

A fabric that takes well to stitching, fleece is a natural choice for embroidery. With the advent of the newer microfleece fabrics, suitable for indoor as well as outdoor wear, fleece is showing up as part of promotional campaigns and corporate identity programs in a variety of ways today.


Fleece does not tend to pucker or lose its shape and is easily stabilized on embroidery hoops, making it an excellent choice for embroidery. However, due to a lack of consistency in the density of the weave for fleece fabrics on the marketplace, we suggest that you request a sample of your design, sewn out on a sample garment or swatch of the fabric used for the garment. This will avoid unwanted surprises if you are expecting to match a previous order.


With its vibrant colors and high sheen, rayon is the favorite pick for fleece garments. However, if a garment is to be laundered in heavy, industrial machines with high temperatures and large concentrations of bleach, polyester thread is the best choice.

Design Elements

An ongoing problem with embroidery design elements for all types of fabrics is text size.

Sheared fleece or microfleece both provide a smooth, low-pile surface and offer the best results for small text or fine design elements.

For fleece that has not been sheared, we suggest a minimum of 1/4″ for text height. The design may also need an underlay of stitching to keep it from being buried in the pile of the fabric. For best results, we also recommend that tearaway backing be used as needed.

The suggested minimum letter height for microfleece or sheared fleece is 3/16″.

Script or serif fonts are not advisable for text up to 1/2″. For best results, use capitalized letters in a sans serif font such as Ariel. (Your digitizer should advise you if the text in your design will sew out well at its original size.)

For large lettering, ask your digitizer if a fill stitch would be advisable over a satin stitch. A fill stitch increases the stitch count in the letter area, making it more resistant to snagging and tears.

Suppliers mentioned in this article

Alternative Apparel: 888-481-4287 American Apparel: 213-488-0226 Ash City: 800-761-6612 Barr Wholesale: 800-831-8337 Bulletin: 800-463-1483 Colorado Trading & Clothing: 888-363-9327 Diport USA: 800-351-8262 Hanes: 800-685-7557 Holloway Sportswear: 800-642-1225 PremiumWear: 800-347-6098 Russell Artwear/Jerzees: 800-321-1138 SanMar: 800-346-3369 Sierra Pacific: 713-683-7289 Vantage: 800-221-0020 Weatherproof: 800-367-7900

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