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Fleece Is Just A Pile...

Before there was SNEWS, our normal sandbox for Outdoor History, there was NOON- The National Outdoor Outfitters News. The first real trade magazine focused on the outdoor Industry and its products.

And before there was the category we now call synthetic fleece, there was Fiber Pile.

The true forerunner to the fuzzy microfiber Pez dispenser/pullover that's as much a part of the 'Outdoor' look as puffy jackets, sport sandals, and gusseted crotches.

For those with more varied interests than the dark and lonely world of threadheads, pile refers to the raised fibrous surface that sticks up from the base fabric, giving fleece its warm, furry feel and appearance. The term "pile" originates from the velvet textile manufacturing process, where raised loops or cut loops of fiber create a plush, luxurious pile surface. When synthetic fleece was developed, borrowing this "pile" terminology made sense as the soft fuzzy texture achieved mimicked traditional piled fabrics like velvet or terry cloth. But like I said, threadheadery is a dark and lonely place, so we'll just leave it at that.

In this article, NOON is teaching its readers about the material that's all the rage - the looks, trends, and brands making their mark with the Pile. To be clear, Fiber Pile had been around for a few years, primarily used as bunting or liners. But by 1981, its look had skyrocketed past the purview of Scandinavian fishermen or a few hardcore climbers, and on to the mainstream market. To an industry just getting its headlamp around the new wave of synthetics (Gore-Tex, Thinsulate) forever changing how we dress to go outside, Fiber Pile was clearly the next big thing. Until it wasn’t. However, by May/June of 1981, Fiber Pile was on its way to becoming the 'it' fabric:

From cultwear to activewear, fiber pile clothing has made the great leap forward. With

time and diligent marketing, the pile look has crept onto the campus and into the fashion magazines, leaving the world of rock climbing and backpacking for the streets of middle America.

The puffy down look is dead. The wool look lingers on with the hunting, fishing, Bean and Bauer catalog crowds. Pile, on the other hand, is alive, fashionable and gaining popularity with a much broader audience.

Originally, pile caught on with the trend-conscious youth market in the far West, Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Fashion arbiters in their own way, hardcore rock climbers and mountaineers established the pile look and gave the clothing their seal of approval several years ago. Ever cognizant of the trend setters and their following, the specialty mountaineering and backpacking shops began to do some good numbers in pile clothing.

Most of the early interest in pile clothing was generated by Yvon Chouinard's Patagonia line. Chouinard wasn't the first to produce pile clothing, but the magic of the Patagonia name carries a great deal of weight with people who look for rugged well-tested outdoor clothing. Other manufacturers came onto the scene after Patagonia, but all had only moderate success with their lines until recently.

Pile: Alive, Fashionable, and Gaining Popularity by Bob Woodward.

Of course, pile fabric never reached the heights extolled by Noon. As fashion interests would soon dictate, it would be replaced with a softer, two-sided, non-pilling version that would be known as simply as fleece. (And a thankful industry rejoices in no longer having to read headlines like the one above.) It's this fabric that became a staple of every outdoor apparel line in existence; appear in catalogs from brands as varied as Union Bay, Ralph Lauren, Levi's, LL Bean, even the Preppy Handbook in the 1980s. It would even be the subject of debate as to which brand invented it (hint - none of the ones you think it is). However, that story is for another day.

But NOON definitely saw what was coming and was on the case. I'll close with an excerpt from a year earlier, a May/June 1980 article on Fiber Pile where the author Arne Weingart pretty much nails it:

Pile clothing's great potential as a meaningful category for both retailer and manufacturer lies in the fact that it performs in a way that no other type of clothing

does — it is lightweight, elastic, breathable, non-allergenic, and not affected by moisture. And it is both insulation and garment in one package. It is admittedly difficult to perceive so much value from a sometimes flimsy-looking garment which pills and has, on occasion, been accused of being a mere lining. But with the recent changes in pile itself, this perceptual problem should end. Pile may soon stand alongside Gore-Tex, Thinsulate, and other recent advances in outerwear technology, having overcome a

fifty-year head start.

Nails it.


The Life And Times Of Outdoor History, by Rock Fight Contributor David Karstad is made possible by the fine folks at the Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive.


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