Yesterday we were given a tour of the Polartec manufacturing plant outside of Boston in Lawrence, MA. The thirty-eight acre campus employs over 1000 people and is continually churning out fabric to be made into base layers, insulation layers or soft shells (and now hard shells) for both the military and consumer outdoor industry.
At the height of production, roughly 250 circular knitting machines pump out 425,000 pounds of fabric a week at the Boston plant, with another 250,000 pounds per week out of the Polartec plant near Shanghai, China. Pretty impressive considering 80% of their fabric is made to order from an infinite range of custom colors and 300-400 different fabric styles.
A robotic color mixing machine can pretty much match any color a customer would like to use for the season. The hardest colors to get right are supposedly khaki and light gray.
The white knit fabric that comes off the knitting machines is washed then dyed in a 12 hour pressure cooker process.
I am loving the purple fleece-is this batch headed to Patagonia perhaps?
Polartec is known for their exceptional quality with a zero return rate on 99.5% of all orders. To achieve this level of quality control, the company regularly tests their fabric to ensure it matches the expected performance characteristics. The Bundesman machine below tests the quality of the DWR or water repellency of the fabric.
Testing for air permeability.
The lab even puts fabric through real world situations such as surviving your washing machine at home.
The infamous DMPC- a test that Polartec believes can more accurately predict how a fabric will perform in the field rather than a simple RET value.
My personal favorite- the mace test for durability.
Together with Patagonia, Polartec has been at the forefront of using recycled materials for their fabric. With the help of raw material suppliers such as Unifi who now offer 100% post consumer polyester thread, 35% of Polartec's current product is made from recycled raw material with a goal of getting that to 80% by the beginning of next year.
At the end of our tour, Chris Harding from Rab popped in and told us how excited they were about the NeoShell performance and how it offers a nice alternative to the current waterproof breathable fabrics on the market today.