HUDSON — Back in its heyday, Lawrence, Mass.-company Malden Mills was known nationwide for its domestically-produced, quality upholstery fabrics.
But by the 1990s, the name was one that most people associated with Polartec, the synthetic fleece fabric that lines many winter coats, gloves and hats to this day.
This month, the company, which employs more than 800 people in two states and has operated a second manufacturing facility in Hudson for more than two decades, has come full circle with its recent line of performance-based upholstery fabrics.
Through a partnership with C.F. Stinson of Rochester Mills, Mich., the "Fit By Polartec" collection was well received during the early June NeoCon event in Chicago, an annual North American design exposition and conference.
Polartec's new upholstery line earned the company this year's Innovation Award at the recent convention.
Company CEO Gary Smith said the latest venture provided a welcome chance for the company to return to its roots.
"Malden Mills has been making fabric in New England for over 100 years, and the bulk of our business was once upholstery," Smith said.
According to Allison Spahr, Polartec vice president of global design, the project had been in the works for the past two years, following the launch of a waterproof, breathable version of the popular fleece fabric.
"What we did is optimize and adapted that technology to create a breathable, highly comfortable seating material," Spahr said. "We are able to achieve an incredibly soft, drapable textile without harsh chemical treatments. In fabrics we produce for other industries, our knit air channels are designed to manage comfort and breathability."
Smith said the new partnership with C.R. Stinson was an important event in the history of a company that's had to cope with changing times.
In 1981, Polartec, in partnership with Patagonia, revolutionized cold weather apparel with its invention of modern synthetic fleece. The technology used to create these fabrics evolved from the know-how of Polartec's engineers running the upholstery knitting machines.
"At the end of the day, what we're good at doing is designing innovative fabric solutions," Smith said. "We talked a lot about comfort, warmth and protection, and certainly these aspects can also apply to upholstery, as knits are more comfortable than woven fabrics."
Some of the fabrics in the line are being produced the company's Hudson manufacturing plant, located at 8 Industrial Drive.
Smith said the fabric-weaving machines used in Hudson are ideal to produce the plush, soft velvet upholstery offerings included in the new product line.
"The knitting machines we have there are designed to adjust a fabric's pile," he said, noting that the Hudson machines incorporate a different knitting process than those in Lawrence, Mass.
As the knitting business spreads overseas, Polartec officials said they hope the new upholstery line will help them adapt to a changing market for their products.
"The hope is that yes, we'll eventually be able to add more positions, more jobs," Smith said. "But right now, the truth is we're swapping dollars as our military clients (for clothing fabric) continue to decline. So this is a very small step for us, but a very important one."
The new upholstery fabrics, geared to both commercial and medical markets, are expected to become available to consumers sometime next year.