I’ve worked with a wide variety of fabrics and materials throughout my career to make my puppets, but the one fabric I always come back to is fleece. Fleece is one of the most popular fabrics used in puppetry for many reasons. Fleece has a long history and you can’t just pick up puppet fleece for professional puppets builders at any regular craft store. Here’s everything you need to know on the history of puppet fleece and how it’s affected the modern world of television style puppets.
It’s no surprise that the modern use of puppet fleece would align with the start of the Muppets. Though the first Kermit puppet was made from a green coat, the original Muppets from the 1970s were crafted using Antron fleece. This type of fabric became so synonymous with characters like Kermit that people began to refer to it as “Muppet Fleece” and “Puppet Fleece.”
Antron fleece material was a huge hit because of the many benefits it brings to the puppet maker. For one, the fabric stretches seamlessly, allowing it to easily glide over the puppet’s structure for a smooth skin look. Also, when stitched correctly, the seams of the puppet are hidden exceptionally well due to the fluffy nature of the fleece.
Larry Guild invented the Antron Fleece fabric that was initially intended as a carpet fiber. However, after the Jim Henson Company began using the material, its popularity spread in the puppet world. So much so that the factory that produced the fabric, Hampshire Textiles, ran out of storage and needed help. Places like Georgia Stage provided extra space, and Antron fleece continued manufacturing. Eventually, Guild retired from the fabric world, and Georgia Stage took over the manufacturing and distributing of puppet fleeces.
Guild sold the company to the Georgia stage in 2018, but Antron fleece production ceased in 2006. The fiber blend that was uniquely characteristic of Antron fleece became harder to produce, leading to the fabric being discontinued.
Today you can only find this fabric on pre-existing puppets and occasionally on eBay when retired puppet builders sell their stock, as it is entirely out of circulation.
Malden Mills Fleece
Though Antron fleece was seen as the ideal fabric for puppet makers, professional and amateur alike, a competitor was on the scene. Malden Mills fleece was used in the creation of Fisher Price Kermit the Frog puppets. This production began in 1978 and extended to Kermit the Frog dolls, available for a lower price than that of Antron fleece.
Malden Mills fleece served as a worthy competitor to the Antron Fleece. In fact, Jim Henson used the fabric in TV and film production of the Muppets for the skin of Kermit the Frog. That was part of Jim’s licensing deal with Fisher Price – they could sell Kermit toys as long as they gave him as much of the custom fleece fabric as he wanted, since he knew Fisher Price would be manufacturing it anyway.
However, when the mill burnt down in 1995, Malden Mills fleece production was put to an end. The Malden Mills fleece was a polyester blend, unlike the Nylon counterpart we’ll talk about soon. There were a few downsides to this version of fleece. For one, the fabric was dyed after production with only a small selection of colors available. The fabric pile was short and dense compared to the lush fabric of Antron fleece.
12oz. Nylon Fleece
An alternative had to be made with Antron fleece out of the market. Enter 12 oz. Nylon Fleece to the stage and screen. This fabric mimicked Antron fleece well. This fabric was soft, lightly sparkly, and stretchy, a near match to the original Antron fleece. It appeared to be a near perfect replacement fabric for Antron fleece. Unfortunately, this also stopped being manufactured in 2020 and the last of the stock was sold out in December of 2021.
Georgia Stage worked with Larry Guild to mend this problem, creating a new fabric choice for puppeteers. The new and improved fabric was a 13.75 Oz. Nylon fleece. The days of Antron fleece were far behind. However, Larry Guild said himself that the new and improved fabric was “one of the best versions of puppet fleece he’d ever seen.”
After Hampshire Textiles sold the company to Georgia Stage, the 13.75 Oz. Nylon fleece was officially renamed in 2019 as Nylafleece®. This fleece is also similar to the original Antron fleece. The only differences are the lack of shine compared to the 12 oz. Nylon Fleece and a slightly shorter pile. However, a matte finish can be better, especially for puppets used for film as they are much easier for lighting purposes.
By all practical accounts, Nylafleece® is a good replacement to Antron Fleece, even to the point where some long-standing customers continue to refer to the fabric as Antron Fleece. Nylafleece® is still available for purchase as a prime puppet making fleece option.
NYLON LOOP FLEECE
If you’re looking for another option, Nylon Loop Fleece is an excellent choice! Upon close examination, it might seem familiar. Nylon Loops Fleece is manufactured as the soft side of a generic hook and loop fastener, more commonly known as VELCRO®. However, in recent years puppet builders have adopted the fabric in their work, even though it has been manufactured since 1949.
Typically, VELCRO® is most often thought of as a ruff and thick plastic material. It’s defiantly not something you would first think of as a good puppet building material. It is too stiff.
But there are other versions that are nice and soft. Mostly manufactured for use in medical aids and athletic apparel. Such as arm and back braces.
However, hook and loop fastener can be made in different stiffness’s. When ordering nylon loop fleece from the manufacturer, you will want to order a 10% stiffness for puppet building use.
This generic Nylon Loop Fleece turns out to be perfect for puppet building! The look and feel it is identical to the Malden Mills fleece that Henson used himself on his Muppets in the late 70″s. And best of all, it is VERY inexpensive when bought from the manufacturer.
Fleece is the Way to Go
While many materials are at your disposal to craft your puppets with, fleece seems to be a fan favorite. It’s durable, stretches perfectly over the curves of your puppet, and is similar the traditional look we are familiar with in television puppetry. As a puppet maker, fleece will never let you or your future puppets down no matter how much the fabric evolves over time.