Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Turtle Fur brings warmth and joy to the world through their products and philanthropic initiatives
From the moment that Millie Merrill created the first “Turtle’s Neck®” fleece neck warmer in the basement of the Yellow Turtle children’s clothing store in Stowe, Vermont, the winter apparel accessory business was never the same. Merrill’s ingenious invention freed skiers from the oft-encumbering nuisance of easily tangled scarves, allowing them to enjoy their sport with new levels of freedom and confidence. After Merrill officially founded Turtle Fur in 1982, she partnered with the Malden Mills textile factory in Massachusetts in 1983 to create their trademark Original Turtle Fur® fleece. At the time, Malden Mills served as the original manufacturers of Polartec® fleece goods. In the years that followed, Merrill attended both regional and national trade shows, where she sold her soft and comfortable fleece neck warmers to a broad audience of retailers.
A vocal and energetic spokesperson, Millie forged deep and lasting connections with local and national retailers and distributors. Through the 1980s, Millie also built a dedicated independent sales force that helped grow Turtle Fur across the country. Building on the success of their original neck warmers, Turtle Fur soon expanded their product range to include The Hat; a fleece watch cap beanie also made with their signature Original Turtle Fur® fleece material. Millie Merrill’s husband, John Merrill, joined the business and became involved in the financial oversight of the operation. As an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, John’s keen understanding of market dynamics proved incredibly helpful as the business continued to grow. In the early 1990s, Turtle Fur broadened its market reach through a series of private label collaborations with large corporate sports brands such as Burton, Rossignol, and Titleist Golf. Turtle Fur then reached new levels of public visibility when they served as an official sponsor for the U.S. Olympic team at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
When Millie and John Merrill retired in 2000, Turtle Fur was sold to entrepreneur and businessman Richard Sontag. Over the next two decades, Sontag’s thoughtful oversight helped to catapult the business to new levels of prosperity. Today, Turtle Fur has diversified its range of offerings to include over 1,000 different items available in thousands of outdoor and snowsport stores throughout the United States, Canada, and globally. In addition to neck warmers, Turtle Fur’s product line includes hats, headbands, balaclavas, gloves, mittens, tops, cold weather facemasks, baby blankets, and neck warmers for dogs.
Turtle Fur has evolved from a small Vermont company to an international brand by focusing on its core principles of sustainability, diversity, and giving. Vice-Presidents Colin Giblin and Meghan Ksiazek and a very tight “knit” team have been instrumental in moving the company forward. “Turtle Fur is like a family,” says Giblin; “we are a small group of loyal and dedicated employees, which creates a fantastic collaborative environment. The average tenure of a Turtle Fur employee is around 24 years. You don’t find that kind of workforce longevity very often. It creates a truly supportive environment and work culture. When you get to know your teammates on a deeper level, you start to really care about them as people. It changes how you go about your work and how you see the rest of the world. If you have healthy relationships, it allows you to make healthier and better decisions. We care about each other the same way we care about our customers, our products, and the world around us. We’re going to keep working hard to create quality products and uphold our values, and we’re excited to see what comes next.”
Just as Turtle Fur puts a great deal of effort into creating their products, they also go above and beyond to integrate sustainable practices into their business model. To that end, Turtle Fur has purchased renewable energy credits to offset the carbon footprint of their office in Morrisville, which is affectionately referred to as “The Turtle’s Nest” by Turtle Fur’s staff. “One of the reasons that we went forward with purchasing those energy credits is that we want to be mindful of our energy consumption and its global impact. After closely reviewing our energy use, we realized that just under 60% of our local power supply is generated through renewable means. We felt that it was incredibly important to do everything we could to invest in the protection of our planet. Turtle Fur is a brand that is built around products that help people enjoy their time outdoors. If we want to continue to be successful, we have to take care of the world’s natural resources.”
According to Giblin, Turtle Fur has also recently joined the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps. By doing so, Turtle Fur has set goals to measure their greenhouse gas emissions, with the eventual aim of setting science-backed goals to reduce them in the near future. “Sustainable practices have always been a big part of Turtle Fur’s ethos,” notes Giblin. “We’re a Vermont company, and we run our business in line with Vermont’s values of conservation and thoughtful actions.”
Ksiazek adds that Turtle Fur is also deeply committed to advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. “We’re always in the process of reviewing our company handbook to make it more inclusive. We’re continuing to adjust the language used in the hiring process and the qualifications that are required in the hiring process. We want to be more inclusive in order to gather a more all-encompassing workforce. We all come from different backgrounds and different situations, and one type of education does not make another type of education less worthy. We are also part of the Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille County workgroup, where businesses meet to discuss how they can collectively move forward, connect the community, and create a more inclusive world. We talk about how to provide opportunities beyond our own borders, invite people into Vermont, and make the people that are already here feel heard.”
Turtle Fur also manifests positive change through several long-term philanthropic projects, such as their Project Warmth initiative, which donates cold-weather accessories to people in need. Project Warmth first came into being in 2008 after Turtle Fur’s owner, Richard Sontag, began donating Turtle Fur goods to homeless shelters, kitchens, and schools. The program initially started in Vermont and New York State, but it has now expanded to 49 states and several Canadian provinces. Each year, Turtle Fur donates 20,000 to 25,000 products to shelters, schools, and community organizations that can help get the donated products to the people who really need them.
In addition, Turtle Fur is the official headwear sponsor of Vermont Adaptive, a nonprofit program that helps adults and children with disabilities build confidence by participating in adaptive sports. “We’ve been a partner of theirs for several years now,” says Giblin. “We give them product and financial support every year. It’s been a fantastic partnership. “
This year, Turtle Fur is launching a new partnership with the Share Winter Foundation, a grantmaking organization dedicated to making winter sports more accessible to the broader community. Giblin elaborates: “The Share Winter Foundation brings underprivileged and at-risk kids from both cities and rural areas working to improve the lives, health, and fitness of youth through winter sports to ski areas so that they can experience winter sports. Last year, they helped over 45,000 kids get out on the mountain. We’re really excited about the partnership. Our mission has always been centered around helping people enjoy the outdoors, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. Share Winter Foundation’s work is right in line with our values, and we’re grateful to be able to work with them.”
Giblin says that although Turtle Fur is best known for their trademark Original Turtle Fur® acrylic fleece, their products are now available in many other high-quality, sustainable fabric options. Each fabric has its own unique advantages and characteristics and is ideally suited to different outdoor and weather situations.
According to Giblin, Original Turtle Fur® Fleece is proudly still made in the United States. Original Turtle Fur® Fleece is made of 100% acrylic, which gives it its signature softness and warmth. “We also offer Recycled Micro Fur™ - Pontetorto® TecnoFleece in many of our other active performance products, which is sourced from the Pontetorto mill in Italy. Micro Fur is 100% recycled polyester performance fleece. It’s excellent for winter hiking and high-performance skiing because it doesn’t ‘pill’ and provides superior warmth without extra weight. The acrylic fleeces are incredibly soft and warm, but they do tend to pill a little more than the polyester fleece.” Giblin says Turtle Fur’s Chelonia 150™ Fleece is a good middle-of-the-road option that bridges the gap between the Original Turtle Fur® Fleece and Micro Fur™ Fleece. He adds that their Playful Prints kids fleece line is available in both lightweight or mid-weight options, depending on whether the product is made with a single layer or double layer. “The Playful Prints line has many fun print patterns, including dinosaurs, camouflage, unicorns, and many others. We add new prints to the collection nearly every season, so there’s always a chance to find something that your child will like.”
Turtle Fur also offers its proprietary Recycled Comfort Shell™ performance fabric in many products. “Comfort Shell fabrics are excellent performance fabrics. They are light and odor resistant; they wick away sweat and provide UPF 50+ level sun
In addition, Ksiazek says “It’s hard to make a fabric quite as soft as our Original Turtle Fur® fleece, but our new Comfort Shell™ Luxe line comes close to rivaling its softness. It’s really unbelievable how quickly fabric technology has progressed.”
Giblin says that what differentiates Turtle Fur from other accessory companies is their commitment to offering new products, fabrics, colors, and prints in sustainable options. “Every year when we roll out a new season, about 40% of our offerings are completely new. There’s always a lot of variety. We want to give people options that work with a broad range of styles and preferences.”
Although Turtle Fur is celebrated for its iconic winter apparel, Giblin says its products are designed to help enhance its customers’ outdoor experience regardless of the season. “Products that use the UPF 50+ Comfort Shell fabric are ideal for the warmer seasons. For summer hiking and biking, our ‘Totally Tubular’ active performance neck gaiters offer wonderful sun protection. One of the other great things about our Totally Tubular is that if you dip them in a stream and put them back on, they will instantly cool you off on a hot day.” Giblin adds that Turtle Fur’s active performance headbands serve as excellent warm-season helmet liners for mountain bikers of all skill levels. “If you want something with a little more coverage, you can also use one of our Brain Shroud performance beanies as a liner, as well.”
Moving into the fall season, Giblin recommends adding a Merino wool knit cap to your activewear arsenal. “Here in Vermont, fall comes on fast. If you’re headed out for a long hike, you’re going to want the warmth and breathability of a Merino wool beanie or pom hat. Merino wool is fantastic for aerobic activities because it’s naturally moisture-wicking, anti-microbial, and odor-resistant. I’d pair one of those with a Totally Tubular in Comfort Shell Stria fabric. It’s not too heavy, it’s got a classic ‘athleisure’ look to it, and it’s both breathable and warm.”
For those who wish to round out their winter performance apparel collections with some unique and innovative items, Giblin suggests the Comfort Shell™ Luxe Quantum™ balaclava. “It’s a hinged balaclava where the hood can fold back. You can either wear it as a neck warmer with the hood pulled back or with the hood pulled up when you need some extra warmth.” Giblin also touts the versatility of Turtle Fur’s recently released Comfort Shell™ quattroClava™. “We combined the Totally Tubular neck gaiter with a classic full-face balaclava. It’s got a mesh mouth covering and a tube that you can fold up over the face for additional coverage on colder days.”
Whatever season you are in, whatever your adventure, Turtle Fur has you covered.