the perils of plastic fleece

So let’s get this straight. Polar Fleece is a brand name for plastic which has been formed into a fabric. Sometimes made from recycled pop bottles, often not. Real fleece is not a brand name, it is what is shorn annually or semi-annually from sheep. One is a flammable, cold, mungy-looking excuse for using more petrochemicals. The other is totally renewable, natural, fire-resistant, warm (even when wet), and uses very few other resources to be made into long-wearing clothing.

Why does this matter? Because sheep producers all over the world are having difficulty selling their wool, and because people who wear polar fleece seem to think that it’s an ecological benefit.

So look. Wool is produced by shearing sheep. Just like people, sheep’s wool grows all the time. It is shorn in spring (sometimes twice a year for very woolly sheep like Icelandics), so that the sheep don’t have huge coats on during summer. While I can’t say that sheep enjoy the process of shearing (it’s undignified), they certainly need to have the haircut! So regardless of PETA, there’s no harm done to the animals. Wool comes in many grades, from super-fine wool that makes lovely NOT itchy underwear to hard-wearing carpet wool. It can be dyed with plants, lichens, and artificial dyes. It can be spun and woven or knitted straight from the sheep, or it can be washed, dyed, carded and spun. The options are endless. It is very warm, though not as warm as alpaca. It is warm when wet, making it perfect for Northerners who work outside or do things in the rain. In fact, Tim Severn, who recreated Brendan’s voyage crossing the Atlantic in an open boat gave up on contemporary high-tech fabrics, and went back to wool for its superior insulation qualities.

By contrast, polar fleece is a proprietary process for making a fabric out of plastic. Much of what’s out there is not made from recycled pop bottles, despite the assumptions of consumers. As with food, labels must be examined. If it’s recycled, it becomes an excuse for continuing to use excessive amounts of plastic in throw-away forms throughout our society. Should we not be endeavouring to re-use, to make everything with a longer lifespan, so we don’t make the garbage in the first place? Using more energy to recycle something is still using resources. Making the fabric from new plastic is even worse: mining petroleum and processing it to make the tools, energy and raw materials for a piece of clothing that could easily be made without anywhere near the use of resources from a naturally occurring material.

And in the personal level, whether it’s new or old plastic, fleece is cold when wet, which makes working up a sweat downright dangerous in cold climate. And I have yet to see polar fleece made anywhere near as beautiful, warm, and culturally significant as a Pashmina shawl, a handknit sweater, or a felted vest. In fact, the dominant cultural statement made by wearing plastic is that the wearer supports the rape of the world to make disposable crap.

10,000 sheep can’t be wrong. Wear wool!

Oh, and you won’t catch fire from the sparks around the bonfire, either. So there.

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11 Responses to the perils of plastic fleece

  1. Jennifer Stafford says:

    Three cheers for wool! Nature’s amazing wonder fibre!

  2. Hester says:

    IMHO you’ve got the right ansewr!

  3. Michelle says:

    You may also be interested to know that it was recently discovered that the thousands of tonnes of microscopic plastic fibres that are found floating around the Pacific Ocean–infiltrating our planet’s water and sea life–come from washing Polar Fleece. That’s something that is done every day in households across the planet, and would be stopped if all that plastic fleece was replaced with sheep fleece.

    I guess PETA is concerned more about the dignity of sheep than the health and safety of multitudes of species of sea creatures in the planet’s largest and most vibrant body of water. Go figure.

    See article here

  4. Bvirginiab says:

    Counterpoint here: I have several polar fleece jackets and they are 8 and 17 years old respectively. Getting wool to outlast polar fleece without holes, and without having to use noxious chemical flakes when in storage is simply impossible where I live. Oh, and I wash my polar fleece less than once a year…

    Given the high price of non-itchy wool and the difficulty of storing it and keeping from year to year without chemicals or holes…

    • Rebecca says:

      All good points. I think for ourselves it’s not about cost. but as we are sheep farmers. we want to make it easier to use wool. and of course we knit so there is a bias. We use herbs instead of mothballs for the moth problem too. thanks for writing and cheers. Brian

  5. Terri says:

    I guess you couldn’t care less about people who are allergic to wool, with bright red intensely itchy skin, which no amount of Benedryl will cure. We can just curl up and die. Or move to Arizona.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hi Terri –

      I’m sorry this post made you feel so hostile. Obviously we would not tell people who are allergic to anything that they have to suffer their allergies! However, there are a lot of folks who are NOT allergic, for whom a re-think about how they stay warm might be in order. And of course, we also support all other natural source fibres, rather than plastic fibres, for all purposes. Silk, for example, is very warm! Down is also very warm, but I understand that there are issues of animal treatment around the down industry, making it less than ideal for some folks. Thanks for writing, and I hope you can successfully avoid allergies, stay out of Arizona and stay warm.

  6. Christine says:

    I turn to wool (and alpaca) out of concern for the plastic clothing off-putting gases that are reported as contributing to childhood asthma, boobs and pubes. Obviously, we’ve no allergies and are not vegan. Still need to pay attention to the source of materials in terms of humane animal husbandry, fair labor practices and sustainable use of the air, land and water. (P.S. I wear my wool socks sometimes all week before they go into the laundry; they wick away moisture and so do not smell.)

  7. Miriam says:

    Hi. I came across a really cute thing called “hoodie-footies.” Someone’s making them and selling them online. I assumed they were made out of that synthetic fleece stuff I keep seeing being sold in all the cheaper stores. I have been … maybe paranoid … about man-made fibers the older I get. That cheap stuff just doesn’t feel right against my skin, and I was wondering if there was something unhealthy in the actual wearing of it. You gave me something else to worry about with your post: the actual manufacture of it.

    And I need to thank you for this, because it’s given me a direction to go in for researching. I had absolutely no clue it was made with plastic. I feel a little stupid, now, since your post is from way back in 2011. But, in any case, it’s inspired me to act. I’ve gone back to school and will be writing several papers this semester. One of them will involve this subject.

    Those hoodie-footies I mentioned are a great idea. They’re so cute. But I really prefer something that doesn’t feel cheaply fabricated to clothe myself. Someone needs to make them from cotton or wool. There’s probably a problem of some sort with the manufacture of anything, but I know the latter don’t feel wrong somehow.

    If you have more information and can direct me to sources, when it comes to the manufacture of this fleece stuff, I’d be very grateful. If not, just accept my thanks. I’m going to poke holes in its manufacture everywhere I go, and with more exposure to the truth about plastics, maybe help change people’s thinking.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hey – I can’t direct you to sources offhand, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find what you need. It’s great to see people doing good research and thinking about where things come from!

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