First, let me apologise. ‘Ouch ti pouch ti’ is family slang – but essentially it just means ‘ow’. And ‘ow’ is something I’ve been saying quite a bit lately (along with a few other things), because I developed contact dermatitis. No, I’ve not been near poison ivy because we don’t have it this side of the pond; I’ve not suddenly developed a sensitivity to the cat; I’ve not sprayed myself with cleaning fluid.
I cuddled a fleece cushion.
I pulled a muscle in my right shoulder, and almost the only way I could be comfortable when lying down was if my arm was supported – hence the cushion. Small, convenient, not filled with feathers so it held its shape: perfect. Except for the consequences, that is.
I didn’t realise anything was amiss until I woke with the cushion almost sticking to me and the beginnings of an angry rash (no, there won’t be any photographs, so anyone who blog-surfs at breakfast can carry on eating). This rapidly deteriorated – I didn’t expect it to hurt quite as much as it did – but it’s finally responding to the steroids. Now the swelling has gone down somewhat the culprit is even more clearly defined: I have a clear zipper mark where the fleece didn’t come into direct contact with my skin. My doctor had never heard of a link before, so I hit the internet and discovered that I’m not alone. This not-uncommon reaction has been blamed on polar fleece being treated with fire retardant (possibly the case with my cushion), on the way it is manufactured, on the fact that it can get very hot. It all got me thinking: how much did I know about polar fleece? Not a lot, it turned out.
We’ve all got fleeces, I bet. I have – had – a fleece throw which went on the bed when it got cold. I’ve got a couple of hats, gloves I wear when scraping ice off the car, a crappy garden fleece, a walking fleece, an almost smart fleece – and that’s even though I’m a knitter and spinner. They’re handy. I keep one by the door, chuck it on when I go to get logs. And not as bulky as a big sweater, either. Nice and light. But what are they made of?
Really. Oil. They’re polyester, which is made by reacting one petroleum derivative (terephthlic acid) with another (ethylene glycol, aka antifreeze). These create a polymer, which becomes thick and syrupy as it cools. It’s forced through tiny holes in a ‘spinneret’ – a metal disk – forming strands and, as these come into contact with air, they harden. The chemical name for this polymer is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET – yes, that’s the same stuff that is formed into plastic for soft drink bottles. And that’s how come some fleeces are made today from recycled bottles, and many more have at least an element of recycled material.
The fibres are spun together, and collected onto huge spools. They are then mechanically knitted on a circular knitting machine into an enormous tube. Fleece is, of course, fuzzy. That’s because the resulting material is then fed through a ‘napper’ which raises the surface, and then to a shearing machine, which cuts the fibres – as in the manufacture of, say, velvets. The resulting fabric is then finished (if necessary), which can involve spraying it with waterproofing or fire retardant or something to set the texture. This could have been the source of my dermatitis.
But that’s not the end of the story. So fleece can be green with its recycled content, even though it’s made from petroleum derivatives and we might be better off using what oil we have as a source of power? Er, no, not really. The Guardian described synthetic microplastic as ‘the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of’ in a 2014 piece. It’s worth clicking on the link but, very briefly, the problem is fibres.
Mark Browne, a ecologist researching shoreline sediments, noticed something incredibly common: lots and lots of tiny synthetic fibres. Everywhere. He found them in the largest quantities near sewage outlets, so the source was clear: human activity. (It’s OK, you can go back to your croissants: washing machine waste water goes into the sewage system too.) They were ‘microplastics’, used in clothing. And further sampling showed that around 1,900 fibres can be washed off a single garment in a single wash. Of course, they don’t just sit there doing nothing. They can find their way into the food chain…
I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with all my fleeces now. I do know one thing, though: after a rather reckless experiment involving a fleece scarf, I’m not going to be wearing any of them any time soon.