Ouch ti pouch ti

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.

polar fleece 1We’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.

polar fleece 2The 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.


19 thoughts on “Ouch ti pouch ti

  1. thehookstook

    Wow! I knew polar fleece was made from bottles (I remember a former colleague melting a hole in his fleece from the heat of the exhaust from a leaf blower!) but didn’t realise it was one of the culprits for microplastics in our environment! Solution? Get stinky and never wash your plastic fleece! Or return to natural fibres for clothing. Hope you fully recover from this allergic reaction soon.

    1. kate Post author

      On the last point, so do I!

      The really alarming thing is that, as far as microplastics go, synthetic fleece is a gift that keeps on giving. It doesn’t shed them all at the first wash, apparently, but continuously. Eek!

  2. grackleandsun

    Argh. Plastics. And another check in the awful column for the textile industry. I wonder if we’ll ever discover a way to undo all the damage.
    Sorry ’bout your rash. Contact dermatitis can be really awful. Thanks for the lesson on fleece.

  3. kiwiyarns

    That’s awful! Poor you! I hope the dermatitis clears up soon. I could never tolerate synthetics, even as a child, I would annoy my mother by refusing to wear acrylic things and insisting on cotton. I am glad I do not own one single fleece item and I’m going to make sure it stays that way. I did not know they shed microplastics though – that is really terrible on so many levels!! Thank you for sharing.

    1. kate Post author

      You were obviously sensing something. I never had the slightest hint of a problem, though I do remember that some fleeces seemed really horrible – squeaky and nasty to handle.

      I didn’t know about the microplastics either. It’s not getting an awful lot of attention except on ‘green’ sites like Mother Jones, and occasional mentions in mainstream media, but it is thoroughly researched…

    1. kate Post author

      Phew – happily that’s not a source of problems!

      (Or microplastics. Though I think that the vile daggy bits might be almost as toxic. Even if they are organic. 😛)

      1. Spade & Dagger

        Sadly not even ‘Natural’ is automatically safe for everyone. Raw sheep fleeces & traditional waterproof fishermen’s yarn contain natural lanolin which is a powerful skin irritant for some people, who also have to avoid the refined version of lanolin found in face creams, medicinal lotions etc.

        1. kate Post author

          Indeed – come across that, natch. And I know one farmer who suddenly developed a sensitivity – not to dip or anything like that, but to the lanolin. But still a better bet, for me at least.

  4. Elaine

    So sorry to hear about this!! What are we doing to ourselves? I do hope you’ll be mended soon and on to the “good” fleece for spinning!!

  5. Annie

    I blogged about the microfibre waste issue a while back … our oceans are full of the stuff. Luckily I am not allergic to the couple of fleeces I have so I decided to wear them until they are no longer wearable and then not buy any more. I figured that at least that way the earth’s resources used in the process of manufacturing and shipping them are not lost for nothing.

    I hope your rash has healed now 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      The more publicity for this issue the better – missed your post, unfortunately…

      I’m still at the wondering what to do with my fleeces stage. Am tempted to gve rhem to charity, but that wouldn’t solve anything – just pish the microplastics issue onto someone else. There’s no easy Nswer to this sort f thing, is there?

      (Rash gradually healing, but taking a heck of a long time. While still looking revolting.)

  6. Kezzie

    I knew that they were made from plastic bottles which always confused me. I have a fleece blanket and possibly a jumper but that’s it, I’ve always been rather mistrustful of it and now I am sad to know I was right in this! Sorry to hear about your reaction!

    1. kate Post author

      I don’t think I’d made the connection before I started digging, but – like you – I haven’t got a lot of it. The only thing is, given that microplastics are shed whenever fleece is washed, what do we do with it?

      Er, that’s really me only I suspect, as I’m now allergic to it. And it’s everywhere!


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