The problem with polar fleece: it’s in the ocean, it’s in sea creatures, it’s on our plates

Every earth-crunchy, green, neo-hippie, tree-hugging, back to the lander type (like myself) seeks out natural fibers when buying clothes, understanding them as the healthy, sustainable choice. Yet at the same time, outdoor apparel companies who cater, to a large extent, to people who love being out in the healthy pristine wilderness, specialize in selling us expensive specialized clothing made out of artificial fibers in the name of performance and even safety. (Remember kids, cotton kills!)

The ascendancy of the tech fibers has made it difficult, and expensive, to find natural fiber alternatives in the field of outdoor clothing. And admittedly, these materials have their strong points: they are lightweight, durable, non-itchy, moth proof, easy to wash, etc. And while this stuff can be expensive when sold by specialty retailers, over the years cheap fleece goods have become ubiquitous at chain stores, in everything from baby clothing to home decoration.

As a result, at this point, only the most militant lentil eating do-gooder, the most pure of the pure, do not have at least one polar fleece (polyester fleece) pullover in their wardrobe or blanket on their bed. I have a few polar fleece items, and as with all artificial fibers, I knew when I bought them that these things will never decompose, will clog the landfills along with all the other detritus I’ve generated throughout my life. But really, what is a fleece beanie in comparison to the foam and polyester monstrosity which is our mattress? Or what about the long chain of discarded electronic devices trailing in my wake? Fleece pullovers seemed such a small sin in the greater balance of things.

Now I’m not so sure.

classic-1Turns out that polyester fleece (and probably all synthetic fabric, more on that later) sheds teeny tiny microfibers in the wash water, and that passes through the waste treatment plants and ends up in watershed, where they not only add to our terrible problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, they are also consumed by marine life. They enter the food chain. Confused bivalves and shrimp eat this stuff, and we eat them. In short, we are eating our fleece jackets. And nobody knows what health impacts all this ingestion of microplastics will have for us, or the sea creatures.

The news first came to me, ironically enough, via Patagonia, purveyors of very expensive polar fleece. They’d commissioned a study on this, which showed that all fleece sheds significantly in the wash. High quality fleece sheds less initially than budget fleece, but they even out as they age, and aged fleece sheds significantly more than new fleece. They also found that puffy fiberfill jackets are significant shedders as well–apparently the tiny fibers migrate out the seams. Currently Patagonia is puzzling over how to weave non-shedding fleece, or perhaps convince washing machine manufacturers to install better filtration devices on home machines.

I’m going to point you to this Outside Online article for the details–it’s well worth the read.

Patagonia certainly did not break this news–I just stumbled on it via their recently released study. As the article above describes, the first whistleblower may have been marine biologist Mark Browne. Environmental organizations focused on ocean health, like The Plastic Soup Foundation and Save the Mermaids have been working on this problem for a while now, and they produced the cheeky PSA video above for a European audience back in 2015. (It’s worth noting that you pretty much have to offer a striptease to get the average viewer to sit through a video about ocean health.)

Though the Patagonia study focused on fleece, it seems all synthetic fibers shed and add to the problem. This is mind boggling when you start to think of everything in your household which contains synthetic fibers and which may end up in the wash now and again–from fleece blankets to underwear to stretchy jeans to stuffed animals.

What to do?

I think the quick take-away here is that your instincts about the superiority of natural fibers were always right and you should stick with them and phase out synthetics as much as you can, at least until we either figure out how to make a non-shedding synthetic or figure out how to filter waste water more effectively.

I find it interesting that none of the articles I’ve been reading are presenting this as an simple solution to the problem. But there it is.

According to the video above you can lessen the shedding by using liquid detergent and fabric softener in a cold water wash, but this is not a solution, just a mitigation.

It turns out that over the years here at our house we’ve sent a good deal of these stray fibers into the soil around our house, since we’ve been using a greywater system. I’m not sure what to think about that. I doubt that the fibers are as disruptive in the soil as they are in a marine ecosystem, but still, it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Thinking about my own household, I’m targeting certain items for disposal. I have some very old fleece in my life: a 15 year old bathrobe, a blanket and a throw of nearly same age. These are things I have no special love for, and yet must be major shedders when I wash them. Rather than give them to the thrift store (because their new owners will continue to wash them), I’m going to consign them to the landfill. This makes me unhappy, but it was always their ultimate fate, anyway. I have wool and cotton things to take their place, and in the future, can continue to use natural fibers for these purposes.

I have a few other items which are newer and don’t really need to be washed for a few years, which I’ll keep for now, like a fleece vest and hat, but one day they will go to the landfill as well. I’m going to transition more to woolen outdoor items, even though they are expensive. Despite the fact that marketers have convinced us we can’t go outside without being all geared up in high tech fabrics, our grandfathers were happy enough tromping through the woods in those snappy plaid wool coats, and early mountaineers did impressive climbing in wool knee socks and knickers.

Even more tricky are items that just don’t translate well into natural fibers. We can wear baggy underwear held up by drawstrings, but do we want to? What about tights and socks? And I don’t know if anyone wants to go back to the days of woolen bathing suits! Erik suggests we all start bareass swimming, which is the aquatic analog of barefoot running.

Indeed, maybe we should be like the Greeks and exercise naked and barefoot, removing whole categories of unnecessary clothing and equipment across the board. Although I have to admit that a vision of naked yoga gives me serious pause. However, no ancient yogi every wore cute stretchy pants and a strappy top to do his practice. Yoga wear, like most athletic wear, is about fashion, not necessity, and we could do most of our exercising, whatever the type, in cotton, hemp, linen or wool.

Realistically, no matter how strict we try to be, I believe will always have some synthetics in the mix, in the form of elastic if nothing else, but if we are conscious and careful, the amount that ends up in the seas, in our food, in our bodies, it will be a far cry from the amount of pollution we are causing right now, out of pure ignorance.

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As a side note, this plastic business brings up two ongoing projects of mine which regular readers will know about, and may be wondering what’s happening with them.

The first is homemade mattresses. There are developments on that front, and for the moment all I will say is a teasing more soon!

The second is my quest to develop a sort of uniform and make my own clothes. This project is going slowly, but I have to say that all this inspires me to work harder. I want to have very few clothes, but those I have should be well made, and made out of well sourced natural materials. I do not have to sew them myself, but I do want to sew the more simple things, and source out complex items–like wool coats. I think this is possible, and even affordable if a wardrobe is considered to be a very small collection of treasured investments.

In Praise of Turkish Towels

turkish vs. terry towel

Turkish towel above a terry towel of the same size. I like to store them rolled, as on top.

I’m done with terry cloth towels. They’re too bulky, take up too much space in the cupboard, the laundry basket and the washer. And while a soft fluffy towel warm out of the dryer is indisputably a very pleasant thing, a stiff, scratchy towel off the laundry line is not–and we do all of our drying by line.

Furthermore, I think the quality of terry towels is dropping in general. I’ve been very disappointed with my towels for years. The most recent ones began fraying after their a couple of washings. (They were from Target, FYI.  Serves me right, really.). Meanwhile, I have as exhibits of quality textiles one baby blue towel Erik brought into our relationship and which was a hand-me-down from his mother’s house. I know it must date from the 60’s or 70’s, due to its un-ironic raised paisley pattern. It reminds me very much of my childhood. And while it is worn around the edges, it is still strong and whole. I also have the bath towel my mom bought me to take to college, and while that towel does not date to the Nixon administration, it is older than I’d like to consider and still holding strong. These two venerable old towels I will be keeping, out of respect more than anything else. All the crappy new towels have to go, and they will be replaced with Turkish towels.

I’ve been using a couple of Turkish towels as my bath towels for a year or so now and I really like them. Turkish towels are thick woven cotton sheets. Lacking the tiny, thirsty loops of the terry cloth towels, they are not as instantly absorbent as terry, but they work—it just feels different on your body. After a few disconcerting  mornings spent missing terry, I grew used to them, and then fell in love. I love them because:

  • The are not as bulky as terry, so wrap and tie around the body more more easily
  • They roll up into neat little bundles and take up very little space in my bathroom cupboard
  • They dry more quickly than terry towels
  • They don’t hog the washer
  • They’re not heavy when wet
  • They dry quickly on the line and feel soft afterward
  • They make good beach towels, yoga towels, chair covers, picnic blankets, etc.
  • After a year of hard use they are showing no signs of wear.

Where do you get them? Well, one of mine I purchased online and one was a gift. Sorry I can’t be more helpful than that. I have seen them in a hipster boutique around here, which means I may be disconcertingly surfing the edge of some new artisanal towel trend. They are fairly expensive, but I think I’d rather have 4 of these guys and nothing else than a cabinet stuffed full of low quality terry. I expect they’ll last a long time.

Incidentally, those big white bar towels used for drying glassware– also called flour sack towels–make good hair and hand towels. If you have lots of long hair they probably will not be absorbent enough for you, but I like them for the same reasons I like the Turkish towels: they take up little space, they dry fast, they are well suited to line drying. They are also quite inexpensive.

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I’ll Need This Someday: Clutter Control for Artists and Creatives

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For the past three weeks two heavy French doors are blocking access to my work bench. Kelly spotted them on the street and we grabbed them for the garden shed she wants me to build (a project, admittedly, that I’m dragging my heels on). Lest I blame Kelly for my workshop clutter, it should be noted that the doors are next to four columns I grabbed from an old house that was being demolished. The columns and the doors are now part of a category of stuff all creative people know about: “I’ll need this someday.”

It seems to me that there are two basic types in the artist/maker/gardener world: those who sketch out an idea and then go find materials and those who start with the materials and then, only later, figure out what to do with. Then there’s the folks who accumulate materials and then never do anything with them.

Of course, life isn’t so black and white. Most of us probably fit somewhere between those three extremes. But lately, especially with the good results I’ve had using the free 3d modeling program Sketchup, I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least in my own case, I might be better off drawing up a design first before scavenging for materials. The universe, I’ve noticed, tends to cough up stuff when you need it, especially in our highly wasteful consumer culture here in the U.S. Facebook is also useful for putting out a call for materials. And, if I can’t find it in the street or through social media, I can always buy used materials at our local ReStore, which benefits Habitat for Humanity.

The same principle applies to new technology. I just heard Kevin Kelly discussing his latest book and I really like his advice to only buy technology five minutes before you need it. That way you don’t end up with things you don’t need and you also have the benefit of having the latest version.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the aesthetic triumphs of those who are expert scavengers, such as our neighbor Doug Harvey who turned the ever present street headboard into an art piece. Then there’s the time I passed up the chance to grab the Olive Motel’s Art Deco sign, only to see it later in a fancy boutique with a $3,500 price tag.

What kind of creative person are you? Do you have a “I’ll need this someday” pile?

When you’ve been blogging for ten years you sometimes duplicate subject matter. It turns out the Kelly already covered this topic in a more detailed post: De-Cluttering for DIYers, Homesteaders, Artists, Preppers, etc.

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Waxed Cloth Food Wrap (Made in a solar oven for bonus self-righteousness points)

peanut clothReuseable food wrap made with wax infused cloth is a thing. DIY instructions for it are all over the web. It sort of had its moment in the sustainable limelight a few years ago, so I know this post is not offering anything new for the jaded sustainable DIYer.

But I wanted to tell you that I’ve finally made a couple of pieces to test out, and I like them. If you’ve been using waxed cloth, let us know what you think of it.

The factor which finally spurred me into action on this project was our Solavore Sport solar oven. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for this project, and proved to be so–in most ways. Read on.

In case you missed the craze, these food wraps are simply beeswax infused cotton cloth. Their purpose is to help replace plastic wrap and baggies to some extent. They can also be molded over bowls as a light cover–not an air tight cover, but are likely as effective as laying a plate over the bowl. Waxed cloth can also be fashioned into envelopes to carry snacks.

They can be used over and over, and re-waxed. They can also be washed with cold water and soap.

Food wrapped in wax cloth will dry out more quickly than it would in plastic, and it’s not watertight, so it’s not good for drippy/juicy things. Also, it’s not recommended for wrapping meat, because it can’t be cleaned with hot water. But it works very well for wrapping things like cheese and sandwiches, cookies, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.

In my testing so far I’ve settled on using my cloths as snack carriers, using them to wrap up trail mix or carrots or chunks of cheese to put in my day pack, and I like them very much for this. I’ve not tried them for long-term cheese storage in the fridge yet, because the two I made have been constantly at work in the field. Time to make, more, I suppose!

Though I’ve experimented with using them as bowl covers, I doubt that I will use them for this purpose, as I have plenty of glass bowls with fitted covers, so I don’t need covers often. When I do, I’ve found the classic “balance a plate on the bowl” technique remains more convenient– but it’s worth giving the wrap a try. It is not breakable, so that may be a plus if you’ve got kids rooting around in your fridge.

peanut cloth 2

This is the peanut pack from above, folded for carrying. A more formal sewn envelope might be a touch more convenient, but you can do without, because the wax sort of sticks to itself when folded like this. It holds well enough to jounce around in the pocket of your bag for a day. I’ve not had a spill so far, but you could tie it up with string or a rubber band for extra security.

Professional Secrets

There are at least two companies making and selling these wraps now, and both use not only beeswax to infuse the cloth, but also pine resin and jojoba oil to make a fancier product.

I’m not sure what benefits may come from these extra ingredients–the pine resin may add some antibacterial action to the wax, but I don’t know it it would actually make any difference in terms of food safety. The jojoba is more mysterious. I wonder if it improves the texture?

You could probably replicate this proprietary blend by melting smallish quantities of pine sap, soft or hard, into hot beeswax over a double boiler, then stir in some jojoba. The resulting mix can be grated after it cools. Just be sure to cook this up in a jar you’re prepared to throw away, because the pine sap will never come off.

bowl

When covering a bowl, crimp the edges of the cloth around the edge as you’d crimp a pie crust. If you were really ambitious you could sew in an elastic band to hold the cover tight.

How-To

Making the cloths is very easy. All you have to do is cut some squares or circles of thin cotton fabric, like muslin. Pink the edges if you have pinking shears–this looks better, but I don’t think the edges will unravel much anyway, because of the wax.

Size depends on intended use. I can imagine eventually having a range of sizes and shapes. For instance, I’m imagining that a really large one might work nicely for rolling out and refrigerating cookie and pastry dough.

To begin, though, I’d recommend making just one or two. Test them and see if you like them and how you’ll use them before going into production whole hog. 12″ (30cm) square might be a good starting point.

Lay the cloth on a cookie sheet protected with foil or parchment and sprinkle the surface evenly with grated wax or wax pellets. You don’t need a ton of wax. You want to saturate the cloth, but you don’t want to use so much that the coating becomes thick and flaky. I used about 1 tablespoon of wax pellets for cloths about 11 inches square, just to give you an idea.

Place the cookie sheet in an oven set between 150F/64C and 185F/85C for about 10 minutes, just until the wax melts.

Safety note: Keep the oven low–don’t be tempted to use a hot oven for speed, because the wax could discolor at higher temperatures, or even burst into flame if the oven reaches 400F/204C.

Take the sheet out and check for coverage.

My experiments had pretty even coverage without any coaxing, because the hot wax wicks through the cloth. But if it looks spotty, you can spread the melted wax over the cloth with a silicone pastry brush or a dedicated paintbrush.

I specify a silicone pastry brush because the wax will come of the silicone brush– I used ours, so I can testify to this fact–but wax will never come off a regular bristle brush. However, if you use an inexpensive brush, you can keep that brush and use it again and again for waxing purposes by simply warming it until the bristles soften. For this reason you’d want to choose a brush with a wooden handle. Hardware stores sell cheap wooden paint brushes with natural bristles which would work perfectly for this purpose.

While the wax is still warm, hang the cloth up on a line to dry and cool. You’ll also need clothes pins or binder clips to secure the cloth.

The only things to remember are as follows:

  1. Less wax is better than more. If you use too much, your cloth might flake or be otherwise strange.
  2. Wax cools super fast, so if you’re working with the newly waxed cloth, be quick like a bunny. Instagram later! If your cloth cools before you finish, you can put it back in the oven and rewarm it.
  3. On the same note, you have to take the cloth off the cookie sheet the moment you remove it from the heat or it will bond to the sheet when it cools–and that happens fast. If it sticks, just put back in the oven.
  4. Have the drying line set up before you start. You’ll want to hang the hot cloths up right away to cool and dry, not be searching for somewhere to put them while they harden into odd shapes in your hand.

I don’t have many good pictures of the process, so for further research I’m directing you over to Mommypotomus for more details. She also has a cute plan for a snack bag that I might make.

Consider repurposing old textiles

I’m using some of my grandmother’s hankies for this project. I knew there was a reason I kept them around for so long! Take that, Kon Marie!

As I type this, I realize that sounds gross. Be assured, these hankies never saw service. In the 60’s (or earlier ?) people apparently sent one another novelty hankies that came folded inside matching greeting cards. Maybe these were the equivalent of our musical cards, a way to upscale a greeting card ? My grandma had several of these tucked in her bureau.

I claimed her nice linen handkerchiefs for my nose (I never saw her use one, despite having piles of them–she liked those little Kleenex packs), but these novelty hankies, made out of cheap printed cotton, are perfect for food wraps. The cloth covering the bowl in the photos is one of those.

These hankies are particularly nice because they have a finished edge, but this project is also perfect for making use of other textiles you might feel wasteful for throwing out, like old top sheets or a dress shirt with one unfortunate stain or fabric scraps from sewing projects.

Solar Oven Specifics

Beeswax melts at just below 150F/64C. It can discolor if heated above 185F/85C. Its flashpoint is 400F/204.4C.

While many home ovens can be set to 150F, my home oven is really primitive, it doesn’t have a pilot light and it doesn’t cook below 200F. I could fuss with it, prop the door open or whatnot to get lower temperatures, but I never wanted waxed cloths enough to bother with it.

But now that we have this Solavore Sport to play with, I realized I could achieve these lower baking temperatures easily, and simultaneously reach a new pitch of self-righteousness.

Regular cookie sheets don’t fit in the Sport, so I cobbled together a cooking tray out of a shallow cardboard box (a canned cat food case) lined with foil. It barely fit in the oven. It doesn’t even sit on the floor, in fact, but balances above, because the sides of the oven are wedge shaped. Hard to explain, but this should make sense to someone with a Sport.

Back in March, when we got the oven, it peaked around 150F if it didn’t have clips on the lid to seal in the heat–which would be perfect for this project. Now, with the sun higher, it rockets up past 200F pretty quickly even without the clips.

So, at this time of year, working at midday, all I had to do was watch the time and temperature to make sure the oven didn’t get too hot.

I put the tray in the oven, closed the lid (no clips, making the heating is less efficient on purpose) and waited about 10-15 minutes. The temp would quickly rise above 150F and the wax would dissolve, then I’d take it out before it got any hotter. Fast and easy!

Again, the reasons you want to keep the temps low is because 1) you might get discolored wax if you let it bake for too long above 185F and 2) in the very unlikely event the oven temp got to 400F, you’d risk the wax bursting into flame.

The only downside of using the Sport for this project is size limitations. The oven floor is wide but narrow, so I can’t make wraps bigger than 11 inches square. The floor is actually only 9 1/2 inches deep. By wedging the cat food box higher in the oven, off the floor, I was able to fudge things enough to make an 11 inch waxed cloth, but that’s the limit.

I may be able to fold a cloth in half for coating, perhaps layering the wax between the two halves. This is something I’ll play with if I decide to make more.

What’s next for the solar oven?

My next crafty project with the sun oven is going to be infusing oil with herbs, and perhaps drying herbs as well.

And for those of you who were following our solar cooking initiative, it has been on hiatus because our weather this May was dominated by a heavy marine layer which kept the skies overcast until mid-afternoon. I love this weather, personally, but it has put a wrench in the cooking experiments.

June, however, is coming in hot and bright. Usually June in LA is characterized by these same overcast conditions–we call it “June Gloom”– but I’m thinking the gloom came early this year and may be over. So look forward to more cooking posts soon!

The Horror Beneath the Armoire

IMG_0527I lost my keys, and being in that state of advanced desperation where you search for your keys in the most unlikely of spots, I made the mistake of looking beneath our armoire.

This ungainly piece of furniture has a mere inch or two gap between its lower face and the floor. Better it should have a higher clearance, or no gap at all, but instead, there is this little gap that resists brooms and vacuum wands.

Of course, tidy people would approach this difficulty by moving the armoire so they could dust beneath it at decent intervals. Or maybe they’d wrap a coat hanger with a dust cloth and slither around on their bellies, stabbing into the darkness. Really, who knows what lengths tidy people might go to? Not us, that’s for certain. We choose to ignore that space entirely between the times we paint the bedroom.

So, anyway, looking for my keys, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and peered into the gap, but still couldn’t see very well, because the gap was so low. So I took some blind pictures with the flash, and they revealed a horrifying yet charming landscape of dereliction: a dollhouse version of the Blair Witch Project, in which three lost mice are hopelessly trapped in nightmare landscape of dust bunnies and cobwebs.

And, ironies of ironies, while I did not find my keys, I did find a lost vacuum cleaner attachment.

(Apologies for any trauma these images have caused our tidy friends.)

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