Technology as Servant
Clothing serves a number of important practical purposes. It helps moderate our exposure to the environment. It can protect our skin from injury and attack from abrasions, bugs, bites, cuts, scratches, sun and harsh weather. It serves almost as a second skin in this regard, providing a much needed layer of protection. Clothing can also become a source of play and fun for anyone at any age: a way we express our personality and identify with others.
Why do clothes matter so much?
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Averaging twenty-two square feet in surface area and eight pounds for the average adult, the skin serves as our body’s first line of defense against a host of dangers. The body also uses our skin as an important pathway to eliminate certain toxins, but at the same time, it thus also becomes an easy way of access for many toxins to gain entry into our body.1 This entry pathway may be even more dangerous than others, such as inhalation or ingestion, since toxins that enter through the skin bypass the digestive and respiratory tracks and the defenses these systems employ.
For instance, studies have shown that our skin possibly absorbs more chlorine in a five to ten minute hot shower than in drinking five to ten glasses of chlorinated water! When you use personal care products (make-up, deodorants, etc.), the chemicals in those products can show up in the bloodstream less than sixty seconds after being applied to the skin.
A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group looked at twenty teenage girls and found sixteen chemicals with potentially harmful health effects in blood and urine samples from their personal care products.2
Yet while a lot of people are careful with what they put in their body by way of food and drink, many are careless with what they put on it by way of clothes.
Many modern fabrics are problematic in a number of ways. First, many are made from, produced with, or contain a plethora of hazardous chemicals, from flame retardants (generally bromated chemicals) to those wonderful sounding but not-so-safe stain repellants and wrinkle-free clothing treatments (which contain perfluorinated chemicals―PFCs―like Teflon).
The astute reader will notice that the two main chemicals used to “improve” modern clothing are both from the halogen family, the same as chlorine and all-important iodine. Thus, combined with the average person’s exposure to chlorinated and fluoridated water, the production of clothes thrice exposes us to dangerous toxins: first in the disposal of waste from production that pollutes earth and water, second during wear and use, and last, as we launder these clothes more toxins are washed out into our precious water supply.
Second, many modern synthetic fabrics cause skin irritation and don’t allow our skin to breathe properly, though some natural choices, like silk, may also present this problem for some. Last, many of these fabrics pose a little known environmental problem of contributing to plastic pollution of our precious water supplies. (See side bar on next page.)
Wool goes way back in human history as a versatile and dependable fiber for clothing. The big drawback is that sheep’s wool can be scratchy and irritating. But that can be circumvented, as wool excels in many non-direct skin applications, such as pillow stuffing and linings to make clothing warmer in multi-fiber pieces. If the wool will be in direct skin contact, choose wool from Merino sheep, which when properly handled is enjoyably soft against the skin. Wool from the Angora rabbit is also soft, very warm and lustrous, as is mohair, which is wool from the similarly named Angora goat. Cashmere, another luxury fiber, is from yet another species of finehaired goat.
Alpaca is also a traditional fiber, from llama-like animals of the camel family that live at high altitudes in the Andes. Alpaca fiber is becoming more widely available in the U.S. over the past decade or so. It is luxuriously soft, warm, insulating and non-irritating, but very expensive.
Archaeological records point to hemp being the earliest non-animal-based fiber that people employed to make clothing. In colonial America, farmers were required to grow hemp by law. It was also used in the nation’s first paper mills, preserving timber for more important and suitable purposes. Hemp is four times more water absorbent and durable than cotton, and softer than most wools. Moreover, it is easy to grow because it is pest and weed resistant, both big plusses for farmers and the environment, further reducing the environmental burden of hemp products compared to alternatives.
Sadly, what once was a staple, profitable and safe crop to grow was banned because of the war on drugs, even though hemp for clothing and twine is completely different from marijuana. The hemp ban was a boon to the industrial cotton and synthetic fabric industries as an easy avenue to remove their main competitor and alternative in the market. Thankfully, my home state of Kentucky and many others have made good progress towards getting the government out of hemp, and you can help by contacting your elected officials wherever you live.
Linen is one of the oldest plant-based fiber sources, followed a few thousand years later by cotton. It is a smooth, soft fabric, but does not take to creasing or folding well, which breaks the fibers, and it also dislikes tumble drying. Yet it is naturally resistant to moths, dirt and stains and absorbs water without feeling wet or damp. It wrinkles easily, which some consider part of the charm of the fabric.
As for modern cotton production, if you think GMO foods are bad, GMO cotton is in many ways even worse. Occupying roughly 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 16 percent of the world’s insecticide use, and those used are generally considered some of the worst and most dangerous. Also, to grow a single pound of conventional cotton requires around a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers.
Many clothing companies are now using organic cotton that is naturally dyed. Because synthetic fabric dying uses large amounts of water, choosing such naturally dyed clothing has substantial benefits. Be aware that some companies do use small amounts of synthetic fabrics mixed with organic options.
FROM HEAD TO TOE
With winter upon us, how can we keep warm naturally in style, comfort and safety?
For head gear look for wool, hemp and alpaca. Many small, fair trade stores carry handmade winter caps made from 100 percent alpaca.
For really cold weather, I have found nothing that compares with a merino wool base layer (the modern equivalent of thermal underwear/ long johns). With a sweater and jeans and my base layer underneath, I can venture outside in sub-freezing temperatures with my trusty alpaca hat, gloves, and wool socks, for farm chores or taking a walk around the farm.
Minus33 makes a full line of merino wool gear, as do companies like Patagonia, among others. European sources of organic merino wool include Hocosa of Switzerland (danishwool.com/ shop/hocosa-switzerland) and Ruskovilla Woolens. These sources also include very versatile and warm blends of 70 percent wool with 30 percent silk undergarments for all members of the family. I recommend a mid-weight base layer for most people in most climates (in Kentucky, the heavy weight base layer would be excessive most years) and the balaclava mask for really cold, windy, wintry weather.
My wife equally loves her set of woolen underwear, albeit she treats them more like pajamas than work wear. They are not only extremely temperature stable, but immensely comfortable for both work and lounging around by the wood stove on the long, dark, cold days of winter.
For a medium weight jacket, I have fallen in love with L.L. Bean’s 100 percent merino wool hoodie. The beauty of wool includes such practical benefits as being naturally antibacterial, naturally anti-smelly, soil and water repellent, and cozily comforting.
Few companies have done as much to bring organic cotton clothing to the masses as Maggie’s Functional Organics. They also sell wool socks that I enjoy immensely. I have to admit, I am terribly hard on socks (ask my wife). I have found Maggie’s to be both functional and durable.
NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP
The average person spends seven to nine hours a night in bed. Don’t underestimate the importance of your bed! While good quality pillows are extremely expensive (especially for a larger family), they are not too difficult to make. Near Sea Naturals and a number of other companies sell organic cotton and other organic fabrics, including a wide variety that is perfect for pillows, pillow cases, and bedding. My amazing wife sewed up some pillow cases, and I secured some free wool from a local farmer to use as stuffing, along with buckwheat hulls. She put zippers on the pillows so that when needed, we can freshen the wool stuffing or change it out as needed. Organic bedding is also becoming more widely available, even at mainstream stores like Target!
Good clothing, like good food, costs more than its conventional counterparts. The real question is how to afford both. For our family, we have a number of strategies. First, for our kids, we swap, trade and save with other members of our buying club. We also employ a two-clothing system strategy: we have “indoor” clothes and “outdoor” clothes. Second, we shop sales and use other avenues to access organic clothes that save us significant money. We hope to see the buying club branch out into this important area of products for members, both by encouraging members to create clothing and bedding items for other members to purchase, and by working with smaller companies to make their products more affordable and accessible.
For instance, Frontier Co-op carries Maggie’s Functional Organics line of clothing and is a distributor with which any buying club can easily establish a wholesale account. Frontier’s wholesale pricing is as much as 50 percent off retail, and on top of that Frontier’s member sales can add a further 10 to 25 percent off wholesale pricing. Thus, I have organic wool socks for seven dollars that run twenty dollars at local stores and online.
If we are going to buy conventional cotton clothing, we thrift shop, so that the clothes have been laundered and possible pesticide residues at least partially removed and broken down. Why pay full price for a chemical bath? When we get the clothes home, they get a double to triple washing before use to remove additional contaminants, including whatever laundry solutions were used on the clothes. You can toss a little zeolite into your machine to help absorb such contaminants. Lengthy sun and wind airing will also be a great help.
SYNTHETIC FABRICS: DOUBLY DANGEROUS
Many people avoid modern synthetic fabrics because of allergy, production methods, chemical contamination and other issues. But such fabrics also pose a unique, albeit little known, environmental danger. A study published in the November 1, 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, showed that with every washing, many of these synthetic fabrics create large amounts of water-contaminating micro-plastics:
“Microscopic fragments of acrylic, polyethylene, polypropylene, polyamide, and polyester have been discovered in increasing quantities across the northeast Atlantic, as well as on beaches in Britain, Singapore, and India, says Mark Browne, an ecologist at University College Dublin and the paper’s lead author. Browne and his colleagues from the University of Sydney in Australia, the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter in the United Kingdom, and Waters in Canada sampled eighteen sites representing shorelines in six continents to track down a possible source of the contamination.
“By separating the plastic from the sand and chemically analyzing them, the researchers discovered that nearly 80 percent of the filaments were either polyester or acrylic, both of which are common in synthetic textiles. No single beach was devoid of the colorful lint. Each cup of sand had at least two fibers and as many as thirty-one. The most-contaminated samples also originated from areas with the highest human population density, suggesting a pathway to the ocean through sewage. Samples of treated wastewater and sewage-tainted ocean sediment confirmed the scientists’ suspicions.”3
Thus, even if certain synthetic fabrics are relatively safe for some people’s skin, they are not safe for our water supply, especially our oceans and the marine web that provides us with such nutritious and needed foods.
“Nearly two thousand polyester fibers can float away, unseen, from a single fleece sweater in one wash cycle, a new study reports. That synthetic lint likely makes its way through sewage treatment systems and into oceans around the world.”3
SELECT YOUR FIBERS and FABRICS WITH CARE
Best materials for clothing include organic cotton clothing, especially ones that use natural vegetable or earth dyes; hemp clothing; wool; silk; linen; and similar natural fabrics, from unbleached and minimally processed fibers.
Good choices include conventional cotton and other natural fabric clothing, especially already used.
Avoid synthetic fabrics, especially those that are known to shed badly when washed. The most important synthetic fabrics to avoid include acrylic, polyester, acetate, triacetate and nylon, and the semi-synthetic rayon (which is manufactured from wood cellulose) as well.
Also avoid anything—synthetic, natural, or organic—that is labeled static-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, permanent-press, no-iron, stain-proof, or moth-repellant, or that is treated with flame retardants.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2013.