No really, don’t buy this jacket.
Apparently this ad ran in the New York Times last Friday (Black Friday) but I didn’t see it until today, on a friend’s blog, and seeing it provides me an excuse to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while.
We live in what’s considered by modern American standards a small house for a family of four (1300 ft sq) and right now we’re going through one of our periodic purges: a review of things that have somehow taken up (semi)perminent residency in our house, looking to see if there’s anything that isn’t justifying the shelf, closet, cupboard space it’s taking up. Just tossed out are two polar fleece sweaters, each less than 5 years old; both in that nasty, pilly state that polar fleece gets into when it’s past it’s sell by date.
But that’s not why I’m tossing them out.
I’m tossing them out because I don’t wear them anymore. (Not having to show up at an office or deal with the public except during the Summer, and being a terrible cheapskate, I’m in the not admirable habit of wearing clothes well past the state of disreputable. I’d never toss a polar fleece sweater just because it was pilly, scratchy, and itchy.)
No, I’m tossing them because I don’t wear them anymore, and I don’t wear them anymore because a couple of years ago I was at a church rummage sale and scored a really soft wool sweater for $2.
I don’t know if it’s cashmere, or angora, or mohair, or what, but it’s really, really soft, soft enough to wear over bare skin.
It’s also really really warm. It’s about the thickness of a light sweatshirt, but it’s knitted, so it fits close. I can wear it alone, as a sweater, or even as long underwear under another sweater.
It also doesn’t get that awful smell that polar fleece and capeline and (especially) polypropelyine gets where you wear it too long, so it’s good for wearing on trips where changes of clothes, showers, etc are limits.
All put together, I’d call it a miracle fabric, except it’s not a miralce. It’s something someone shaved off a goat or a sheep or a rabbit or whatever, and then spun that into yarn and then knitted that into a sweater.
About 20 years ago I left the studio I worked in as an assistant/associate photographer and opened my own shop in the town where I graduated high school. The space I was in was not unlike the boat shop posted yesterday, a former agricultural building (a swine slaughter house to be exact) that had been home to a succession of start-ups. Now it was my turn to use the Schweinestall as a launch pad.
About a month after I opened my shop, one of my father’s associates gave me an oppulent gift, a blue Patagonia zip-up polar fleece cardigan. This gift was my second Patagonia polar fleece sweater. Both were highly functional garments.
The first, purchased a couple of years before, was a neon-green paddling sweater (3/4 arms and cropped waist to fit under a paddling jacket/above a spray skirt). Running mountain creeks in the Winter in Oregon is cold and wet. Polar fleece is warm and hydrophilic. The sweater was worth it’s weight in gold. (The class V drop Laura’s Thighs is named for the woman I was dating at the time.)
In Southern Oregon the blue cardigan was no less useful, but for entirely different reasons.
The Rogue Valley is not a place where most men wear suits. Sport-jackets now and then, ties rarely. This makes dressing for business – with it’s atttendant signaling – rather difficult, and the Patagonia cardigan was the perfect solution.
A few years later I was walking down Columbus Ave in Manhattan early on a Sunday morning and I saw a garment stuck on the fence outside St. Paul’s church.
Being an inveterate cheapskate, I investigated.
It was a Patagonia polar fleece sweater, the same shockingly bright green as my paddling sweater, but with a rip-stop nylon shell in a sumptuous purple. In fact the design suggested it was intended to be reversible, but only a popinjay of the first order would wear the green side out. Naturally I did this at every opportunity. Thoughtfully, Patagonia had sewn its distinctive label on both sides, and on the zipper pull as well.
What has prompted this round of purging is the weather is getting cold for real and we’ve dragged our winter clothes out of storage and what I notices is that over the years I’ve accumulated about a cubic yard of sweaters. There’s the grey wool German army sweater I got when we first moved to Oregon, the Irish fishmen’s sweater my parents got me (last name Ryan, get it?), the Peruvian llama-wool sweater my grandmother sent me with genuine flecks of something decidedly not llama’s wool in the yarn (foxtails? dried dung? who knows…); the possum fur (yes, possum fur) sweater a friend brought as a gift when she and her family visited from Australia; more sweaters than I can wear, and more than I really have room for, but kept because I’m a sentimental pack-rat and a cheapskate who can’t bear to part with anything useful.
What is not in this collection is the paddling sweater, or the cardagin, or the purple/green reversible pull-over polar fleece garments. They are long gone.
Also long gone is the Columbia pull-over, a Sears-brand pull-over, and a no-name cardigen I got at the same church rummage sale cited above. Polar fleece just doesn’t wear like wool.
Yes, it’s soft and lofty when new, but it quickly becomes pilly and rough; it’s insulating qualities diminish rapidly.
Yes, in some narrow uses it’s irreplaceable. I wouldn’t wear a wool sweater to go winter kayaking, but I do where one under my foul weather gear sailing. It’s just better; thinner, softer, warmer, longer lasting.
Lastly I want to tell you about something I learned about clothing donations when I was doing my relief and development documentaries.
Despite the fact that the clothes I’ll be getting rid of are in better conditions than many of the sweaters you’ll see children wearing in this film, they’re not considered suitable for donation. We live in a country of such unfathomable material abundance that clothing donations are picked through for only those clothes in good condition. More than once I’ve filmed teams of retirees doing “mission work” sorting through piles of donated clothes. The rule of thumb? If you wouldn’t give it to your grandchild as a gift, put it in the bin that’s going to the pulper.*
When I first encountered this I was a little taken aback. Various puritan impulses towards thrift and “they should be thankful for what they get” made me recoil at the thought of grinding up perfectly serviceable clothing.
But that’s kind of missing the point, isn’t it?
* As Jason and other commenters have pointed out, there is also a secondary market in the developing world for donated clothes that fall between “good enough for the thift shop” and “pulp”, and this secondary market runs like any other business, with expenses and profit at each step along the supply chain.
Also, I’ve got no particular bone to pick with Polar Fleece or Patagonia. As I said above, as a paddling jacket, Polar Fleece is a wonderful fabric, and for other things too. I own Chouinard/Black Diamond climbing gear, some of it old enough to be stamped “Chouinard”.
What I’ve realized is that I got into the (thoughtless) habit of buy polar fleece (and other “technical” fabrics/clothing), even though changes in my lifestyle and geography made it a bad value proposition; personally, but also probably globally (that’s why I brought up the donation/recycling) I bought polar fleece sweaters because that’s what we wear, right?