Tuesday, January 25, 2011

First principles

I was cleaning out my closet a few days ago, when I ran across my old stash of fleece jackets.

And by "fleece" I don't mean "stuff that gets shaved off sheep." I mean "polyester fleece."

(Yes, I said "polyester" on a blog dedicated to all things woolly. I'll pause for a moment so you can catch your breath.)

Anyway, you'd be justified in asking what the heck I was doing with a stash of polyester fleece jackets in the first place. Here's how it went: back when I bought them, I was cold. I could not seem to get warm, no matter how many layers I wore. And I wore a lot of layers.

This used to be my Deep Winter Indoor Uniform: Silk underwear (someone told me it's the cat's p.j.s for retaining body heat), cotton turtlenecks and jeans (because cotton is both comfortable and cheap, and it breathes, right?), a fleece jacket (because I was told they were super-duper warm), and sometimes even a down-filled vest (because ducks and geese wear down, and you don't hear them bitching and moaning about the cold, do you?). I'd walk around feeling like the Michelin Tire man...only colder. My fingers were always blue. I'm not kidding.

And then one day, for whatever reason, I put on an old, ratty wool sweater...and within minutes, I felt myself starting to warm up. After an hour or so, I realized that I should probably ditch the silk long underwear, because I was actually getting uncomfortably warm.

That was the day I realized that it doesn't matter how high-tech your fleece jacket is; ounce for ounce, it will never be as toasty warm as wool. It doesn't matter what the ads say. They lie.

Think of it this way: each tiny wool fibre consists of a protein-based shaft surrounding a hollow core; along the outside of the shaft are little tiny scales that grip one another. When the fibres are spun into a yarn, then knit or woven into a garment, they create a soft, dense fabric full of minuscule air pockets, that retains heat like nobody's business. And when wool gets damp, did you know that it actually releases small amounts of heat while it dries? True story.

Polyester, meanwhile, is made from a reaction between terephthalic acid, a petroleum derivative, with ethylene glycol, which you probably know as antifreeze. Mix this stuff at high temperature, until it turns into a syrup; then extrude it through a spinneret to create long strands of what amounts to plastic fibre. No air pockets, no scales. Just lots and lots of petroleum-based plastic fibre.

When I bought my various fleece jackets (and I kept buying different ones, because none of them ever seemed to do what their ad copy claimed they would—keep me warm), I wasn't really thinking about things like "petrochemical products" and "will spend the next millennium in a landfill attempting unsuccessfully to biodegrade." All I wanted was a jacket, dammit, that would help me stop shivering like a chihuahua on meth.

And then I put on that wool sweater, and everything changed.

Because that, my friends, is when I dashed off to my local yarn shop, on the hunt for enough wool to make myself armloads of sweaters and shawls, and drawers full of woollen socks. I reacquainted myself with my old friend, knitting; and then I found Ravelry, and blogs, and Knitty, and spinning...and at some point I realized that my quest for warmth had sent me wandering off down a path I couldn't have anticipated.

All in all, though, I'm pretty glad to be here. And I'm warm, too. In January. Bonus.

1 comment:

geekknitter said...

"...shivering like a chihuahua on meth."

I'm sending you a bill for a new keyboard.