Materials that linger: writing about geographies of polyester clothes

By Chris Gibson

Writing journal articles can be a real struggle. Ideas take a while to form. The writing doesn’t flow. Draft papers that muddle along in need of restructures and a bloody good edit.

But sometimes, they’re just meant to be. These are my favourite papers to write. And they often come from nowhere, like bolts of lightning. They aren’t typically pre-planned; they disrupt orderly writing plans and publications schedules. But in my experience, it is the serendipitous ones that most often make the best papers. They take little time to actually pull together, and often sail through peer review.

Elyse Stanes and I had just this experience recently.

Mystery fibres

Elyse is currently in the final throes of her PhD research, which explores material cultures of fashion consumption among young people, with an eye to sustainability concerns, and another eye attuned to the cultural-economy of fashion industry production, marketing and retailing. I’m Elyse’s PhD supervisor, and we’ve had innumerable conversations over the years about clothes, textiles, fashion, second-hand shopping and sustainability issues. Like Elyse, I have a ‘thing’ for second-hand clothes; in my case vintage western wear, cowboy shirts, Hawaiian aloha shirts. It’s one of the real pleasures of supervising PhD students when one finds a common ground like this.

Anyway, Elyse and I were having one such conversation last year, while enjoying a beer on a hot afternoon sitting in a bar in London (skiving off from a session of the RGS-IBG conference!). Elyse mentioned an invitation that had arrived in our in-boxes to participate at a symposium at Sydney University, on cultures of waste. We discussed possibilities, with nothing specific in mind. Then as is so often the case, our conversation drifted onto vintage clothes. How frustrating it is, we said, that charity shops (‘op shops’, in Australian lingo) are so full of clothes from the 1990s and early 2000s that have high polyester content in their textiles. I recalled the glory days of op-shopping in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when you could still find amazing items from the 1940s, 50s and 60s made from wool gabardines, cotton twills, linen. High quality stuff, made to last. In contrast, the wares in op-shops nowadays are so often poly-cotton fast fashion rejects, or items made with what were back in 1995 ‘high-tech’ synthetic fibres. Designed for sport or outdoor ‘adventure’ use, but now scratchy, sweaty, pilling and uncomfortable. And, we remarked, these polyester clothes never really get purchased. They sit in charity shops, unloved. Or on eBay, with zero bids. Or they end up in circuits of low-value second-hand clothes trading in Africa or India.

Elyse then mentioned that in her PhD ethnography, there was a curious thread of conversations with her participants about synthetic textiles. For polyester clothes, it turned out, were a common source of guilt and shame: items bought on a whim, or given as gifts, that were rarely worn, that never wore out enough to justify throwing out, or never wore in, in that nice way that organic fabrics become softer, fading and ageing gracefully with time. These items hung around in the backs of wardrobes or bottoms of drawers, unloved and yet unable to be discarded. Elyse joked that her participants’ spoke of these sections of wardrobes as purgatories of sorts: coffins for polyester clothes that were never quite properly buried or given a dignified funeral.

Then there was that moment.

I’ve witnessed it before with other collaborators. A certain sparkle in the eye and a shared realisation. Barely a word needed to be said, for the paper and its idea kernel was already there before us, merely waiting to be captured. As we sat, me hot and sweaty in my 1970s-vintage orange plaid cowboy shirt, regretting that I hadn’t packed a 100% cotton one, Elyse thinking through the ramifications of what she had just signed on for, it became obvious. We had a paper to write, about polyester clothes as waste.

‘The’ orange poly shirt.

And we had a tight deadline. The Sydney University symposium was only a couple of weeks away. What if we hit the pause button on everything else, and simply brain-dumped stuff onto the page, pulling something together, editing back and forth via email, to present on the day of the symposium? Then we could refine it later for submission to a journal? We gave it a go, not really thinking too far ahead to whether we’d end up with something publishable. But it worked.

And the more we read and thought about polyester fabrics, the more it made sense that this story needed to be pulled together.

A single polyester garment can unleash over 1900 microfibers per wash, or up to 496,000 microfibres in a standard 6kg load.

For polyester is a deceptive and deeply troubling material. It is expected to last for centuries in landfill. It is not easily reusable, or in the case of poly-cotton blends, near impossible to recycle at all. Polyester microfibers leach with washing, polluting oceans and waterways. Recent research suggests that a single polyester garment can unleash over 1900 microfibers per wash, or up to 496,000 microfibres in a standard 6kg load. And few people seem to appreciate that when wearing synthetic clothes, we are wearing plastic. To be comfortable and colourful, polyester textiles must have a variety of chemicals added, microscopic entities called monomers. They are what turn off-white plastic microfibres into colourful clothes; what turn scratchy, stiff and unwearable polymers into soft fluffy fleece, stretchy garments or into fabrics that mimic cotton, silk or wool. The trouble is, monomers subsequently leach from clothes when washed. Those monomers also end up in our oceans, in the cells of aquatic organisms, and in our own bodies, where evidence suggests they are leading to adverse health effects. Making matters worse is that the science and marketing behind synthetic fabrics is so sophisticated these days. Think of all the high-tech leisurewear and outdoorsy brands. (One might call it a polyester industrial complex?). The true plasticity and ecological implications of synthetic fibres are effectively concealed from the consumer’s full view.

Contemplating all this, it struck us that clothes made from synthetic fibres needed to be made sense of as a distinctive form of waste – one with important differences from say plastic bags or PET water bottles. For these clothes are more than merely utilitarian object. They are fashion. Thus, underpinning our interactions with polyester clothes is how they make us feel, emotionally, and their touch on the body. That key element of feel is why monomers are added, changing their composition, making them marketable, but also unleashing downstream capacities to pollute. Meanwhile their less-than-ideal feel (especially via cultural norms of sweat) is what so commonly leads to their abandonment, their categorisation as waste, their being sentenced to a life in the purgatory at the back of the wardrobe.

Our paper, published this month in Geoforum, focused on this angle: how the feel of polyester clothes influences their biographies, their geographies, their waste story. We drew inspiration from recent scholarship on plastic, lingering materialities, and waste, and from geographers writing about corporeality and viscerality.

The result is a paper that this time last year we had no intention of writing. But I’m mighty glad we did, proof that sometimes it really is worth following through on those sweaty, beery, ‘what if’ moments.

 

Paper available online:

Stanes, E & Gibson, C (2017) Materials that linger: An embodied geography of polyester clothes, Geoforum,Volume 85, pp. 27–36

 

Chris Gibson is a Professor of Human Geography with AUSCCER and the Director of Global Challenges Program – a strategic interdisciplinary research initiative at UOW. You can follow him on twitter @profcgibson. 

Elyse Stanes is a PhD Candidate with AUSCCER as well as the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities Technical Officer. You can follow her on twitter @elyserstanes.

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