Roger Ratcliffe’s outdoor clothing collection is hanging by a thread

Roger Ratcliffe’s outdoor
clothing collection is
hanging by a thread

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It seems like I’ve been wearing fleeces since before they were invented, and nowadays they are almost part of our national costume. Sadly, though, it appears that anyone who has a fleece is a walking poison bomb.

My first one was bought in the early 1980s from a Penrith mail-order shop that specialised in outdoor survival gear and did much business with the SAS. I was put onto it by a Sunday Times photographer friend who was heading off to cover the Soviet-Afghan war in wintertime.

My fleece was olive green and seriously thick. The sleeves had little thumb loops apparently to stop them riding up wrists and lowering body temperatures while wearers were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Soviet commandos or wrestling with polar bears.

Back then most people hadn’t come across synthetic fleece. Walkers still conformed to the uniform of aran sweaters or fair isles, knitted bobble hats and woolly gloves. But within a decade fleece had gone mainstream and become almost de rigueur for everyday life. Well, I mean, it’s best not to risk getting hypothermia on that trip down to the Arndale Centre.

I now own five fleeces of various thicknesses and TOG (thermal insulation) ratings. I also have three pairs of fleece gloves, two fleece hats, a fleece balaclava and two fleece scarves. This, it seems, makes me a serious environmental hazard and a threat to humans and wildlife alike.

The fabric known in the industry as polar fleece was developed at a Massachusetts mill in 1979. It is essentially polyester woven in such a way that it mimics and even surpasses the quality of wool. It is machine washable, dries quickly, and a godsend for those whose skin is allergic to wool. But it is still a product of the petrochemical industry, and we are all on a steep learning curve about how destructive to the planet this can be.

If I’d been asked to consider the negative aspects of fleece pullovers I would probably have said they meant that fewer sheep were grazing on Pennine or Yorkshire Dales uplands, with the knock-on effect of closing down woollen mills in places like Huddersfield and Bradford.

Wrong. Modern science now tells us that there is a far more pervasive negative impact. The fabrics leach into rivers and the sea every time they are washed. Tiny particles known as micro plastics are bad news for fish and other aquatic life, but not good either for humans at the end of the food chain.

Which is whole new take on the problem of plastic pollution. It doesn’t matter if we stop drinking out of plastic bottles or buying food packaged with plastic. Even if the oceans were no longer awash with the hideous sight of plastic pollution our clothes would still be part of the problem.

When the truth about the harmful effects of nitrogen dioxide emitted by diesel engines was confirmed I eventually changed to a petrol-driven car. And after meeting the inspirational Aimee Charlotte at her plastics free shop the Jar Tree on Leeds Kirkgate Market I try to avoid single-use plastic packaging. So perhaps I should now send my wardrobe of fleeces off for recycling and go back to wool.

Can anyone recommend a nice warm fair isle jumper?

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him onTwitter @Ratcliffe

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