next to skin, into the body
ruminations on health series: clothes
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I’ve been thinking about what facet of health I wanted to start talking about first. I’ve long been turned off with these quippy soundbites outlining “the three things you should do right now to be healthy!” And they never even get those three things right. Instead, I would like to explore all of the facets of health in more meaningful ways. From food to light to the electromagnetic static all about us, I will share what I have come to find helpful through our decades of eating and living in a way that has always put our health as priority.
A near ten year stint with chronic Lyme disease brought me to the brink of my breaking point and then demanded more. Through that time, I learned that I was capable of even more than I ever thought I was. I also learned, being a member of the ‘Canaries in the Coal Mine Club’, that I had to start looking at my environment with an ever-sharper eye. Because of that, you may find that some of my recommendations are for things that don’t hold much importance for you because you simply don’t have issues. I’d say, listen to the canaries, we are all being assaulted by our sick homes, cars, and workplaces. People often say, “she was so healthy and then she got cancer” or “he was the healthiest guy I knew and then dropped dead from a heart attack”. These illnesses are not missiles randomly targeting the poor fucker that happens to get hit. Disease builds. We get many warning signs, most of them pretty easy to ignore with our hustle and bustle of importance. The trick is to tune ourselves into the whispers before they become a roar.
The first topic of health I want to start off with is going to be about clothes. Clothes and sheets and towels and whatever else we wrap around our bodies so that our skin can suck it all up. I wanted to start with clothes because it’s near winter here now. We love winter and its slowing, its layers and wood fires. I also love dressing for winter. Living in Canada, you have a choice come this time of year, dress inappropriately and suffer or learn to meet the demands of winter. And how do you do that? Layers. Layers of wool and linen and silk. On top of those layers go more wool and down and shearling. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the sourcing of these clothes.
From time immemorial, Tara has shopped at thrift stores. First it was out of amusement, but with kids, it became a necessity to find clothes for her quick growing babies while on a meagre budget. A few things you learn when you buy used clothes at thrift stores: you quickly scan through clothes, looking at the material first, fashion second, you buy items in advance (especially with kids) and by that I mean when you find this down filled or wool vintage jacket that won’t fit your kid for a year, you buy it anyway. It’s not on-demand service, you take what comes and store it until it fits. The same goes for buying things out of season. It’s irrelevant. We have to think outside of our training to buy what we need only when we need it. It’s going to be a lesson in frustration to start our search with “I really need a jacket for my kiddo now”. That’s not how the second hand gods work.
There are a few things that I exclusively buy from second hand stores and these include wool sweaters, vintage down/wool farm jackets, anything made of cotton that is pre-1970s, and of course any other old treasure that comes up. So why the cotton only if it’s old? Well, cotton is one of the most toxic, environmentally disastrous fibres in the world. It’s worth investigating if you haven’t. It’s genetically modified and absolutely saturated with chemicals that remain in the fibers, those same fibres that get wrapped around and absorbed by the bodies of your children and you. If I am wearing a flannel shirt in the middle of winter, it’s either from a time before I was born or it is from a source that is certified organic. Otherwise, cotton is out.
Cotton is ubiquitous and dubbed a “natural material”. They’ve done such a great job with their marketing, that most believe it. So, I will tell you how it came to be that I started having serious issues with this genetically engineered stuff. When I was really sick with Lyme, like could barely function at all type of sick, I started having persistent issues with my skin. I developed hyper-sensitivities to all things: food, water, air for heaven’s sake. I couldn’t handle even sitting next to people that washed their clothes in Tide laundry soap. My eyes would water and I would get migraines just from breathing it in, never mind using it to coat my clothes (which I never did because I’ve always abhorred those fake, overbearing smells). It took me a very long time to dwindle down all of the variables around me and figure out that when it came to my skin, things got a whole lot worse when I wore cotton clothing. I did some research on GE cotton and what it brought with it as a little side gift of non-stop skin irritation when I wore it, slept on it, dried off with it after a shower. I did a little experiment, one of many at that time of my life, got rid of it and wouldn’t you know it, life became just a little bit more bearable.
I write that to say that my story is mine. You may very likely not have the issues I did. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something there for you to learn about, nor does it mean that this stuff isn’t harming you. Still, life is about prioritising our stuff and if this isn’t something you want to take on right now, fair enough, but knowing and making different choices over time can be one more thing that helps alleviate the toxic burden in our lives. To that end, swapping out bedsheets for organic cotton bed sheets is easy and cheap enough. I moved away from cotton as much as possible, opting for linen in all places cotton once lived. Linen bed sheets. Linen or organic cotton towels. Linen cloths and material backing for my crafting adventures.
Linen is, by far, my favourite fibre to wear. I don’t think I go a day without something on my body that’s linen. In summer it is light and breathable, in winter it is a soft layer to wear against my body. I’ve noticed that there is a lot of Chinese linen flooding the market lately. It’s cheaper than the European linen. I will leave you to do your research and come up with your own standards. For me, I stick with European linen, usually sourcing from Lithuania from makers that use linen certified with the Oeko-Tex certification. If the residues of chemical manufacturing are something you’re looking to stay away from in your clothes that’s a good certification to look for.
And speaking of certifications, there’s the understanding of how those clothes are not only made, but how they are grown or raised to begin with. There has been a push in the last few years by the vegan and “animal welfare” organisations to label clothes “cruelty free” or “vegan leather”. It’s an abomination of the truth of the matter, but it’s a simple little word or two that gives people the illusion that what they’re buying isn’t just cheap petrochemicals that destroy entire eco-systems, but instead is a wondrous alternative that buys them into the righteous club. I saved a cow with my plastic purse! No, you bought into a narrative that plumped the fat-cats wallets. They’re making purses out of plastic for god’s sake, you think they give a shit about a cow? And yes, that takes care of about 70% of what’s in the thrift store with the abundance of fast fashion’s ghosts. Plastic, petroleum clothes and shoes abound. Acrylic and polyester on the body just makes me sad. Outside of the environmental considerations is the added layer of their miserable delivery in function and comfort. They make you hot when you want to be cold, and cold when you want to be hot. Encasing the magical marvel of creation, known as “the body”, in clothing akin to a ziplock bag isn’t serving anything or anyone (other than the aforementioned corporate profiteers).
That’s part of it, too - the longevity piece. We all know about fast fashion, fashion trends, the latest and greatest destined for the thrift shop next season (if not the garbage pile). Where do all those plastic clothes go when they’re hopelessly out of date? Well, third world countries often, where they add to the ever-growing hopeless heap of has-beens. Plastic clothes, like plastic bottles live on. Or, maybe, more appropriately, stay dead without decaying, forever. So, that’s part of it, too. We need to let go of whatever they say is of the now and look at what is classic and timeless. It’s a growing exercise, to do that. To let go of what you’ve been trained to look for outside of yourself as a guide. It’s freeing to look at things and find out what you think is beautiful, free from any cultural limitations that are meant to keep your dollars churning. That was one of the great delights of my late thirties and forties. I started wearing things that delighted me instead of what was acceptable to others. It’s been fun and incredibly liberating to wear the things that bring me joy. The sustainable benefit of this approach is obvious, building a wardrobe of what we love, clothing made with care of quality materials, means we don’t have to keep buying like slaves in a turn-style.
My winter wardrobe has been resurrected from the back of my closet, my summer clothes, the ones I can’t layer into winter ones, have now taken up their space. There are wool pants and base layers, organic and vintage flannel, linen long sleeve shirts and hoodies, and an embarrassingly large collection of chunky, oversized wool sweaters. Most of those seaters are likely over fifty years old. They were old before they became mine and I love that I get to share in them with a human long gone. I have loose wool and linen skirts and dresses I also layer. That’s pretty much my winter uniform - wool base layers with a loose linen skirt/dress, topped with a chunky sweater. All of my socks are wool. Light for summer so my toes breathe, heavy for winter. If you live in a cold climate and wear cotton socks, my hat’s off to you for your determination and courage. Blue toes are not my thing.
Speaking of blue toes, my pink toes stay that way with a couple of beautiful moccasins I inherited from my parents. They had them custom made by a talented First Nations artisan in Churchill, Manitoba, where we lived for a time when I was wee. The beadwork is extraordinary. These leather soled boots allow me to still “ground” in the winter months and keep my feet warmer than any other boots I have ever owned. They are 53 years old and I have only had the soles restitched once after all of these winters. That may be an option for you, too. There are still artisans making these boots which, if the snow is dry and cold, are truly the best things you can put on your feet. “Barefoot shoes” before they became trendy.
For the rest of the year, I wear barefoot style shoes or extra wide toe box boots for working. All other standards of source and maker apply. Around the farm, I wear rubber boots from Bekina that have lasted me years of daily use and vintage leather boots or boots made here in Canada for wet, cold weather. There are times when the functionality of plastic-ish clothing, specifically outerwear, is necessary. As an example, when it is pouring sheets of rain, I will put on rain gear on top of my other layers. I will concede that I can be puritanical, but I am not a fool. For this type of stuff, I always source from military surplus. The stuff is already there (no need to support making more of what already exists), made well, and is reasonably priced. I also use military surplus, Canadian and Eastern European mostly, for extreme cold weather materials like my pair of arctic mittens (made of leather and wool, complete with a shearling “snot wiper”) and farm parka.
Sourcing then. Well, I already mentioned thrift stores. I might add that you may find that some thrift stores are junk-o-rama. Depending on where they source their stuff, finding older, quality clothes may be like finding a needle in a haystack, their shelves instead overflowing with Forever21 and the like. I have found smaller, independent rural thrift stores to have much better clothing. I suppose it has to do with all the older people in these areas hanging onto things that were made in a better time. Other options for second hand clothes that I sometimes use include Etsy and eBay if you’re looking for something in particular.
For new clothing, I have some basic requirements. Those include the materials, which I’ve already spoken about. That is limiting right out of the gate. I’m not going to be able to go to a large commercial chain and find European linen. Haha, see my diabolical plan forming? Get out of the chains altogether! We don’t need 50 shirts, we need a couple so we can take all those dollars and streamline them into a few, well made, timeless items we won’t need to throw away. I want well sewn, quality clothing made in, by order of preference, Canada, the USA, and some European countries (of course your list should prioritise artisans near you). I do not want items from China and I especially don’t want items pretending to not be from China but are from China (for the love of God, people, stop buying those bloody Blundstones - you’re feeding the beast!). Why are so many people obsessed with those boots?
I can hear the wails of protest already.
Anyhoo, I digress. Aside from the vintage in thrift stores and on sites I mentioned, I buy new clothes like linen from small makers exclusively. Etsy is full of them. There are all sorts of websites online that you can explore. You can start by buying one thing and if you love it, well, one last thing to think about - you now have a source that you trust for quality products. Be loyal to that company, support what they’re up to. Years ago, I was looking for linen bedding. That’s an investment. I ordered fabric samples from a few companies, ruled out most, bought a couple pillow cases from a couple, evaluated the quality of the sewing and materials and settled on one. I have used that company for ten years now to purchase bedding. I don’t even have to think about it.
These things matter. There are also many makers taking remnants of old warehoused fabrics and creating beautiful, limited clothing pieces. We have a leather maker in town that made me a huge purse/bag with leathers that were sourced from ethical farms, brain tanned, and then lined with old European, chunky linen grain bags. I will have it until I die. Worth every penny. I encourage you all to branch out and meet people in your area, in your country, doing things you want to support.
Lastly, a bit on the intangible. There is an energy that all things carry, a message we can’t hear or see, but is delivered all the same. When our bodies are wrapped in the energy of life’s creation, there is resonance. Harmony. When we encase ourselves in manmade extractions made as quickly and cheaply as possible, the messages create static. If our homes are filled with pressboard and melamine, too, there is the infiltration of disruption. It has been my experience that when we are in environments, and that most certainly includes what’s closest to our skin, made of natural materials, we feel calm and enveloped. I have never experienced that surrounded by the cheap products meant to meet the demand of mass consumption. They feel hollow, lifeless, disregarding. There is no connection to life there.
That should be enough to get you considering. Surely, I haven’t covered everything. I will address how we clean that clothing when I get to the household health part in this series.