Fine fabric fiasco

Zipping up an eight-year-old cotton-poly grime gray hoodie and preparing to write this blog, I recall promising to investigate why cashmere or mohair would be good choices for looking professional while working from home in your chilly corner (er—“home office”).  I looked forward to finding evidence justifying buying myself a beautiful cashmere sweater: knee-length, hooded, in soft kitten-gray. Hours of research later, it is much harder to justify purchasing new cashmere, or any other kind of clothing (whether from animal, plant, or synthetic sources), than previously thought. 

Natural fibers from animal hair make up less than two percent of those available commercially, according to Sarah Young of The Independent, and for all 7.647 billion of us to choose to wear such warm, natural, sustainable fabrics whenever the temperature dropped would require an adjustment in the supply chain, to say the least.  Using textiles from plant and synthetic sources is no guarantee of better environmental outcomes.  This post will pinpoint some of the more interesting facts about how different fibers are made, and where industry innovations make it possible to dream once more of justifiable consumption. 

Re-considering cashmere

Thread made from goats’ hair, such as mohair and cashmere, should be a sound choice for warm fabrics for many reasons.  It naturally repels insects and has been used for this purpose in the linings of rugs for centuries. Goat hair does not absorb heat, meaning it keeps your core temperature stable.  The fibers are strong and resilient, yet biodegradable, and long-lasting enough to be passed from one generation to another in families.  Yet all of these benefits stem from its natural origins, and there we run into a problem: the habitat where most cashmere is produced tends to be fragile and finite.  In the People’s Republic of Mongolia, where livestock herding is a staple of the economy, overpopulation of cashmere goats to meet demand for the hair they shed each spring has created desertification.  NPR’s Rob Schmitz reported in 2016 that small, rippling sand dunes are all that remain where high grasses grew just thirty years ago, and that the average temperature in this part of Mongolia has increased by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a shocking number to those familiar with the negative impact of a rise of even one degree.  Afghan farmers also rear cashmere goats for their hair, but their industry is underdeveloped and threatened by conflict.  If you are still determined to own a new piece, your best source might be the small producers dotting the countryside across the United States.  Just be warned: good goats’ hair does not and should not come cheap.

Cotton gets uncomfortable

Everyone likely to read this probably owns clothing made from cotton, but there’s no solution there: a Patagonia study found that the cotton industry had a larger footprint than the makers of synthetic fabrics because of pesticides. It is also a major consumer of water, with ten to twenty thousand gallons of water going into the making of just one pair of jeans.

Athletic wear goes farther than you do

Materials like spandex, nylon and polyester, perfected in the laboratories of DuPont, and often manufactured in China or Indonesia, are ubiquitous and often inexpensive, but we are talking about petroleum-derived fabrics that release plastic microfibers into the environment every time they are washed. If you need to buy a polyester fleece jacket, you should consider the fact that it may be around for a long, long time, and show up in places you didn’t expect.

Rayon and TENCEL actually do derive from biopolymers, i.e. plant fibers

Rayon and the fabric known by the trade name TENCEL derive from cellulose, the molecule that is a major component of plant cell walls. (See image of the cellulose molecule at the start of this post.) Although companies using biopolymers like to brag about their products being “made by photosynthesis,” that explanation willfully neglects to mention a large component of the process.  To make these materials, you might start with, say, wood chips, dissolve them in carbon disulfide, pass the resulting mixture through tiny holes to create hair-like threads, and then treat those threads with acid.  (Cellophane is made the same way, except that the mixture passes through a thin slit to form it into sheets.)  As far as sustainability goes, the makers of TENCEL do use mostly Austrian beech wood, and reuse the processing chemicals and water involved, earning the right to claim that they use one of the cleanest textile production cycles in existence.


Without more resources to study the energy used in the chemical processing of synthetic and recycled fabrics, I think we can nonetheless safely conclude that the only truly sustainable sweater must be either second-hand, upcycled, or very pricey. The good news is that even Walmart sells previously owned cashmere on its website. Other sustainable-clothing leaders such as Patagonia already sell plenty of new clothes from recycled or “upcycled” fabric, and still others will follow suit. (Get it?!) :^)

Lastly, we might all do just as well to pay attention to caring for the clothes we already have.  It’s a good idea to invest in a drying rack as well as a mesh sweater-dryer and some insect-repelling storage accessories.  Something like cedar wood packing balls should deter insects from infiltrating your storage bins and eating holes in the front of your Brooks Brothers best!   

Next post: We will take a look at whether or not our blood actually thickens in the cold, and how people adapt to high or low temperatures in different climates.


Beier, Mike. “Natural Versus Synthetic Textiles: Which Is Better?” Greener Cleaner, March 3, 2015.

Schmitz, Rob. “How Your Cashmere Sweater Is Decimating Mongolia’s Grasslands” National Public Radio Broadcast, December 9, 2016.

Young, Sarah. “The Real Cost of Your Clothes: These Are the Fabrics With the Best and Worst Environmental Impact.”  The Independent, December 19, 2019.

Image credit:

Le Couteur, Penny, and Jay Burreson. Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History,

New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003. 77.

Classic tricks to keep your carbon footprint small while working from home

  • Per Minneapolis Plumbing, Heating, and Air, don’t crank your thermostat.  A thermostat only heats at one speed, so it can’t get to 68° degrees Fahrenheit any faster if you set it to 88°.  When you get home, set it back to 68°*, put on a sweater, and brew yourself a cup of tea.
  • wear either 1) a wool sweater layered over a turtleneck (get both in black or navy if you fear being frumpy) 2) a cashmere (or merino or mohair blend) sweater. By the way, a cotton sweatshirt doesn’t count as a sweater.  Those college sweatshirts may be trendy and durable, but they can be much more expensive, and are definitely not as warm as something woven from animal hair or wool.  (If you’re wondering about the possible environmental implications of natural fiber clothing, that’s a good question which we will address in our next post.)
  • put tights on under your pants.  Girlies: footless tights avoid the bunching, tearing, and toe-pulling qualities of pantyhose.  I think they’re worth the extra $5.00 or so, esp. since they last much longer than stockings, even after repeated hand-washings.
  • keep your feet warm with slippers or ankle boots.  This will also make it easier for you to step outside during your breaks, which you should also do, to make the room feel warmer when you get back!
  • drink tea alternating with hot water.  A saucer on top of your mug will help it stay warm longer.

No more excuses: you’ve gone green in a mom-approved, classic way. 

Now it’s time to be productive! 

Set a timer for an hour, and you’re off. Good luck!

*sources agree that best practice is to routinely set your thermostat to as much as 10° F lower overnight and/or during prolonged absences from home, saving energy and about 10% on your electric bill (if done daily for about 8 hours). 

Works cited:

La clime pour esprits libres

(Non – ce n’est pas ce que vous ne le pensez.)  Si vous n’êtes pas inquiétés par la réalité de l’échauffement climatique, félicitations: vous habitez sûrement sous la bonne pierre.  Ici, suite à une période de chaleur plus élévée que d’habitude, accompagnée par une sécheresse plus longue que d’habitude, j’ai voulu trouver d’autres moyens de réduire mon empreinte en carbone. 

J’essaie d’éviter la climatisation pendant la nuit, pourtant ici dans la Virginie centrale, les températures montent jusqu’à 31⁰ C.  Ces nuits là, on pourrait bien se pardonner l’usage d’un ventilateur, sauf le fait que le ventilateur central emploie, lui aussi, pas mal d’électricité. La solution: créer de la ventilation de travers, soufflant de l’air frais du rez-de-chaussée au premier étage et/ou du premier au rez-de-chaussée (le mouvement de l’air fait l’effet).  Exploiter les vents de travers implique laisser ouvertes des portes qui, normalement, resteraient fermées la nuit (l’intimité, normalement, l’oblige) mais à part ça, c’est efficace.  Il vous faut, bien sûr, une maison à deux étages qui permet l’air de passer à partir de la porte d’entrée (munie d’une porte moustiquaire) à travers les fenêtres (moustiquaires) de votre chambre. La porte une fois barrée, vous laissez ouverte la porte d’entrée, les fenêtres, et la porte de votre chambre à coucher aussi. 

Ressentez-vous une bouffée d’air frais et apaisant? Ça y est. L’air frais du bas a chassé l’air chaud d’en haut.  Ayant essayé cela après une journée de chaleur, je peux vous dire:  la pièce s’est refroidie assez pour susciter l’envie d’une petite couverture en plus des draps.  Un ventilateur naturel, gratuit et sans aucun usage de carbone?  Mais oui!  Et les voisins: c’est d’accord si vous voulez prendre la télé.  On ne la regarde pas tellement.  Vous nous rendrez service. Bonne nuit!

Hippie HVAC

If you are alive in 2020 and are not extremely concerned about climate change, congratulations: you must have found one very comfortable rock under which to live.  As for me, a recent dry, record-breaking hot spell that threatened to destroy the garden found me trying new tricks to stay cool.

I try to avoid using air-conditioning at night, but sometimes it seems necessary to use the fan, which might use even more energy than the central air.  Solution: set up natural cross-ventilation from first to second floor.  Exploiting bi-level cross-ventilation involves leaving doors open that normally remain closed for privacy, but other than that, is cool and efficient.  You need a two-story home that allows air to travel through your (screened) bedroom windows from an entrance, and a locking-screen door on said entrance.  (We hope that the danger of being burglarized is in your neighborhood is low.)  Once you’ve locked the screen door, you can leave the main door open wide, fling open your bedroom windows, and leave the bedroom door open, too. 

Do you feel a wonderful puff of cool air?  Success! You’ve drawn the cool air across and up/down while its movement has pushed the hot air out and away.  Tried this last night after a 95 degree evening and got chilled enough to consider adding a summer blanket.  A free, natural fan that creates no carbon pollution?  Yes!  And to the neighbors: you’re welcome to the t.v., if you really want it!  Good night!

Aimée, La Prof de Français à l’Accent Etranger

L’autre soir, une copine et moi buvions un coup, et je lui ai demandé comment ça se passait au collège où elle enseigne le français. 

Nous vivons en Virginie, aux Etats-Unis, mais Aimée est française et, bien sûr, ayant fait sa scolarité ailleurs qu’au seul pays au monde à ne pas exiger l’apprentissage d’une langue étrangère, parle couramment l’anglais ainsi qu’une troisième langue. 

Aimée aime l’enseignement, et ses élèves doivent l’apprécier : elle est dynamique, enjouée et gentille, et dotée d’un joli petit accent français. 

Cependant, elle avoue avoir de temps en temps des ennuis avec un parent.

« Par exemple, » me dit-elle, « le premier jour, je me suis présentée avec des diapositives qui montraient des scènes de ma vie, dont une qui me montre avec Nelson Mandela.  Un seul élève connaissait ce héros, alors je leur ai demandé de venir le lendemain avec cinq faits à son sujet.  Ils l’ont fait, on en a discuté, et j’ai préparé une petite interrogation la-dessus.

C’est là où j’ai rencontré un problème.  Après le quiz, je reçois un e-mail de la mère d’un élève, qui veut venir me voir.  Elle arrive avec un syllabus et un surligneur en main.  Quand elle m’entend parler, elle me dit, ‘Oh.  Vous avez un accent.  Pourquoi ?’  Je lui explique que l’anglais est ma deuxième langue.

Elle me montre le quiz de son fils, marqué avec un F parce qu’il n’avait pas su les réponses. 

‘J’ai regardé le syllabus,’ me dit-elle, ‘mais je n’ai pas vu Nelson Mandela.  Mon fils n’est pas censé apprendre cela.’ 

Alors, je lui ai expliqué qu’il s’agissait d’une connaissance générale, et que la note n’est pas ce qu’il y a de plus importante.  La note indique ce qu’il lui reste à apprendre, c’est tout.  Le « F » en question est une bonne chose, finalement, parce qu’il n’oubliera jamais Nelson Mandela. Il aura appris quelque chose. »

Ma copine à mis pas mal de temps à rassurer cette mère au sujet de son fils. 

Il paraît que pour chaque élève en septième, elle aura au moins un élève adulte à enseigner.

Aimée, the French Teacher with the un-American Accent

Over a bite to eat, I asked a French-teacher friend how things are going in her new middle school classroom. 

Aimée is French, and of course, having been raised outside of the only country in the world not to have a national foreign language requirement, she speaks English fluently, along with a third language. 

She loves teaching, and her students must love her:  she is vivacious and empathetic, and has a charming French accent.  In Americanizing her name, she pronounces it “Emm-mie,” holding the “m” in a nice warm hug before letting it go. 

She does admit to having the occasional recalcitrant parent, however. 

“For example,” she says, her black eyes sparkling with the memory, “On the first day, I introduced myself and gave a slideshow.  One of the pictures showed me with Nelson Mandela, but only one of the students knew who he was.

I thought this was a good learning opportunity, and asked the students to come back the next day with five facts about Nelson Mandela.  They did, we discussed them, and then I made a multiple-choice quiz using all of the information they had shared. 

Here is where I ran into a problem.  One student did not do so well, and his mother made an appointment to meet with me.

She came into my office with a copy of the syllabus, which she had highlighted.  But first we introduced ourselves. 

‘You have an accent,’ she said to me.  ‘Why is that?’ I explained that English is my second language. 

Then she showed me her son’s quiz, on which he had received an F because he did not know any of the answers.

‘I looked at the curriculum,’ she said, ‘but I don’t see Nelson Mandela on here.  I am concerned that my son is not supposed to be learning about this.’

I told her about my slideshow and explained why we had discussed Mandela.  Then I tried to help her understand my teaching philosophy. ‘The grade is not what really matters,’ I told her.  A low grade just indicates what you still have to learn.  And in fact, this F is a good thing for your son, because now he will never forget who Nelson Mandela is.  You see, he will have really learned something.’”

My friend spent a long time reassuring the mother about her son.  It looks as though, for every 6th grader in her class, she may have an adult student to educate, as well.

Of sunbeams, sunscreens, and SPF’s lower than 50!

Those of us who are now middle-aged white people remember when SPF 15 was the maximum coverage product, and it was powerful. It even worked for the freckly kids who had to wear t-shirts over their bathing suits.  If your skin tone allowed you to get a little tan, wearing SPF 8 was considered prudent.

Yet now, in 2019, it is impossible to find sunscreen with a protection factor of even ten. Below 15 SPF cannot be sold at CVS, everything is PABA-free, and rows of sun products with 50 SPF labels seem to be waiting primly for a spot in Miss White’s designer handbag. 

Why the SPF 50 when 15 used to be just fine? What is PABA, and why must one be free from it?  And what really happens to beams when they meet a cream?

SPF is only half of the protection story.

First, SPF, if you didn’t know, means “Sun Protection Factor,” and refers to time.  If you could normally stay in the sun for a half hour without burning, but a cream lets you go burn-free for twelve, then its SPF would be 24, as in twelve times as long, i.e. the whole day. But SPF pertains only to burning, and does not indicate how safe you may or may not be from slower-cooking UV-A rays.

The SPF does not tell you about the other damage.

The sun protection factor indicates how long you are safe from UV-B radiation, which has shorter-wavelength, more powerful, beams. Since UV-A rays cause ageing and collagen damage, we also need to know about them. So…designer handbag people, beware: a high SPF might not repel UV-A rays at all. 

Only sunblock prevents UV-A damage. 

To achieve total shade from UV-A radiation, current products must find a way to block them. A sunblock (like zinc oxide) contains opaque pigments (chemically rendered invisible to the human eye) that reflect the light, preventing it from penetrating the skin. 

But let’s go back to sunscreen. If sunblock is like a paint that blocks the rays, what is a sunscreen, and how does the screen part work?

When sunbeams meet sunscreen… 

Many sunscreens work via an organic substance such as the bugaboo PABA – para amino benzoic acid- whose chemical structure is in sync with the sun’s radiation.  A white powder before it’s added to a cream, PABA’s structures vibrate at the same frequency as the sun’s 280-320 nanometer UV-B rays (Field 8).  The sun beats down on skin covered in a PABA cream, and the para amino benzoic acid molecule’s different electrons, held in a ring-like benzine structure connected to a carboxyl group, shoot back and forth.  As it moves the electrons, the radiation expends its energy on the surface of the product (instead of penetrating to blood vessels beneath) and disperses back into the atmosphere as “gentle heat” (Emsley 23). Thus, the cream filters the sun’s radiation.  Other chemical filters that work the same way include oxybenzone, camphor, and cinnamic acid, and their variants.  They all contain a carbon grouping and so are called “organic.”

So what’s the danger with PABA?   

Well, “tests on human cells showed that, while PABA itself did not cause cancer, it increased the formation of cancer precursors” (Emsley 24).   Oh, and in 1% of cases, those who used PABA sunscreens became more photosensitive (24). Oxybenzone faces criticism now, too, but for slightly different reasons. Both still work for most people.

Only astronauts without space suits burn in seconds.

Interestingly, the human body’s natural defense is typically amino acids on the outer layer of skin.  These absorb UV rays safely for a little while (Emsley 18), perhaps just enough time to use the sunlight to manufacture vitamin D. – AB


Emsley, John. Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Field, Simon Quellen.  Why There’s Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: The chemistry of household ingredients. Chicago Review Press, 2008.


Shapiro, Nina, and Loberg, Kristin. Hype: A Doctor’s guide to medical myths, exaggerated claims, and bad advice- how to tell what’s real and what’s not.  Saint Martin’s Press, 2018.

Stockton, Nick. “Big question: How does sunscreen shield your skin with science?” Wired Magazine, July 2015.     (7/23/19)    (7/23/19)       (7/23/19)

Calcium and wine

Grapevines, too, need their calcium, and they share it with humans through wine. Soil rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium makes for healthy vines. A grape can contain 14 mg of calcium. (Compare that with its 4 mg of vitamin C.)

Thus, grape juice contains calcium, and wine contains even more after the wine-making process. A clay-filtration step can add calcium, as can a finishing with calcium bicarbonate to soften an overly acidic cru

You can find 43 mg (between 1-4% DV) of calcium in a glass of wine.  This is about half the amount found in a glass of Gerolsteiner mineral water.  Since wine doesn’t contain any protein, however, it’s still not advisable to go pour yourself a bottle for dinner.  Alas!


Forkaš, Ján, Technology and Biochemistry of Wine.  New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1988.

Puckette, Madeline, https//

Haas, Jason,

Le calcium et le vin

Les vignes aussi ont besoin de calcium, et elles le partagent avec le consommateur humain par leur vin.  Un terrain riche en calcium, magnesium, potassium et sodium favorise le développement de la plante, ce qui expliqe comment un raisin peut contenir 14 mg de calcium. (Il contient 4 mg de vitamine C en moyenne.)

Plus de 20 mg de calcium peuvent être rajoutés à travers le traitement du vin.  S’il est filtré à travers de l’argile, il y en accumule plus, et à un vin trop acide, on met du carbonate de calcium. 

Somme toute, on retrouve 43 mg (entre 1-4% DV) de calcium dans un verre de vin.  C’est un peu près la moitié du contenu en calcium d’un verre d’eau minérale de la marque Gerolsteiner.  Et comme le vin ne contient aucune protéine, ce n’est pas conseillé de se verser une bouteille pour le dîner.  Dommage!


Forkaš, Ján, Technology and Biochemistry of Wine.  New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1988.

Puckette, Madeline, https//

Haas, Jason,

Wine: Two parts healthy, two parts not-so-much?

Wine, Sorceress, changes an unexciting meal into communion, and draws, from the acid of imperfection, tannic philosophy and sweet laughter.  A glass of the liquid transforms defeat into graceful concession, partnership into romance.  With wine flows exchange, tolerance, largesse.

So wine drinkers believe, and so, to them, the news of its alleged cardioprotective and even cancer-fighting properties is well, not really news.

Yet, while two of red wine’s chemical ingredients, flavonoids and resveratrol, both polyphenols, seem likely to have positive effects on the cells of the human body, two of its other ingredients could cause damage.  Let’s take a good look and find out if we should have a daily glass of burgundy for our health, or make ourselves a nice berry tea, instead.

The parts of red wine that are considered beneficial are the flavonoids (associated with helping prevent the hardening of the arteries), and found in both red and white wine, and the resveratrol, found in red and purple grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries, and thus only in red wine.  Resveratrol seems to inhibit cancer growth through its interactions with certain enzymes that suppress tumors.

The problematic parts of red wine are the alcohol and the sugars.  Its alcohol (scientifically known as ethanol) also interacts with enzymes, but these interactions seem more likely to cause cancer, by contributing to lipid peroxidation, which “can cause damage to cell membranes, sometimes irreversible to the cell” (Markosi).

Sugar, in excess, causes harm as well, via the inflammatory effects of too much glucose on pathways in the cells (Peiró, Concepción, et al.).

So, seen under the microscope, red wine seems to have as many downsides to our physical health as upsides, and white wine, since it does not contain resveratrol and contains even more sugar than red, might be said to have less benefits.

But….what about wine’s effect on the psyche?  The mellow, relaxed, it’s all-been-done-before feeling that puts us in the mood to be together?  Can the health benefits of dealcoholized wine compensate for our absence of intoxication?  Can grape juice make a party out of an assembly?  Or a tea of red berries turn the two-step into a tango?

Should it?

Please leave a thought and/or a recommendation here!


Antioxidant: a substance capable of neutralizing oxygen free radicals, the highly active and damaging atoms and chemical groups produced by various disease processes, and by poisons.

Enzyme:  any of numerous complex proteins that are produced by living cells and catalyse specific biochemical reactions at body temperatures.

Flavonoids: a group of naturally occurring phenolic compounds, many of which are plant pigments. They are strong antioxidants in their natural state, but are poorly absorbed from the intestine.

Lipid: any of a group of naturally occurring fats or fat-like substances characterized by being insoluble in water but soluble in solvents such as chloroform or alcohol.

Polyphenols: a variety of aromatic compounds in plant foods that have multiple hydroxyl groups; they are generally considered to have beneficial antioxidant action.

Resveratrol: a stilbene and potent antioxidant

Wine: On average, wine is 86% water, 12% ethanol, 1% glycerol and polysaccharides or other trace elements, different types of acids 0.5%, and volatile compounds, 0.5 %


Markosi, Melissa, “Molecular Properties of Red Wine Compounds and Cardiometabolic  Benefits” in Nutritional and Metabolic Insights Vol. 9 U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.  08/02/2016

Peiró, Concepción, et al. “Inflammation, glucose, and vascular cell damage: the role of the pentose phosphate pathway.” Cardiovascular Diabetology 2016; 15:82, published online June 1st 2016, doi 10.1186/s12933-016-0397-2

Image: in  Sohaib Haseeb, Bryce Alexander, and Adrian Baranchuck “Wine and Cardiovascular Health: A Comprehensive Review” Circulation. 2017; 136:1434-1448.  DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030387


Sohaib Haseeb, Bryce Alexander, and Adrian Baranchuck “Wine and Cardiovascular Health: A Comprehensive Review” Circulation. 2017; 136:1434-1448.  DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030387

Lehman, Shereen, “Overview of Stilbenes in Plants” in Very Well Fit

Senior, Kathryn, “Molecular explanation for cancer-prevention properties of red wine.”  The Lancet Oncology, Vol. 3 No. 4, p. 200.  April 2002

Skerett, Patrick J. “Resveratrol- the hype continues,” Harvard Health Publishing  February 3, 2012