“When we got into our sleeping bags, if we were fortunate, we became warm enough during the night to thaw the ice; part remained in our clothes, part passed into the skins of the bags… and soon both were sheets of armour-plate.” Aspley Cherry-Garrad’s evocative description of the reindeer-fur sleeping bags used on Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic South Pole expedition, in his book, “The worst journey in the world,” has stayed with me since I first read it as a teenager.
But I looked it up again after an advertising email from Mountain Designs reminded me how much outdoor clothing has changed in the hundred years since British luxury fashion house Burberry fitted out Scott’s expedition.
Reindeer products are still popular, mostly with Arctic and Subarctic peoples, and natural fibres continue to be an essential part of many people’s outdoor wardrobe. I love zipping on a down jacket around a fire on a car-based winter bushwalking weekend – or at my desk on a particularly cold winter’s day in central Victoria! Wool hasn’t lost any of its insulating and wicking properties over the century either, although the merino layers my husband, Simon, hikes in are a finer breed than the woolen undergarments Scott and his men wore.
But the invention of man-made fibres, including quick, cheap, wash-and-wear polyester, patented in 1941, commercialised in the 1950s and much evolved since, has revolutionised adventure wear.
My customary bushwalking outfit is an advertisement for modern fibres: nylon trousers, which are surprisingly cool even in warm weather (and in cooler weather zip down to modesty shorts over polypropylene thermal leggings, rainbow striped for safety, and visibility in photographs), nylon shirt, PET polar fleece layer, polyester blend socks with “twelve separate support and cushioning features” and GORE-TEX waterproof jacket. This get-up is comfortable, dries quickly after rain and/or immersion in creeks and, fortunately for walking companions, doesn’t smell, even after several days’ wear without showering. It’s also light to pack and carry on my back.
Blends of man-made and natural fibres are, however, coming to the fore. Mountain Design’s promotional email announced a range of clothing made from a blend of cotton and reclaimed and recycled plastic bottles. Sanjida O’Connell writes in her online article in The Guardian, that Patagonia, the first outdoor clothing company to make clothing out of land-fill PET bottles, in 1993, “claims to have rescued 92m bottles of pop from the tip”. Patagonia also recycle nylon, wool and worn out Patagonia-label polyester clothing into other products.
But what really grabbed my attention and prompted this blog post was Mountain Design’s announcement of a new range of clothing made from polyester and coffee grounds. Yep, coffee grounds.
Apparently, the process to turn waste coffee grounds into fabric is similar to that used to make a viscose-like material from bamboo, which results in a fabric that’s soft and silky but too heavy and slow drying for a long pack walk.
In The Guardian article O’Connell says “coffee” fabric is “soft, light, flexible and breathable and can also be used to produce an outer shell that is water resistant. It’s impregnated with ‘activated’ carbon, derived from coconut, which makes it UV-resistant, wicks water away, keeps the wearer cool and binds to sweat to eliminate unpleasant odours.“ And Mountain Designs claims it “harnesses the power of recycled coffee beans”!
What would Robert Falcon Scott think? That it’s just not proper? Then again, he may well appreciate the innovation. As for me, if there’s any possibility of getting a through-skin caffeine hit from clothing to power me up a hill, I might just have to try it!