Loathsome Lycra

What do Lycra, Stainmaster carpet, Dixie cups and oil refineries in Alaska and Texas have in common?

They’re all owned by Koch Industries, ranked by Forbes as the second largest private company in the United States. The biggest corporation nobody’s heard of.

Owned by the brothers Koch, the company also has the distinction of being one of the top ten polluters in the U.S. not to mention a staunch (financial) supporter of the Tea Party movement. (The brothers’ father started the company – apparently Koch pere trained Bolshevik and helped Stalin set up some oil refineries in the Soviet Union, well, until Stalin turned on him), Not only for libertarian reasons but solid business ones: after all, less government means less government meddling in pesky details like environmental laws and lower corporate taxes.

So that, girls and boys, is what you’re supporting when you pay good money for stretch material, spandex  – or, as the labels proudly hanging on virtually every piece of clothing one sees these days, “Lycra”.  Jeans, dress pants, cotton shirts, sweaters: you name it, the damn thing has umpteen percent Lycra.

mah-ve-lous stretchy Lycra

I have never understood the attraction of clothes that stick to you, refuse to hold their shape after you’ve worn them once; have that synthetic feel and make Koch Industries richer. So ubiquitous is Lycra that even Levi jeans ostensibly made of “100% organic cotton” contain 3% of the vile stuff. I know this because I fell for the “organic cotton” line (I absolve the saleswoman of all guilt; I doubt she even realized there was Lycra in the jeans) and ended up giving them to the hotel chambermaid in disgust.

Maybe it’s my shape – or my orneriness – but on me, jeans with spandex/Lycra fit too tightly when washed, then start to droop upon second wearing. In a day, not only am I tugging at myself like some demented ferret but my crotch is hanging lower and lower. And trust me, nobody will mistake a woman of a certain age for Fi’ty Cent. Worse, Lycra, being synthetic (and a particularly noxious one at that) doesn’t breathe and if there is any humidity in the air I end up hot and cranky. OK, crankier than usual.

These days I’ve taken to walking into all manner of posh stores I didn’t used to frequent, secure in the knowledge there will be no natural fibres in sight, all our fine talk of “green” products notwithstanding. I saunter jauntily into Hugo Boss, Max Mara, Holt Renfrew … Once the statuesque salesperson has realized that like the universe I really do exist and do expect service, being posh they immediately treat me like royalty.

Whereupon I pleasantly ask if there’s anything in the store – a pant suit maybe – that consists of natural fibres: cotton, silk, hemp, wool, bamboo, whatever. “Of course,” they assure me in somewhat superior tones. Then I see The Look. Perplexed, followed by darting eyes back and forth across the hangers … and then the “Umm … actually …

Actually no. Yes, there’s one wool jacket in a noxious beige my grandmother wouldn’t have worn, lined in polyester and oh, there’s 5% Lycra. Occasionally there is a triumphant leap towards a cashmere sweater or a cotton shirt, neither of which I want (or would wear on a bet).

Does anyone even remember that cotton jersey stretches? That denim jeans are briefly tight after  being washed but then have plenty of give? That good fabrics feel nice – versus petroleum by-products, aka nylon, polyester, spandex that are slimy smooth, don’t breathe, pick up very jot of ambient odour and make one hot and sweaty?

I am actually beginning to wonder if spandex/Lycra isn’t one of the reasons we’re all so fat. After all, if your clothes never feel tight, you never know if your clothes are getting tight and perhaps you should cut back on calories for a week or two and get back to your normal weight. All normal cues disappear in the absence of clothes that fit.

Wasn’t this supposed to be the age of the whatsit graph, that long tail; the age of the choice? When even people with wants outside the norm should be able to tap into an existing market? The internet and globalization were going to make it all possible.

Instead, it’s all made in China and contains Lycra.A friend who’s a seamstress and tailour tells me that spandex “eats” cotton and other fabrics so clothes don’t last as long. Maybe that’s the real point.

If it’s not finding uses for all those leftovers from some nice oil refinery. Like the Koch brothers, who, according to a long article in The New Yorker, “have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize government environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry”. Who says industrialists don’t know how to spend wisely.

Too bad the rest of us don’t.