Thursday, January 5, 2012

Being in Nature

Motobecane Super Mirage
Walking into an outdoor clothing and gear retailer today, we invariably see an expanse of merchandise that is stylised to portray outdoor pursuits as highly technical activities. Fabrics of unnatural textures emitting an otherworldly sheen, colour schemes that don't exist in nature, motifs based on jarring geometric forms, aggressive logo placements - the overall feel is decidedly inorganic. And perhaps that is the key to why I find the aesthetics of today's outdoor industry so disturbing: How can clothing and gear designed for an intimate relationship with our natural surroundings be made in a way that is so at odds with them?

As a teenager in the 1990s I noticed that it disconcerted me to go hiking and see other hikers decked out in this high-tech gear. Watching them move through the landscape, they seemed to be invading nature, not striving to be a part of it. I found myself wondering how long those garments would take to decompose once discarded after a season or two, and what effect their decomposition would have on the beautiful scenery. It particularly disturbed me that outdoor enthusiasts did not seem to be aware of this contradiction. Carrying food and drinks in a myriad of plastic containers, they tramped through meadows and forests clad in aggressively styled garments made of artificial fabrics - an alien presence in their own world.

No doubt as a direct reaction to this I found myself drawn to natural fabrics and materials in everything from clothing, to furniture, to the everyday products I used, and also drawn to aesthetics that harmonised with my surroundings. And early on I felt that content and form went hand in hand here: When a particular aesthetic style becomes popular, it informs what is socially valued. And this has a huge overall impact on what kind of things get made and on how they get made. The aggressive, sporty, techie look has grown absolutely ubiquitous in outdoor gear - so much so that wool outdoor clothing manufacturers looking to become mainstream have taken to imitating the look of artificial fabrics in order to visually convince that their product is equally functional. The fact that what makes wool functional is its natural properties is laughably lost when this tactic is employed.

But recently the outdoor industry has experienced a small but noticeable backlash against the high-tech, and this includes the realm of bicycles and bicycle-related products. The growing public awareness of fringe brands such as Rivendell Bicycle Works and Archival Clothing have made both consumers and manufacturers rethink the aesthetics of an outdoor lifestyle. Some interpret this phenomenon as nostalgia-driven, and some see it as a form of consumer elitism. But I believe there is at least some element here of a rising collective desire for products that are more harmonious with our natural surroundings. Reverting to traditional looks, fabrics and manufacturing processes is simply the byproduct when things are made in this manner. The return of the steel bicycle with the waxed canvas bag is not so much about "re-enactment" as it is about rethinking ways of being in nature.

68 comments:

  1. I would imagine that some of the outdoor clothing line in these large retailers is for hikers, or skiers. Wearing bright clothes so as not to get shot by a hunter in the woods, or to be seen while stranded in the snow in the outback, is legitimate. I think these clothes have caught on and are used on a much wider scale than once imagined, but the original intent was fine in my opinion.

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  2. In my travels to other parts of the world, I have seen nature produce some pretty wild colors and anything humans could dream up pales in comparison. Here in New England, especially in a snowless winter, things are very drab, browns and grays being dominant. I love color and find it depressing here at this time of year, therefore tend to pick bright colors for winter gear. Of course black is always the standard and I have plenty of that, but when it all becomes too much, I must throw on something that might hurt the eyes. Something perhaps seen in tropical jungles or living around coral reefs. I say take that gray away!

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  3. Greetings from North Yorkshire, UK.

    I think some of the re-thinking is because traditional/natural materials are frankly better for so many cycling applications. I have some very functional synthetic clothing that becomes decidedly un-functional, due to the overwhelming funk after just one wearing.

    By contrast, my wool clothing can be worn (and sweated in, heavily) for days and days before there is any detectable odor.

    If someone 1) doesn't care about the smell or 2) doesn't mind washing frequent loads of laundry, the synthetics are fine.

    P.S. I'm not trying to pump the wool industry, even though I live in the Land of Many Sheep.

    P.S.S. I have noticed you use British spelling conventions, e.g., colour and s instead of z. Is this a trend in America, or?

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  4. Another fabulous post and a beautiful photo to illustrate it. What was I saying about you making a calendar...?! You may not fancy the idea of the co-habitant adorning our walls : )

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  5. When I was a yung'n and living in upstate New York, going hiking in the Adirondacks or the Catskills, a lot of our gear was military surplus. A lot of green and brown, scratchy but warm, wool. Cheap. Mouse boots in winter. Polypro and gore-tex were just coming on the market, but in our student days, few of my friends could afford it. I had a really nice polypropelene fleece jacket that lasted me twenty years. Today's merino wool products are much nicer than what we used to use, but not cheap. When you're snowshoeing your way through an Adirondack blizzard, all you care about it staying warm and dry, and having clothes that allow you to do that.

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  6. I share your aesthetic preference for natural colors and fabrics. However, for winter cycling (or indeed on-road cycling in any season), I wear a high-visibility top or jacket. It's essential to be seen in traffic for safety. I remove my screaming yellow jacket or vest once I'm off the bike, and enjoy my surroundings without clashing with the colors of nature.

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  7. I know what you mean about folks decked out in "technical garb" looking like aliens in nature. I've also been questioning the need for all that when going for a simple 4 mile hike or 20 mile ride. Where I used to wear hiking boots, I'm experimenting with "regular" shoes and on my bike I have long given up on specific clothing. On a group ride this summer someone from Germany commented that my wearing jeans was a "european" approach to cycling. (He was sporting spandex head to toe.) Sometimes you need real hiking boots and sometimes spandex is the best choice. But most of the time, regular clothes do just fine.

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  8. as someone who has splits time between outdoor trekking and cycling, I have a few observations to add:

    1. Most of my initial 'outdoor' wardrobe (which did double duty for both hiking and cycling) was of synthetic fabrics, largely because that's all you can find. It's also because there are still some properties that synthetics have that haven't been surpassed by natural fabrics. As much as I love my wool and waxed cotton, they are not truly waterproof, and I know that I can be miserable in these things if I'm caught by a prolonged rainstorm while out in the middle of a day-long hike without a rain layer.

    2. Similarly, I still use ziploc bags for organizing and sorting my food. It may be more environmentally friendly to use paper but, again, paper doesn't withstand rain too well. I have a small set of ziplocs that I've reused over multiple camping and bike trips. Paper bags usually dissolve after one trip and have to be recycled or discarded. Metal tins have both weight and packability drawbacks.

    3. I don't know how many people actually turnover their gear from season to season, but it seems both wasteful and unwise to me; so I'm somewhat skeptical if this is a 'real thing' or just an impression that we have.

    I think, like bikes, and people who are constantly upgrading and trading up from one frame to another, there are certainly some folks who do it, but it doesn't strike me as mainstream behavior.

    4. There have been many outdoor gear companies that have always maintained a certain drab, earth tone aesthetic and a focus on natural fabrics: Filson, Barbour, Orvis, among others

    However, perhaps one big thing that separates these folks from North Face or Patagonia is not so much elitism but activity stereotype. Filson and Orvis are associated with hunters, fly fishers and other sorts of 'nature sportsmen' where the drab colors serve a rather specific purpose and are rather seen as a pursuit that is very different from the trail-running / rock climbing / mountain biking activities that yuppie urbanites get into.

    Overall, while I don't doubt that there is some truth to your observation about these aesthetics overlapping again because of an urban desire for a natural aesthetic, I'd also like to believe that it can continue to foster this idea that hunters and trail runners have a common ground in a love for the outdoors -- the separation of which always seemed a bit myopic and contentious when it comes to topics of conservation and land use.

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  9. I think we sometimes forget that we don't need to fit in with nature, because we are an integral part of nature, as is the work of our hands whether the raw material is wool or oil. Yea, I prefer wool and cotton, but have no problem with polypropylene or whatever works. I am allergic to down so am very grateful for my microfiber jacket. And I'm a bit of a magpie, picking up anything that glitters. I love bright colors and was so happy to see you jazz up your bike with pick handlebar tape.

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  10. The technical outdoor equipment developed in the 80s & 90s were indeed inorganic and unnatural. But these advances allowed us to explore the natural world with much less impact and much greater safety. Prior to modern tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear, climbing equipment, etc, wilderness trails, mountains and campsites were damaged spaces. Prior to synthetic clothes hypothermia was a regular problem, injuries and rescues were more common.

    True the equipment won't decompose as quickly (bad for landfills), but wilderness areas and human life was better protected. True, many outdoor recreationalists traded their natural fibers for synthetic materials. However, it didn't take long to realize that synthetic fibers weren't always better. Natural fibers often outperform the synthetic varieties, the key is to know which materials maximize our activity in various conditions.

    As for garish colors, that in part was the prevailing fashion prior to grunge. Garish colors do provide some visibility benefits, but that can be handled in other ways. And synthetics are regularly manufactured in more natural tones, refer to hunting catalogs. 

    But the aggressive styling today probably has more to do with marketing. American consumer society seems to be infatuated by purchasing things that would allow them to do more than they are capable or willing to do. Refer to mountaineering clothes for day hikes, off-road vehicles for the daily commute ... And high tech race bikes and kits that perform better than the cyclists who use them.

    Select the clothes, equipment and toys that most closely match what you do and who you are.

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  11. "The return of the steel bicycle with the waxed canvas bag is not so much about "re-enactment" as it is about rethinking ways of being in nature."

    Maybe for you and a lot of people, but for others it's about nostalgia. Yes, that is about re-enactment.

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  12. Not to get too contentious about it, but most people who are thinking today about the concept of "nature" (and its consequences for the planet) are pretty suspicious of many ideas you're advocating here, starting with the idea that you're only "in nature" when you're out for a hike, and that the proper aesthetic response to nature is to "blend in." That's a pretty straight-up 19th-century Romantic ideology, and while it has driven a lot of well-meaning attempts at environmental conservation in the 20th century, we can all see that it's not exactly succeeding. I'd rather not reinforce the myth that nature is "out there," outside the city, in the "green world," experienced only as a vacation. That myth gives people license to forget about the environmental impact of their daily lives. You're also "an intimate relationship with our natural surroundings" when you're in front of your computer in your Somerville apartment; more so, really, when you're consuming and producing things, rather than just walking around. Frankly, I'd rather that people be reminded that their leisure activity (and don't get me wrong -- I love hiking, camping, canoeing, surfing, XC skiing as much as anybody, and maybe more) depends entirely on the industrial processes that enable it. So, yeah, I understand that you're talking about aesthetics, but I do think you should be careful about the cultural consequences of those aesthetics.

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  13. GRJ - Those others would certainly be wrong about steel bikes and arguably wrong about wax canvas.

    Modern steel bikes are not necessarily better than plastic, aluminum and Ti, but are every bit as good and frequently far more affordable. It is just wrong to think of steel tubing as some old school material. Steel tubing manufacturers have constantly upgraded the process and product.

    I have the latest Ortlieb panniers and a Wax Canvas portuer bag. For commuting, shopping and short rides I find the Wax Canvas bag the superior option both for convenience and appearance.

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  14. Thanks for the thought-provoking comments; this is very interesting to read.

    To clarify one thing: I did not in any sense intend for this post to read as prescriptive. They are just my thoughts on the matter, trying to analyse where my own preferences come from. When I was young I lived through a couple of close calls with man-made environmental disasters and that has made me hyper aware of manufacturing practices and related issues. Somehow, in my mind this all ties in.

    Also, I wasn't so much talking about colours here (as in hi-vis or colourful clothing), but the overall styling. There is a distinct outdoor industry aesthetic that to me at least comes across as overly technical, artificial and aggressive.

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  15. "How can clothing and gear designed for an intimate relationship with our natural surroundings be made in a way that is so at odds with them?"

    I don't know. It seems the idea of an intimate relationship with our outdoor surroundings was never the intention to begin with. As a culture we seem to be more about dominating, controlling, inventing and all of these involve aggressive rather than passive behavior. Everything is sport or entertainment and rather short sighted. An economy driven by the market means aggressive marketing, attention grabbing, tactics directed to consumers and not connoisseurs.

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  16. BG - Without a doubt it is also about what I do in my Somerville apartment, and I agree that in many ways that matters more than what I do when I am out hiking. But that would be a topic for a separate post.

    What I am saying here is that the outdoor industry, and how "the outdoors" are portrayed in the media play a huge role in each generation's social attitudes about the environment. And at the moment, the environment is portrayed precisely as something that is separate from us. "Nature" is something that is "out there," separate from where we live, and therefore needs to be handled (or conquered/dominated, as Anon above suggests?), preferably in technical clothing and gear; it is not something we are already a part of. The aesthetic I am talking about here accentuates this rift. While it's easy to label my attitude as a variation of 19th century romanticism, I think that would be simplifying it rather unfairly.

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  17. "here is a distinct outdoor industry aesthetic that to me at least comes across as overly technical, artificial and aggressive."

    Kind of like pink handle bar tape...

    Anyway, great comment by BG.

    Matthew, again, others are wrong about their feelings about nostalgia? That's a nice, cloistered way to view subjective stuff.

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  18. BTW: I am not suggesting that nostalgia/re-enactment plays no role in the classic aesthetic. There is certainly that element of it for some people. But there is also the "natural" element for others. What I think is wrong is to suggest that those attracted to classic bikes/gear are *all* driven by nostalgia and only nostalgia, and therefore it is all silly and pointless and frivolous and etc.

    My bar tape is actually a light soft pink, but looks bright in pictures because of the green frame : ) Also, my bike looks like a flower, so there!

    But Fizik bar tape is not exactly "natural" no matter what colour it comes in. Ideally I would use cloth or leather, but I am far from perfect.

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  19. I often wear barbour wax clothing whilst walking. Which would have been high tech 80 years ago lol

    But surely any clothing is high tech until its been aged culturally? Twesd jackets would be positively alien to a cave man.

    I do know what you mean by the Lycra clad plastic people, but one wonders if even our (the royal we) perception is a tad skewed by our times..!?!

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  20. I was greatly dismayed to see that Smart Wool had begun to convert part of their line over to product that mimics the garish colors and styling of modern technical products and fabrics. I've always loved Smart Wool for there understated styling and colors.

    On slightly different but related note, I just finished the book Heart of the World. A book about trekking in remote and wild parts of Tibet, among other subjects. It was interesting to contrast the clothing of the westerners who were undertaking the journey and the clothing of the native people who were assisting them. It was an interesting contrast and the author made a couple of interesting observation in that regard.

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  21. Daniel - That reminds me...

    In Austria, hiking is a typical form of entertainment and relaxation among some friends and colleagues but they are very low key about it. Typical attire: khakis, plaid shirt, and walking boots with wool socks. Very Rivendell catalog-ish. The hike can last a half day or a full day, climbing up a mountain, and they will be fine doing it at a relaxed pace in this attire. One time an American colleague joined us. She showed up in technical gear, then looked the rest of the group over and said "Oh my God, you can't go hiking wearing THAT!" To which one of the Austrians replied "Okay, don't worry. We'll just take a walk in the mountains then."

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  22. Wow, what a great sense of place in that photograph! I feel as though I can feel the speed of the wind, the temperature, the humidity level. I may be totally wrong on each point, but it's a lovely sensation as the viewer.

    Great thought provoking comments from all, especially BG. The level of reader you draw must be very gratifying, Velouria. Nice post.

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  23. It occurs to me that you can't literally be nostalgic for the era of lugged steel bikes if you were a teenager in the 90s!

    Matt

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  24. Just my POV, but most technical gear I wear is precisely because I want to be seen...biking, camping, hiking, motorcyling. I don't want to disappear into the wooded background. Also, if you ever camp in the Pacific Northwest, wool and other natural fibers are great as an under-layer, but walking/sitting/laying in pools of water really demand nothing less than waterproof materials. And I don't care if it's bright green as long as I am not chilled or suffering from damp clothing.

    For cycling I prefer spandex cycling clothes for the most part. Why? Bright colors so drivers can see me more readily is fantastic. There are few separated paths on my route - I often choose hideous colors on purpose. Hills/sweat - wool is great for cooler temps, but cotton/wool isn't great once temps are up in the 70s and one is climbing 18% grades along with a 10 mile route to work. Nothing beats bike shorts for riding comfort for longer rides, even shorter ones sometimes! If I could ride my cruiser bike everywhere in "normal" clothes I would, but that's not an option for daily riding.

    I think the colors/materials are specific to the individual. I found that last year lots of manufacturers were actually leaning more towards an earthy palate myself...

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  25. Matt - Ha I guess that's true. The only bikes I can remember owning are welded steel faux-mountain bikes. Though not sure whether strictly speaking nostalgia has to be for things you've actually experienced yourself? I suppose it can be for an imagined past.

    AJL and other comments re visibility - I think you may be taking some of what I wrote too literally. By being harmonious with nature I did not mean blending in with the background.

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  26. However, for winter cycling (or indeed on-road cycling in any season), I wear a high-visibility top or jacket. It's essential to be seen in traffic for safety. I remove my screaming yellow jacket or vest once I'm off the bike

    This is me, exactly. I wear a hi-vis yellow wind shell with reflective stripes over my winter cycling jacket during the winter months, since I'm commuting home in the dark. I see this as an example of the technical outperforming the natural in its intended use. (But underneath those technical layers, I'm draped in 100% merino wool from head to toe :-)).

    The level of reader you draw must be very gratifying, Velouria. Nice post.

    Ha, and then readers like me rear my ugly head and disprove that notion altogether!

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  27. I am genuinely appreciative of the different points of view offered here, including those contradictory to mine. I am not looking for confirmation of my own world view when I write posts like this, just for a thoughtful discussion. Thanks again all.

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  28. GRJ - the latest steel tubing use alloys and production methods that became available well after carbon fibre tubing.

    It is not subjective to say using a more modern material is nostalgic, it is wrong.

    BG - But there are substantive arguments that natural fibre clothing and organic cotton bags are more sustainable than clothing made from processed petroleum.

    No bike material can be called green. There are good arguments in favor of steel as being less brown, however.

    Ti is much more difficult to mine, found mostly in environmentally sensitive areas and uses more energy than steel to process, fabricate and recycle. Likewise aluminum. Carbon fibre and steel have fairly close environmental impacts. At least the way most carbon fibre bikes, steel arguably has the better chance to last longer.

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  29. One last Point on naturalness.

    Has anyone tried a wooden bike?

    The American renovo bikes are stunning machines

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  30. Being in tune with nature--in the moment--requires no special clothing, whether bright or dull, old or new, no matter. It's a sensibility. Taking advantage of new technologies and designs to make it safer makes sense.

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  31. ALJ - The submarine cotton fiber Outlier uses for its rain parka is as water proof as any technical fiber. Ortovox this year introduced ski coats and jackets that use wool for insulation rather than down or microfibre. Not available in the U.S. yet but friends in Europe report they are very warm.

    As Somervillian, I find wearing a bright neon vest over less garish clothing provides visibility while allowing me to quickly convert to normal when I get off the bike.

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  32. Captain - I would love to try a wooden bike, particularly the second one in this post ("pencil bike").

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  33. Matthew, do you only interpret things as you see them? If so you are entirely missing my point: some people ride for purely romantic reasons and associations. Come on.

    It has nothing to do with material. Tell you what, go back and read this blog from the beginning, including my comments. If you still want to argue about some fictional person's tastes or something I did not say, well...

    Ok, I'll check back after my non-integrationist ride.

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  34. "No bike material can be called green. There are good arguments in favor of steel as being less brown, however."

    That has been my interpretation of all the stuff I've read so far, but I am still learning.

    Among the bikey/environmentalist types in Europe, there seems to be a common belief that aluminum is especially evil, but I do not entirely understand why.

    As for CF, what about the argument that it is not recyclable?

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  35. Oh pretty Bikes Velouria.

    How about the first bike in this link? The Renovo Sausolito Special. A mere $4500...

    http://www.renovobikes.com/

    Wooden frames supposed to be superior in comfort. Sheer beauty - would your pink handlebar tape go well do you think Ms V?

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  36. BG is absolutely spot-on, and you should admit to it, lovely lady lovely bike. the topic is present in your post, and interestingly so. interesting because it also very much ties in with the so iconically popular l'eroica bike race where rider and bike inseparably blend with the smooth tuscan hills. it is indeed purest romanticism - much as in the holistic endeavors so immaculately championed by HRH charles windsor.
    i am not pulling your leg here. on the contrary to me it is another interesting factor behind a massive trend towards 'the real thing', the traditional in an ever so more virtual, fast moving, and also - as much as i love our today - ever so more insignificant contemporary culture.
    the more we expand in this wonderful internet-driven world, the more we appreciate the defining touch of that itchy sweater. and the more so we may also appreciate to actually 'see' and analogously process the world we are browsing through.
    a wonderful and profound thing our internet interactions teach us is that the 'other' is not the necessarily 'different' anymore. in the old days the people coming from the other part of town were fundamentally different from you. in fact exactly their differentness was what defined you. - today the 'other' - the world out there - has become a massive reservoir of potentially kindred spirits. - who would blame you for harmonising with nature and feeling as part of it, as you are so much a part of so many of your readers. -
    and the itchy sweater? i guess it is getting more precious by the minute...

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  37. Oh I am not saying BG is wrong, only that our views are not mutually exclusive. "Spot-on" implies a precision that I think is not possible here. I also do not see myself as being "right" in this post. I am describing personal sentiments more than anything else. And we are all aware of how flawed and hypocritical those can be.

    Romanticism... Yeah, I think that's a cheap shot that takes what's written here too literally and overlooks the self-consciousness of the post. Romanticism and the ideas of purity that accompany it are not really viable world views given what we know today. But elements of it are certainly informative, as are elements of many other philosophies. I do enjoy deconstructing romanticism and taking it as a starting point. Everything connects to everything.

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  38. Somervillain: But you do so thoughtfully. : ) That's what I meant, the level of thought- not homogeny of thought- amongst contributors! I generally get as much out of the subsequent discussions as I do out of the posts.

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  39. Holy crap, deconstructing romanticism, ideas of purity! To see this all on a bicycle blog is... just wow. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I am guessing your studio work is going well?

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  40. "Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I am guessing your studio work is going well?"

    Hahaha are the posts going off the deep end that much?
    Duly noted : )

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  41. A reminiscence about the waterproof character of cotton canvas:

    This would be 40 years ago, riding home from work. Myself and my bicycle were bodily lifted off the road, apparently by a tornado, and deposited at the top of the small hill I had been climbing. I attempted to find some sort of shelter in the lee of a large tree and was barely able to keep myself and cycle on the ground by gripping the old bark when a second blast came through. Myself and the bike were pelted pretty badly. A flying branch creased the top tube and another taco'ed the front wheel. The wind subsided, daylight returned, repairs were effected and I found my way home. My first impulse on reaching shelter was to go into the side pocket of the Karrimor Lowdale saddlebag and find my cigarettes(40 yrs back remember). Bone dry. So were the paper matches.

    Riding through the same locale the following morning there were piles of branches, downed trees and ?divots? of absent sod everywhere, the grass seemingly lofted skyward..

    I still use that bag daily. There has never been a need to re-apply any type of proofing treatment and the performance of the canvas is unaltered so far as I can tell. I have not attempted another tornado test but am confident the bag would do quite well.

    The bag was purchased new in 1965. Keith Kingbay later told me it had most likely spent at least a decade in Schwinn inventory before I had it. Are there any 1950s petroleum based bags still going?

    Any interested in waterproof cycling attire might try www.hilltrek.co.uk.
    The tailors there also use modern materials when there is a reason.

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  42. When I read your post I thought "hmm this is wrong alot of outdoors brands are mainly demure colours". Then I looked in their online catalogues and realised I was mostly wrong. Some companies like Fjällräven and Lundhags who have a much more hiking related productlines have a mostly demure colour scheme but most "sport related" companies have much brighter colours.
    I think the bright colours are a way to show that the products are "high tech" (maybe they should start marketing wool cotton and silk as bioengineered) and differentiate them from the more old style materials. To some extent I think there is also the practical consideration that others have already touched on, that many of the brands have product lines related to snow sports where visibility is often a plus especially in bad weather. As to material choice I think the main reason for the adaption of synthetic fibers have been for their water repelant nature without getting heavy or needing to be waxed.
    For biking clothes I can appreciate the not so bright colours but at the same time I am attracted to the very garish garments like the Mavic vision jersey in bright orange with large reflective details. I have a soft spot for bright pink and flourecent green as well (what I will wear depends a bit on my mood for the day). Not only for the practical purpose of high visibility but also because it offers a rare chance to wear these sort of colours and get away with it. For hiking those colour schemes seems off though and I much prefer natural colours.
    I think wool especially has made a huge comeback especially for baselayers when it comes to sporting goods. For pretty much anything but sporting clothes synthetic fibers are seen as cheap and not something you want in your clothes so overall I think there is still a strong case for biofibers. From a chemical point of view many of the synthetic fibers like synthetic polyamides are not that different from wool. Incineration would deal with these materials similarly to wool. Then you have the halogenated polymers (gore tex for instance) and I believe these might be more prone to form nasty compounds when incinerated.
    From an environmental/chemical point of view I don't really think there is any problem with any of the bike frame materials. Steel is unnatural in an oxidative environment and will go back to the material it was made from (iron oxides) over time, if the steel is high in chromium or nickel this would slow down the process greatly but I don't think that many frames are made from stainless steel. Aluminium will do the same. Aluminium is actually extremely prone to oxidation but due to the nature of aluminium oxides a thin layer of aluminium oxide will protect the rest of the aluminium from further oxidation except in acidic environments. Carbon fibre should also oxidise over time, this process can of course be speeded up greatly through incineration.
    The energy cost of these materials in the amounts needed to make a bike-frame are insignificant compared to the energy cost of riding the bike during the bike's lifecycle. For the environmentalist it does make sense however to recycle a scrapped aluminium frame and parts as this saves a lot of energy compared to making new aluminium from bauxite (I have heard figures of 95%).

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  43. Some of it does look a tad space-age, but otherwise I question the notion that whatever man makes is at odds with his environment. After all, tools were one of the first significant aspects of man’s evolution. Why should technical garments be seen in any other light.

    I love natural fibres, definitely dislike acrylic, but can see the value in nylon (as a strengthener, and polyester for its various applications). I don’t believe in taking exception to what man makes in order to better discover or use his environment. The issue seems to be more about excess. Technological innovation isn’t bad per se, it’s man’s immoderate, insensible, or profligate use of such things that wrecks the environment. Low cost, mass made, cheaply manufactured clothing is an example. Or what is known as the ‘Primark effect’. Discarding clothes after one season obviously leads to landfill, and cheap materials such as acrylic, which can’t break down, double the effect.

    I am sympathetic to the notion of overkill, and respect what Sherpas in Nepal (to coin someone else’s example) can do with such basic gear. Having said that, I am nowhere near as conditioned as a Sherpa, there is no way I could hike the Himalayas in flip flops without significant injury, and why should I try when I can just as easily use footwear designed for the purpose?

    I don’t view modern hi-tech garments as aggressive looking. They usually have technical qualities that assist quite greatly when dealing with the environment. I could wear a heavy sheepskin jacket in the cold, or a heavy fur, but instead it is much more comfortable and cheaper to wear a down filled jacket covered with some kind of hi-tech fabric for resilience and water-resistance. Similarly, icebreaker garments for example, do mimic the stretchiness and close fitting quality of synthetics for a very practical reason. When you’re following the principal of layering and insulation, loose fitting just won’t cut it. The closer fitting the layers, the better the thermal value. Similarly, bright colours offer safety. Subdued colours are better for camouflage, bright for being seen… it’s all very practical. I don’t personally sport bright geometric designs, but I did notice my nephew wearing such a jacket for snow boarding. It brings me back to the pink debate. Why not? Surely, it isn’t so dissimilar to polka dots, stripes or animal prints? All takes on zebras, giraffes and leopards anyway.

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  44. Anon 4:12:

    This would be 40 years ago, riding home from work. Myself and my bicycle were bodily lifted off the road, apparently by a tornado, and deposited at the top of the small hill I had been climbing. I attempted to find some sort of shelter in the lee of a large tree and was barely able to keep myself and cycle on the ground by gripping the old bark when a second blast came through. Myself and the bike were pelted pretty badly. A flying branch creased the top tube and another taco'ed the front wheel. The wind subsided, daylight returned, repairs were effected and I found my way home. My first impulse on reaching shelter was to go into the side pocket of the Karrimor Lowdale saddlebag and find my cigarettes(40 yrs back remember). Bone dry. So were the paper matches.

    Did you ever write ad copy for J Peterman? :)

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  45. Somervillain@ 4:31

    Nah. Didn't have the gig. Seemed an appropriate mode for the story. I also have a photo of a 40# bag of manure in that Karrimor bag. Which may or may not be commentary on this or that.

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  46. Alas, I buy into the unnatural solely for safety. A 4 lane undivided speedway and 6 lane divided parkway are major segments of my commute; as a human in a mostly car environment I dress like the other smart humans out there (utility workers and detail cops), viz. in Dayglo yellow with reflective accents for both day and night. Also, always a helmet (saved my life once albeit I did fracture my cheek). I often feel dorky when I've dismounted so I shed my bright outer garment when possible. Other bright clothing include foreign football jerseys my son picks up in Europe, Asia and Africa. Otherwise it's khaki pants and shorts, sometimes a suit (even a tux). I know I wore no helmet or safety clothing as a kid but I figure with the amount of time I spend on the road and the environment I'm in, I want to minimize risk. Just like for those who dress brightly for a walk in the woods because of hunters. I wish all drivers expected bicyclists so I wouldn't have to do this.

    This is not beat-up-on-Veloria Day, but I do worry when I see so many pix of her biking stylishly dressed all or mainly in black.

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  47. Rule of thumb: use the least environmentally impacting material to accomplish your chosen goal.
    Second rule: don't buy a new material if the one you have will suffice.

    The embodied energy of materials is a rough approximation of environmental impact or sustainability. 
    http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/what-is-the-embodied-energy-of-materials.html
    Steel  is 40 MJ/kg, Aluminum is 300 MJ/kg, and Titanium is 900 MJ/kg. Surely, some cyclists benefit from the lighter frames, most don't.
    http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-fabric/
    Cotton is 55 MJ/kg, Wool is 63 MJ/kg, Polypropolene is 115 MJ/kg, and Nylon is 250 MJ/kg.
    Where natural fibers work, there is a good reason other than nostalgia to use them. Yet synthetics definitely have their place. An appropriate combination is probably best.

    My concern is that many people buy materials that functions well beyond where they will be used, and end up wasting resources that someday we will miss. I find this worse than a purists romantic nostalgia.

    Based on the comments here, I suspect most here fall into an appropriate middle ground, like the wool and nylon combinations they wear :)

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  48. If you are a search and rescue person a brightly colored jacket can make the difference between life and death for someone that is hurt or otherwise incapacitated. Brightly colored outdoor gear is specifically designed to be noticed, whether you are a potential customer or a life flight pilot.

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  49. Re search and rescue missions, safety, and activities that require items that are not available in natural fabrics... I do not disagree with you. I was wearing my "aggressively styled" synthetic windproof & waterproof cycling jacket on a club ride today, along with synthetic fleece-lined tights. On a roadbike going 20mph and with temps in the 20s, I have not found a natural fabric alternative to these garments and don't have the $$ to keep experimenting. When you need something, you pick the best option. But by far not everything requires hi-tech solutions, especially not the majority of moderately paced outdoor activities. The phenomenon I was describing in this post is a matter of style, not necessity.

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  50. search n rescue. i knew it had to come back to the royal family at some point. - indeed. everything connects to everything.

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  51. Wait, I come back from a ride and someone is ok w/synthetics?

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  52. It's a fast paced life!

    I've been pondering a waxed-silk cycling jacket design that would fold into a jersey pocket. Have even talked about this with a manufacturer some time ago. Could work, but would be difficult and would cost lots.

    "i knew it had to come back to the royal family at some point"

    that was my first thought as well : )

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  53. I was about to replace my well-worn synthetic fleece-lined tights and just gagged on current prices. Especially for the good Italian kind I've grown accustomed to. Then I was at the thrift store seeking a pair of tweed bags to cut down for plus fours. And stumbled on a pair of riding breeches. Horsey riding breeches. They work great. They're more readily available than I would've thought. The horsey set goes for very stout fabrics and likes wool. And seem to toss them before they're worn at all.
    Definitely not aerodynamic but $5 used sure beats $200 new. And warm.

    Sheesh, club rides in the 20's. Hardcore.

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  54. Peppy (the pantaloon wearing cat)January 5, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    When I go horse riding in the winter, I usually wear my fur pantaloons.

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  55. Velouria, I agree with you that, on a symbolic level, it's probably a good goal to make our interactions with the outside world (urban and otherwise) seem normal and not antagonistic. And personal-style-as-environmental-politics is always a loser's game (no matter what you or I do, there's probably something wrong with it). What matters is that people put their own choices in collective context. So sure, yeah, I'm all in favor of sports equipment in muted colors and biodegradable materials, if those things foster a less adversarial attitude to the world. Let's just not lose perspective and imagine that they're more important than, say, changing the ways we generate electricity and the ways we build cities.

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  56. I don't really understand why muted colours are seen as more 'natural' by some? Fruits and flowers, to name but a few natural phenomenon, offer a myriad of vibrant colours. In tropical or eternally sunny countries, bright, saturated colours are the norm.

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  57. In terms of the sustainability of items used for outdoor hobbies...I've had a couple pairs of polypropylene pants since 2000 that I've worn heavily. They're pilled but otherwise in great shape.

    On the other hand, almost all my wool items get snags and runs within the first year, even with careful handling. They're also at least twice as expensive. I really wish that more of the technical wool had a small (like 10% or so) amount of nylon or acrylic, the way yarn for knitting socks does, to make it more durable. A little synthetic fiber can go a long way in making wool stronger without sacrificing the awesome qualities of wool.

    And while wool is biodegradable, it still takes resources to manufacture and ship the stuff. In the end, due to it needing to be replaced more, I'm not sure how much better it is than the synthetics, from an environmental standpoint.

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  58. It's nice to see a re-emergence of all-cotton clothing made from Versile cotton (UK). Breathable, waterproof and renewable. Brooks have an incredibly expensive bicycling coat made fom this material -originally used to make RAF Arctic survival suits for downed aircrew in WWII.

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  59. I recently meet a woman in the bush, miles away from even a dirt road and several days hike to the nearest town. Her exact (horrified) words were, "You can't hike the track in jeans!"

    I replied, "Yet, here I am . . . in jeans."

    If it had rained I had my waterproof trousers and if the worst came to the worst I would have hiked damp. I had a dry, warm change for camp.

    Thank heaven's she didn't spot my $60 tent (which handled frost and rain the same trip) or twig that I carried my water in a couple of old cordial bottles instead of some schmancy bladder system.

    I think sometimes fear has us convinced that unless we have the best, the most expensive then we can't do things we're not familiar with. I'm not having a go at these products. There are instances where they make a huge difference.

    But, hiking through the bush in a temperate climate for some days is just going for a long walk. Since when have we had to have our pants made of a certain material before we can put one foot in front of another and enjoy a bit of scenery?

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  60. It comes down to quality, and to what really works. Wool is far more warm, durable, breathable etc than any high tech fabric. Maybe it was seen as progress, but it isn't and all that nylon plastically material is going to stick around for a long time. Even those polar fleeces made from pop bottles are hideous and not very warm compared to wool.
    I live in the country and am often out in the woods, at the ocean scrabbling up cliffs, and you don't need special gear or hiking boot even. I have bright gortex gear and have had the same jacket since 2003! But special gear is often overrated or not even that useful.

    Maybe some people love those high tech looking carbon fibre bikes, but I doubt it, bicycle lovers still love the classic bikes and want them back.
    The only problem I have with all the merino wooliness is that it is all coming from New Zealand and being shipped, processed all over the place. There is no reason why people can't start raising sheep in the US and Canada in a large way. Ibex could be sourcing merino within North America. And you do have to take care of your wool. If something snags, you can fix it, if something wears out you can felt it and make something new with it.

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  61. Have you-all heard the expression "mountain athlete"? (I heard it on a recent radio ad for an outdoors store called Any Mountain.) To me, a mountain athlete sprints up El Capitan, stopwatch in hand, at a pace that would astound an old timer such as Royal Robbins--or John Muir, or Prince Charles, for that matter. But is speed-climbing in plastic clothing bad per se? Hmm. Not sure. I'll have to ponder that tomorrow morning as I wear my wool shirt, sit on my leather saddle, and smell the roses from my lugged steel steed. It's a Univega from 1981. Does that count as romantic? :)

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  62. What's this about 'the return of the steel bicycle'?

    Among serious cyclists in the UK the steel bicycle has never gone away, and good quality steel frames are still made by many small and a few large manufacturers.

    The desire for 'technical' equipment, or 'bits of kit' as many clueless and impressionable consumers call it, is not confined to hiking or cycling.

    It extends to all areas of life, for example cars, electronic equipment and even domestic appliances.

    Look at Dyson carpet cleaners - they are deliberately styled to make a mundane activity part of a highly fashionable lifestyle.

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  63. The horse riding pants sounds interesting if you can find them in wool now. Actually I`ve been thinking since "I once had a farm in Africa" and used to go horseriding in the heat. Had somebody bring me some proper riding pants from the UK and used them once or twice. Too hot and plasticky.

    So after some thinking I looked into making my own, The "baloon" types that the German officers used during WW2. They used them for horseriding but also for riding motorbikes. (Now I am sure Peppy want some too..). I wanted to make it in canavas.

    Got hold of some patterns and bought an old tailor made pair in Zimbabwe that I "disconected" to use partly as a pattern (the original owner must have been half my size). Cream colour w thin delicate beautiful swede where you use the knees to connect to the saddle.

    Part of the secret with such trousers is they are made with no inseam and they are cut"corner to corner" on the not stretchy material, so it ends up kind of stretcy after all. I also learned from my Indian friend that some of the trousers the Indian ladies used under dresses was made the same way, they could be quite tight. The "Baloon" around the knees is part of the storu but they can be toned down for several reasons.

    What I am trying to say is: It should be quite possible to make bike spesific chlotes that is at least partly windproof with a cotton or woven wool fabric without going to the synthetic stuff.

    Also I agree with the person complaining about the wool not being wery strong ans also so fine threaded that mending it is difficult. You may find me pre historic, but I have knitted (and want to knit some more) trousers or "long johns" for myself and have used them for several years. Used under pants mentioned abowe (I just use cheapo windbreaker stuff at the moment) or in thin felted wool material should make a great bike specific outfit and you can to some extent choose price and material yourself.

    I have an old red cotton (w synthetic lining) anorak that I use for ridin my bike. I like the cotton since it is much better ventilated than a lot of other jackets I have and it is red.

    I have decided to learn more about waxing cotton.
    badmother

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  64. http://www.norrona.com/Products/0302-10/svalbard-cotton-anorak-m

    badmother

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  65. I think the main reason for the adoption of synthetic fibers is because they increase corporate profits. For the same reason, most space in the supermarket is devoted to processed foods, including meats, pumped full of corn, corn oil, and corn sweeteners. We cannot have people traveling the countryside with forty year-old waxed cotton bags, thirty year-old cotton drill jackets, or home-knit mittens and sweaters... no commercial potential (and no consumer cachet).

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  66. Veloria, I feel the same way as you do.

    "Carrying food and drinks in a myriad of plastic containers, they tramped through meadows and forests clad in aggressively styled garments made of artificial fabrics - an alien presence in their own world."

    10-15 years ago when I was much more involved in competitive sport, I used to eat the plastic wrapped, highly-processed energy bars, and drink the sports drink in plastic bottles, and wear the brightly colored synthetic clothing as if I was gearing up for battle. Some of the synthetic clothing has a place as already mentioned, though it probably isn't needed as much as it is used.

    I have completely abandoned energy bars and drinks now though. For half-day hikes or bike rides now I'm much happier with water and fruit. I feel better and throw less in the trash. I started to make the switch after being disgusted at the wrappers and bottles/cans that are on the ground everywhere.

    And if you really want to feel connected to nature, next time you go for a hike on a warm spring day, find a nice mossy or grassy spot and walk around barefoot for a while. Its great.

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  67. I think a key to riding with others is to get fast enough to keep up with the herd. I'm just getting to that point - maybe. I have been wondering about the difference in the Cross Check smaller sizes and the larger sizes. Surly never says one model is for women and one for men. Thanks for the info.

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  68. Moopheus and I must be of an age and an income bracket because my college era outdoor goods also came from the local Army/Navy store.

    From what I remember, the shift to synthetics in part was for lighter weight, better wicking and of course to look cool. Personally, depending on the wool and its itchness (the chill period of the late 70s I had whopping eczema and itchy wool was hard to take) the shift to a less itch producing fabric was a plus, too. Now I can find Alpaca yarn to knit for my own gloves/mittens or hat with is a plus or just line the collar of my sweater with synthetic fleece.

    Just some ideas on what I believe is going on. And the color issues is in part the being seen in the woods, which helps in situations where the ethic is to help your rescuer as opposed to blend in where there are lots of people. (Depends on your locales). I've had both recommended.

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