Ann Althouse’s post about problems posed by dry cleaning alerted me to a problem I didn’t know existed. The most widely used dry cleaning chemical is doomed:

It’s really quite awful. Your clothes are dumped — along with everyone else’s dirty things — into a giant machine full of perchloroethylene, which should be banned and will be banned within the next decade.

The real solution, in my opinion, is to move beyond clothes that need to be dry cleaned. Wouldn’t it be funny, if — all these years after we baby boomers decided we had to hate polyester suits — we embraced them — and for just about the same reason we hated them: devotion to the natural?

I am unable to resist ironies like this, so I feel obligated to share a few thoughts.

First, the fetishized devotion to the “natural.” Wool and cotton are said to be natural, while polyester is “man made” and “artificial.” “Nature” and “natural” have become such loaded words that it is hard to tell what is meant. Petroleum (which consists of fossilized life forms) is in the ground and is processed by man into the textile called polyester. Cotton is grown by man and then harvested and spun by man into its textile form. Wool is sheared by man from sheep which is then spun by man into its textile form. By being on this planet, man is as natural as any other life form, and I fail to understand why one particular use of things that occur in nature is more “natural” than another.

So what am I missing? Esthetic considerations? I agree that wool and cotton are nicer, more appealing, and more comfortable fabrics than polyester. I do not own and would not wear an all-polyester suit, and the thought of polyester blue jeans revolts my esthetic senses. But this is not because I want to be in harmony with “nature” so much as it is a matter of my personal taste. Whether these tastes are “natural,” who knows? My tastes are natural to me because I am alive and they are mine, but I would not call anyone’s preference for polyester unnatural.

So even though I don’t like polyester fabrics, I think the “natural” argument has problems.

What about carbon footprints? According to environmentalists, polyester consumes far more resources than wool or cotton.

If we factor in concerns over animal welfare, wool is evil, for the sheep are exploited. Animal lovers should wear either cotton or polyester along with their vinyl shoes. Which they are free to do, but they have an annoying habit of trying to make everyone else do what they do.

Speaking of animals, while looking into polyester, I learned about a study purporting to show that it decreases sperm counts — in dogs!

The effect of different types of textile fabric on spermatogenesis was studied. Twenty-four dogs were divided into two equal groups, one of which wore cotton underpants and the other polyester ones. Seven dogs wearing nothing were used as controls. The underwear was fashioned to fit loosely in the scrotal area so as to avoid its insulating effect. It was worn continuously for 24 months during which the semen character, testicular temperature, hormones (serum testosterone, follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, prolactin) and testicular biopsy were examined. The garment was then removed, and the same investigations repeated through another 12 months. The results were analysed statistically.

I had to read that twice, and I started to wonder whether someone was playing a joke. How the hell do you make a dog wear polyester underpants for two years?

Coco would never do it; in fact she would simply pull them off in less than a day. Googling the study language, I saw that a number of people have been having fun with it, such as “NCBI ROFL: What kind of panties should I put on my bitch?” I will say this right now: I absolutely will not put lingerie — whether polyester or not — on Coco!

But the study is apparently serious, and the Egyptian author claims to have duplicated his results on humans. Not a big deal for me, as I’m not exactly keen on wearing polyester — least of all polyester underwear.

However, I have no problem with wash-and-wear fabrics, most of which consist of polyester blends. I have a number of button-down oxford-cloth-style dress shirts made of polyester and cotton which look indistinguishable from the 100% cotton variety, and they never need dry cleaning or even ironing. I just take them out of the dryer and hang them up in the closet. For years I have worn polyester-wool dress slacks and I have had several polyester-wool suits that looked quite good, and could easily pass for all wool.

To return to Ann Althouse’s central point, then, if dry cleaning is doomed then we are not faced with an either/or choice between natural fabrics and unnatural polyester.

For example, a designer in Israel has come up with fully machine-washable men’s suits:

The quest for convenience suited with style has been going on for decades. The first “wash-and-wear suits” appeared in the early 1950s, when polyester was invented, but they were more often the butt of jokes to indicate the wearer’s humble circumstances. They have quietly occupied a small market niche.

In the summer of 2002, Bagir, which is based in Israel, decided to pursue the concept as a way to distinguish itself from garment makers in low-wage countries. At the time, suit makers like Bagir were also suffering because the trend toward casual wear was at its peak. One reason men were rejecting suits, market research showed, was that they thought of them as inconvenient. It came up with a washable suit that could be drip-dried. That suit, which needs to be ironed, is now M&S’s biggest seller and has sold 750,000 since 2004. Penney also sells a version.

Despite the success, Bagir executives wanted to go further and make a suit that could go in the dryer. But heat from the dryer created a problem. In long trials, it would render the front of the suit either wrinkled or as stiff as cardboard. In tests, Bagir washed and dried the suits 30 times and checked after every five cycles to see that the garment’s shape and color could withstand water and heat. Finding the right formula took over two years and $10 million.

The new dryer-friendly version is made of 45% wool, 52% polyester and 3% lycra. The man-made fibers, says Offer Gilboa, chief executive of Bagir, prevent the wool from going back to its origins “as a wet lamb.” The wool content prevents the plastic feel of earlier, all-polyester suits. Many men trying on the new suit in London say it isn’t shiny, scratchy or hot and looks like the other middle-priced suits at the store.

Some natural fabric fetishists liken this development to the antichrist, but a premiere tailor checked one of the suits, and found it hard to fault:

Clark’s photographer and producer gave the suit a thumbs up, and Clark agreed.“Oh my goodness, it seems perfect. Didn’t shrink at all,” Clark says.But would the suit impress our expert? As promised, we took it back to Mario Bosco.“My congratulations for Clark. It is amazing,” he said.That’s right – Mario admits he’s shocked at how good the suit looks after washing and drying.“This suit is worth the money – for the price he paid – no question about it,” Mario says.And when you consider most suits need cleaning every three to four wearings, at $8 a pop, the savings can really add up. Mario did think Clark’s suit needed a little pressing, and after his touch, it really looked great.Clark says even the skeptics have to agree that this time, Clark’s love of a bargain paid off and will keep paying off for years to come.Clark bought his suit – on sale – at JC Penney. They are quite popular in Europe at much higher prices.

Well, you know those Europeans, They’re into all kinds of unnatural things….

Much as I enjoy the irony of saving the natural by resorting to the unnatural, in seriousness, the idea of cracking down on dry cleaning establishments annoys me. They have been around for 100 years and so has perchloroethylene. Decisions like this should be left up to the marketplace and the voters or their elected representatives. Not elite bureaucrats issuing edicts at the EPA.

And if the goal is to make people save the planet, why stop with the abolition of dry cleaning? There is too much fabric! Just think how much carbon-footprint-heavy fabric would be saved if the government forced men to wear shorts and long pants were made illegal. The same thing could be done with women’s clothing. Less is better, right? The less natural resources we consume, the more natural we become! Herding everyone naked into special camps would probably be the best thing that could happen for nature, because man’s nature is unnatural, and some of us have to save the planet so it can revert to the wonderful natural state it was in before the unnatural species evolved to ruin all that is natural.

Perchloroethylene