On the southernmost tip of the planet, human life is sparse. The icy continent of Antarctica is the only landmass on Earth without a native human population. However, the windiest and driest place on Earth is now a temporary residence to a chiliad of polar workers, a population of operatives that quadruple in the 0°C summers, surviving and working in the 200 mph winds and bitter conditions. While the solitary human has not evolved to survive the cold extremities and perilous landscape of Antarctica, with thanks to composite materials and the transformative power of clothing, inhabiting the boundless polar desert is now possible. Humanity can now rely on versatile clothing that encourages limitless exploration - designed to support movement, to protect from the outer elements and that is made to last.
With temperatures that can plummet below -60°C, surviving and working in the numbing condition of Antarctica requires careful consideration of clothing and gear. Antarctic apparel and equipment must reduce the risk of injury from the harsh temperatures, severe winds and UV radiation - as well as consider the threat of avalanches, cornice collapses and copious crevasses. Before the introduction of technical fibres and materials, now the second skin to modern-day polar workers, Antarctic explorers would wear natural fabrics - camel-hair fleece suits and leather jackets covered with layers of fur from reindeers and wolves. The biggest problem with these materials was the moisture retention as clothing and sleeping bags would retain liquid and perspiration which would then freeze into solid cocoons of ice. With the sweat from man-hauling and dog sledding, as well as the moisture from the surrounding icy surfaces, clothing from early exploration would quickly become uncomfortable and dangerous once it started to freeze.
In the Arctic, the Inuit inhabitants would reduce the danger of perspiration by wearing loose fitting furs for ventilation while working, that could then be drawn tighter in colder conditions when at rest. For protection against sea spray and sleet, Inuit men and women would dress in parkas constructed from sea mammal intestines. The intestines and membranes would undergo several washings, peelings and scrapings with a blunt tool before being constructed with a waterproof stitch to minimise exposure to the outer elements.
Meanwhile, in the southern polar desert, explorers quickly became prone to frostbite, hypothermia, cold water shock and non-freezing cold injuries – the Antarctic version of trench foot. Without effective equipment, the extreme cold climate causes the body temperature to drop dangerously low, and as the body responds by narrowing blood vessels - blood flow to the extremities is decelerated and the tissue fluid freezes into ice crystals - resulting in frostbite.
The need to develop effective polar clothing became a question of survival, not just comfort.
The most significant change in Antarctic clothing came with the development of the layer system. Established in the Heroic age, the layer system is still practiced today as an effective protective structure and method for controlling body heat. The idea is to have a base layer that wicks away sweat, followed by a comfortable insulating layer designed to trap air, and a windproof outer shell to protect from the elements. Today, the layer system has developed with the introduction of man-made fibres, technical insulating materials and zip fasteners. Using man-made materials has become vital to ensure safe and successful operation in Antarctica. Polymer fibres reflect moisture and perspiration, therefore reducing the risk of freezing.
With thanks to the power of moisture-wicking materials and technical ventilating fabrics, Antarctic conditions have become hospitable and accessible for discovery. Antarctic clothing acts as an armour for those who seek to understand and solve our planet’s environmental situation. While effective polar clothing has made these conditions survivable, right now - the survival of humanity depends on slower consumption and the need to extend the life of our clothes. At Petit Pli, our suits have been designed with this in mind. Designed to support movement, to transcend the average garment use and to protect from the outer elements. Like the layer system, Petit Pli is created with durable, versatile materials - acting as an effective tool to support exploration and encourage a more innovative, sustainable and wearable future.
Over & Out
The Petit Pli Team
Plastic: Hero & Villain
What do Hannibal Lecter, Lex Luthor, Darth Vader and plastic share in common?
The answer is nestled in the title of this week’s blog - they are all modern-day villains! However, plastic is the only villain in our riddle which isn’t a work of fiction.
The problems caused by plastic use and misuse are very real. But, like all beloved baddies of literature and film our nemesis called plastic isn’t wholly evil, just a little misunderstood!
Misunderstandings are often solved by taking a step back, plastic is no exception. By stepping back into plastic’s past we learn that its first uses were wholly noble, even heroic. In the1800s everything from combs, piano keys, false teeth, buttons, pens and billiard balls were made using ivory. Mass manufacture of ivory items in the 1800s was caused by a European frenzy for elephant tusk products; at the peak of the trade 800–1000 tonnes of elephant ivory left Africa for Europe. The mass export of ivory destroyed elephant herds in central and eastern Africa and caused irrevocable damage to indigenous communities. Further, ivory products were expensive and inaccessible to many. However, in 1862 a man named Alexander Parkes created “a substance hard as horn, but as flexible as leather, capable of being cast or stamped, painted, dyed or carved”. The material — Parkesine, the first man-made plastic and ideal ivory substitute.
Parkesine had little commercial success but its creation opened the doors for John Wesley Hyatt to invent a plastic called Celluloid. Celluloid could mimic ivory, imitate the veining of marble and the translucency of semi-precious gems. But more importantly, unlike Parkesine itcould
By creating materials that transcend nature the ‘Plastic Age’ transformed reality. We live faster, longer and safer lives because of the material. Planes, trains and cars are safer, lighter, more powerful and more fuel efficient. Medical equipment is cheaper and easier to maintain. Home appliances are safe to handle — even with wet hands! And man-made plastics have opened up the doors for computers to compliment our lifestyle. Though plastic has made our lives more convenient its misuse and rampant disposal inconveniences nature. Plastic’s presence in our rivers and seas is looting our oceans of its marine life and robbing our Earth of its health. Every year marine environments are greeted with 8 -12 million tonnes of plastics and if current plastic disposal rates are sustained, by 2025 our oceans are expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish.
Fortunately, the villainous acts of plastic are human-made, meaning they can be human-fixed! To ensure plastic remains above sea-level, together we must adapt the entire plastics value chain. Our plastic bags, boxes and cutlery are valuable resources that should remain on-land and in use. To ensure our plastic products remain on land and in use policy makers can create regulations which encourage sustainable consumption and reuse of plastics, designers can reframe how we value plastics by repurposing plastic waste into pencils, jumpers and furniture, and engineers can create new materials from recycled plastic stocks. However, the efforts of designers, engineers and policymakers will be moot if human behaviours aren’t refashioned in time. For this reason, Petit Pli has been designed with slow consumption in mind. By our clothes being able to grow, not only do they extend the use-life of plastics, they act on a psychological level — instilling sustainable behaviours in the next generation. Along with inspiring the next generation to consume sustainably Petit Pli’s designs reframe the value of plastic and make recycling a doddle; all our suits consist of a monofibre construction — making them significantly easier to recycle than blended fibres! Petit Pli hopes that in the future more designers will embrace circular design principles and humanity’s behaviour shifts to support sustainable object production and use.