The secret life of your clothes

27 Oct

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I would write a post about what your clothing goes through before you own it, and today is the day. I’ll be covering the little-known chemical finishes used in textile manufacture, and why your pockets and vents are sewn shut when you buy them, in the hopes that you will take heed and prepare your clothing before you wear it out in public – it’s all about a polished image and more than that, it can be a matter of your health!

Why are my pockets sewn shut?

Clip the stitching from your breast pocket if you like a pocket square in your breast pocket.

When you buy a new suit, sports jacket, or outdoor coat, you may notice that your pockets are not working because they’re sewn shut. This goes for coat pockets and breast pockets on the outside of the garment. Pockets are sewn shut for a few reasons. First, sewn and secured pockets are easily pressed and won’t be pulled out of shape when they are shipped from their country of origin. Second, flat pockets will look nice and smooth when on display at retail stores and retain their shape when people try them on.

Pockets are meant to be functional. When you purchase the items, your tailor or retailer might remove the stitching for you, but if not, snip out the threads that hold your pockets together on your own if you’re going to use them. Some men won’t remove the stitching from their outside suit pockets because they know they won’t be using them (perhaps the inside pockets of their jackets will suffice), and this leaves the front of the coat smooth and intact.

For men who like to have extra space for light pieces (hankies, business cards, or lip balm), the pocket stitching should be removed so they can be used. (Tip – try not to carry heavy or bulky articles in the outside pockets of your suits and sports jackets or the bulk will pull them out of shape and you may look somewhat disheveled – not a good look.)

The breast pocket is used for pocket squares, so if you wear these to polish and punctuate your jackets, open this pocket. If not, leave it.

Why are my vents sewn shut?

X stitching on jacket vents are meant to be clipped.

A vent is a slit up the back seams of your coat, breaking the hem for ease of movement. There can be a single vent at the bottom of the centre back seam, or two vents off of the back side seams. Opening your vents will give you more space to put your hands into your pockets and will allow you to sit comfortably because there won’t be anything pulling across your hips.

You may notice an X stitched over your coat vents before you buy it. This is done prior to shipping to keep the coats flat and smooth, and may be found on your sport coats, suit jackets, and topcoats. This stitching should be clipped and removed. If it is not removed, it looks odd, unprofessional, and some may say, naive, so open ‘er up, give yourself some space, and be confident that you look good and proper in your clothes!


Textiles, even those of natural origin, go through a tremendous amount of chemical treatment. You may be surprised to learn that the most common chemical resin used in textile production is formaldehyde and you’re probably surrounded by it right now.

“Textile formaldehyde resins have been used on fabrics since the mid 1920’s by the textiles industry to make wrinkle and stain resistant garments (e.g. permanent press),” says Allergy, Sensitivity & Environmental Health Association Qld Inc. (ASEHA). (Read their excellent article on this topic here.)

Looking at urea-formaldehyde, the type used in textiles, it has excellent tensile strength and low water absorption due to it being a thermoplastic resin. Materials most likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins are:

  • Rayon
  • Blended cotton (i.e. polyester-cotton)
  • Corduroy
  • Wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton
  • Shrink-proof wool (“superwash” wool)
  • Any synthetic blended polymer (i.e. rayon, polyester-cotton)
  • Heavy stiff fabrics
  • Upholstery and craft materials

Though good, strong, and easy care, wearing formaldehyde-treated fabrics next to our skin is not necessarily a good thing, especially for those with chemical sensitivities. Luckily, some materials are not treated with formaldehyde and should not affect the sensitive. One way to recognize the absence of formaldehyde is to look for soft fabrics that will hold the wrinkles when scrunched in your hand. As listed on the ASEHA site, some fabrics not treated with formaldehyde resins are: 100% silk, 100% linen (if it wrinkles easily), 100% polyester, 100% acrylic, 100% nylon, Spandex, flannel (if soft), denim, and wool.

Remember, formaldehyde is an “anti” treatment – anti-wrinkle, anti-stain, anti-static, etc. These easy care finishes are not natural and are achieved through chemical treatment. Often, they are permanent and can cause allergic reactions in some people.

“Washing new formaldehyde resin treated clothing may reduce the levels of free formaldehyde but is not sufficient to prevent a textile resin reaction in a previously sensitized patient. Multiple washes combined with airing in the sun may reduce levels further but remember the manufacturers put in a lot of work into making these finishes ‘permanent’,” says ASEHA.

Though we know that some of the chemical finishes are not going to wash out, I always like to wash my new stuff just the same before I wear it. With any luck, the “new clothes” smell will wash out and the garment may loosen up by removing some of the undoubtedly chemical “filler”, especially if it is an inexpensive garment. (Though if it is really inexpensive, washing out the fillers will reduce the garment to a rag because that was almost all it was made up of, hence the low price you paid for it.)

When I think of formaldehyde, I think of embalming. (Believe it or not, I used to date an embalmer who explained his use of a huge syringe to suck out body fluids of the corpse, then another needle the same size to inject the formaldehyde into the body.) I found out an interesting tidbit about the embalming process during research: if the lungs of an embalmed body float after being immersed in the formaldehyde solution, “then a mortician concludes that the deceased was breathing while he passed away. If they do not float then the person was not breathing.” (Source)

Formaldehyde is all around us and apart from its use in the textiles industry, it is used as a disinfectant, in darkroom photography, as a foam insulator, fertilizer, and in wood products. I also found out that formaldehyde and sulfuric acid is used to create Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as club drug, extacy, and formaldehyde is also used in drugs to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Formaldehyde is a finish that doesn’t make us work as hard (e.g. anti-wrinkle = less time ironing) but as with most blessings, there often lurks a curse.

Health problems

The thing about formaldehyde is that it is a chemical that is used liberally in manufacturing and there do not seem to be strong enforceable guidelines or rules on its use (though Japan seems to be the most compliant to standards). To some people, formaldehyde can be toxic. People prone to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are often affected by chemical treatments of fabrics, and are believed to be of a physiology weakened by overexposure to chemical toxins.

These people may experience conditions including dermatitis, headache, trouble concentrating, memory problems, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and seizures that range from mild to life-threatening.

ASEHA cited a study that found an incidence rate of 10% in men and 5% in women for formaldehyde allergy, and that more men cross-reacted to formaldehyde textile resins.

So if we can’t wash it out of our clothes and this nasty chemical is everywhere, what are we to do? The Organic Lifestyle site urges us to wear more natural fiber clothing that has been organically grown and manufactured like organic help, cotton, bamboo, and wools. The site believes that manufacturing phases are critical to producing healthy clothing, and without chemical finishes on our textiles, there may be a greater health in society in general.

The textile industry is well known to use heavy chemical treatments in production, and I for one am not too jazzed about this. However, with education comes understanding and change, and hopefully we’re moving toward clothing closer to the natural materials (the US is now developing low or non-formaldehyde finishes). Rome wasn’t built in a day, gents, so take baby steps and maybe over time we can get to a chemical-free closet. We have to start by asking for it.


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