a stripey pink, purply and aquamarine background with three polatoid pictures, one of a kid in blue polypro, one of a woman in a canyon wearing stripes, and one of people in stripes gathering around a table to pay boardgames
Stripey polyprop, L-R: In Utah in 1999, in a Kathmandu promo pic in 2014, in the Himalayas in 2007 (pictures courtesy Emily Lane, Kathmandu, Kaaren Mathias respectively)

SocietyJuly 8, 2024

Rainbow warmth and garish colours: When did stripy polyprop disappear?

a stripey pink, purply and aquamarine background with three polatoid pictures, one of a kid in blue polypro, one of a woman in a canyon wearing stripes, and one of people in stripes gathering around a table to pay boardgames
Stripey polyprop, L-R: In Utah in 1999, in a Kathmandu promo pic in 2014, in the Himalayas in 2007 (pictures courtesy Emily Lane, Kathmandu, Kaaren Mathias respectively)

New Zealand used to be a country of vibrant synthetic striped polyprop. Then we got boring – and discovered merino. 

It’s full of holes now, and getting saggy, but Emily Lane refuses to get rid of her favourite zip-up polyprop jumper. “I got it before I went overseas for my PhD, so it’s at least a quarter century old,” she says fondly. “It’s falling to bits because I’ve had it so long.” 

She insists on keeping the decrepit garment because she can’t find anything that would aptly replace it. Browse any New Zealand outdoor retailer – and Lane has – and it’s basically impossible to find what she wants. She’s looking for narrow stripes, thoroughly synthetic fabric and, most importantly, garish colours. Blues and purples, greens and oranges, yellow and aquamarine. “It’s getting harder and harder in life to get stripy polypro – it’s all sombre colours,” she says. 

When Lane first started getting into outdoor adventures, at uni in the 90s, the stripes were everywhere. “I was a bit of a dirtbag in uni, and the polypro was the cheapest, but I would have chosen it anyway, the stripes are such awesome style,” says the Christchurch-based scientist and outdoor enthusiast. 10 or 15 years ago, stripy polyprop (also known as polypro) was ubiquitous around Aotearoa: wintry school camps resembled a parade of gaudy zebras, weekend dog-walkers in the suburbs might have had some blue stripes protruding from their jacket cuffs and of course tramping huts featured people of all stripes, completely literally. 

a brown-skinned, gormless looking small child with bright red plastic clips in her short hair, looks at the camera. Big himalayan mountains are in the background, and she is wearing a bright blue striped synthetic long sleeve top
Shanti Mathias, rocking striped polypro aged approx. 7 (Image: Kaaren Mathias)

I have memories of small snotty-nosed friends wearing head-to-toe stripy polyprop in all seasons in Auckland, slinging polyprop tops on the coat hooks in the middle of winter at my primary school, unwrapping new polyprop sets from my aunties at Christmas. There are dozens of photos of me and my siblings wearing stripy polyprop in the chilly Indian mountains where we lived as children, although I tended to call it “prolypo” due to having some confusion around syllables.

It’s less obvious why the polyprop clothing was so stripy, specifically: after all, the colour has no impact on its function to keep you warm. “It kind of says ‘hey, I’m in the outdoors, I don’t have to be straitlaced’,” she says. Mansill agrees. “In the 1990s, wearing [stripes] was part of having fun – now outdoor gear has gone from people who actually do stuff to tourists who want to look the part, versus actually doing it.” That most notorious of New Zealand looks – wearing rainbow polypro under a t-shirt or shorts – has become a rarer sight in the hills.  

Browse Bivouac Outdoor, Kathmandu and Macpac, and the stripes are few and far between. Kathmandu sells a broad green and black stripe, Macpac has no stripes in its synthetic thermal layers at all, Bivouac sells some grey stripes but nothing else, the Warehouse has some pale blue and pink stripes. There’s nothing truly multi-coloured or zany. Nor is it reflected in tramping media: a flip through the latest Alpine Journal reveals a beautiful mediation on sexism in alpine sport and a project helping climbers and mana whenua engage meaningfully on the topic of what to do with human waste in the mountains, but no striped polyprop. The best place to get zany polypro now seems to be StripesGear.com, a Canadian website which says its products (including the coveted mixed stripe garments) are made in New Zealand – but shipping from Canada pushes the price of a single garment up to nearly $100.

“I still remember my first striped polypro – I might still have it,” reminisces Jean Mansill, a life member of the Auckland University Tramping Club. Purple, pink and navy, she wore the stripes through her first “snow school” trip in the early 1990s, learning mountaineering skills. She remembers being instructed on the merits of polyprop base layers, and told it was good to have at least two sets so that one could dry. Polyprop was light, dried fast, and – when she first encountered it – almost always stripy. She still wears some of her first polyprop sets, admittedly now with some holes, when sailing or biking, anywhere her clothes might be “hammered”.

What is polyprop? It’s short for “polypropylene” – the fibre has become shorthand for the garments made from it. Like other synthetic fabrics, it’s a kind of plastic, made from oil. It might feel warm and fuzzy, but polyprop is the same material as any plastics labelled “5” on their resin codes to go in recycling. The colours are part of the plastic the thread is made from, rather than being dyed. Polypropylene sheds microplastics when it’s washed – miniscule and featherlight fibres that are now so ubiquitous that they’re in drinking water, breastmilk, the bottom of the Mariana Trench and the Antarctic Ocean.  

Synthetic fabric became increasingly common in the second half of the 20th century – but for a long time, it wasn’t used to provided warmth. As we talk, Lane flips through some childhood photos: on her early adventures, she wore wool singlets and jumpers, not synthetic, bright polyprop. Through the 1980s, synthetic polar fleece fabric was developed from polyester, another plastic fibre. It gradually became widely available as a lighter replacement for wool. Polypropylene thermal layers made from stretchy knitted fabric were common by the 1990s, when Lane and Mansill started tramping. These fibres were part of a wholesale transformation of tramping gear, with light, synthetic, breathable equipment making outdoor activities more comfortable and new feats of exploration and endurance possible.

a family sitting at a table, two adults and two kids, all with big families. Mum emily is wearing a ratty stripey polypro shirt at the back right, and daugther ngaire is wearing, blue, pink and purple stripes at the front left
Emily Lane (back right), whose brother attended her 21st in striped polyprop, describes herself as being from a “striped polyprop kind of family” (Image: courtesy Emily Lane)

So why has the popularity of polyprop and its funky stripes faded? Maybe it’s simply the market’s invisible hand: Wilderness Magazine editor Alistair Hall acknowledges that many people prefer solid colours, and he hasn’t seen stripy synthetics come across his desk for the product reviews for a while. “People are more conscious of colour – I get lots of feedback about that in the monthly gear reviews,” he says. Smartphones and shifting cultural forces made people more aware of how they looked when outdoors. “You used to have to work hard to get the boring [polyprop], now it’s all I find,” says Lane. 

Kathmandu, one-time purveyor of stripes galore, now has a “huge demand” for black thermals, according to head of product Karinda Robinson. “Lots of our team have memories of wearing striped thermals on school camps in the 80s and 90s… while lots of us love the stripe, the market in next-to-skin layers is evolving, with solid colours dominating as a more versatile choice.” 

Polyprop has downsides, too. Like all plastics, polypro will take hundreds of years to fully degrade under natural conditions. It also tends to hold on to the smell from being worn close on people’s bodies. Lane has experienced the damp and sweaty polypro smell. “After a while it soaks in the stink.” More recently, the fabric has started being treated with antibacterial chemicals, which Hall says “means you can wear it for a couple of days without being a nuisance to your hut-mates.” 

a plain pink background and famile model wearing black pants, a dark blue shirt and a light green Kathmandu beanie
Kathmandu’s current thermal range promotes lots of plain thermals, but few stripy ones (Image:supplied)

But the main reason that base layers are less synthetic now is a four-legged New Zealand success story, the merino sheep. From upmarket brands like Untouched World, selling plain merino shirts for hundreds of dollars, to more basic offerings at The Warehouse, the fine, washable wool is as warm as polypropylene, even if it’s more expensive. It doesn’t shed microfibres, melt when it gets too close to a fire, get scratchy after a few washes or retain smells like polypro does. Merino doesn’t last as long, either, and is heavier, but there are ways around that. “That’s why so many people blend merino with synthetic fibres, because merino gets holes,” Hall says. 

Even polyprop superfans Lane and Mansill both wear merino for their outdoor adventures, as well as to commute on bikes and around the city. “My merino is more of a fashion statement – but polypro lasts longer,” Lane says. Mansill thinks the trends are related. “I haven’t seen many stripes since the merino revolution took over.”

There’s room for more “fun and outrageous” looks, in the outdoors and the city alike, Mansill says – especially for something as iconically New Zealand as vibrant striped polyprop. Of course, those bright bands of colour could just as easily be made of merino: Icebreaker has some not-very-vibrant stripes (although not for base layers) and Mons Royale has stripy-armed layers and thermal leggings with colourful swirls. The latter even jabs at polyprop in its product description: “you can wave goodbye to the saggy, stinky, stuffy base layers and move the way you want to this winter”. 

Of course, that’s just what Big Merino wants you to think. Kathmandu’s Robinson offers some hope for the dedicated stripe base at least. She suggests that more tonal colours, with smaller stripes, might be due for a comeback, or colour-blocked garments with “bold and fun” mixes of solid colours. Lane, whose daughter has inherited her love of both stripy polyprop and outdoor adventures, wants to see the products become popular again. “There will always be a hardcore group who love stripy polypro.” 

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