New Worlds: Clothing Basics

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Clothing is a pretty fundamental aspect of human society. We evolved in a warm environment; once we began straying outside of it, we had to create technological solutions to the problem of hypothermia, via fire and shelter of both the wearable and non-wearable kinds. Then — because we are creatures who make meaning — we began assigning all kinds of significance to our clothing, using it to signal modesty or sexual availability, status and wealth, group membership, and more.

In discussing clothing, we should start with the basics, i.e. what it’s made from. Fashion designers have proved you can make clothing out of nearly any solid substance: metal, paper, meat, credit cards, and so forth. But for the most part, we tend to garb ourselves in leather or fur, or else in some kind of fiber, with the latter coming from animal, plant, or synthetic sources.

We can’t be certain what the earliest clothing looked like. Perishable substances don’t generally survive that long in the archaeological record, and there is no artwork to show us how people dressed. We find sewing needles as far back as 50,000 years ago, and some have theorized (based on the evolutionary history of the head louse and the body louse) that we started wrapping ourselves in something, probably animal skin, about 170,000 years ago. That’s as much as we can say about the very earliest clothing.

But we do know that when it comes to fiber, the earliest textile was probably a type of felt — meaning fibers matted together rather than woven. It’s an obvious first step; left to its own devices, our hair will behave that way, so it isn’t a big leap to start doing it on purpose to other things. And unlike woven textiles, it doesn’t require particular tools. (There are techniques that use them, but basic wet felting doesn’t.) The oldest method only works on animal fleece, though, not plant fibers.

Once you start getting into things that involve thread, production gets more complicated. For starters, you have to make the thread. I’ll talk more about the social economy of textile production in a future essay, but for now just consider the technical side. You have to extract the fibers, clean and disentangle them, and then spin them into thread. Now how do you make something thin and linear into a wearable sheet?

Weaving probably owes some of its development to baskets made from reeds and suchlike. It goes back possibly as far as 27,000 years, but the oldest actual remnants we have are closer to nine or ten thousand years old. That isn’t the only method of creating fabric out of thread, though; many of you are probably familiar with knitting and crocheting, but there’s an even older technique called nålebinding (“needle-binding”) that uses only a single needle to loop the thread. Labor-intensive, to be sure — but it works with a much broader range of fibers than basic felting does, including plant-based ones like cotton and flax.

Speaking of types of fibers . . . as a species, we are masters of figuring out what in our environment can be exploited to different ends. Plant-wise, that means not just familiar sources like cotton or flax (linen), but hemp, jute, kenaf, nettle, abacá, sisal and various other agaves, coir or coconut fiber, ramie, and (thanks to modern technology) bamboo. There’s also barkcloth, which can be more akin to felt, and which is sometimes referred to as “paper clothing.”

And then there are the animals around us. As I mentioned before, hides are one possibility, and in those cases we’ve used the skin of just about everything at one point or another. When it comes to fibers, we’ve yanked the hair out of sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, camels, yaks, muskoxen, horses, vicuñas, guanacos, and even rabbits; the soft fleeces and stronger guard-hairs of those animals lend themselves to making a variety of fabrics that range from waterproof to insulating. You can even make thread from dog hair or possums, though it isn’t common.

Silk is a special case, being derived from animals, but not being the hair of an animal. Mostly we use that term to mean the fiber taken from the cocoon of the silkworm, but there is also sea silk, an incredibly expensive fabric made from the secretion of pen shells. And in the early twenty-first century eighty-two people spent four years harvesting silk from golden orb spiders to make a piece of fabric. The strength and lightness of spider silk means that there are ongoing attempts to make its production a viable reality — including genetically engineering goats to produce the necessary proteins in their milk.

The twentieth century saw an enormous surge in the invention and use of wholly synthetic fibers. Nylon, rayon, polyester, spandex, PVC — the list goes on and one. Many of these are stretchy, opening up whole vistas of fashion previously accessible only through knitting: you can’t move around in skin-tight clothing unless the fabric has enough give to let your joints bend. We’ve also designed for waterproofness, insulation, and other specialized qualities, and I think it’s safe to assume that trend will continue.

So what does the future hold? Materials engineering continues to produce all kinds of new substances, especially from plant sources (which have the merit of being friendlier to the environment). I fully anticipate a future Oscars ceremony where some star shows up in a dress made entirely from spider silk, once we improve our methods of producing that, whether it’s via goats, tobacco or potato plants, or E. coli — yes, we’ve apparently experimented with getting E. coli to produce spider silk proteins. We’ve already got leather and fur substitutes; I won’t be surprised to see those continue to spread, not just for ethical reasons but because the environmental cost of livestock is so high.

But even the means by which we create fabric out of fiber may change. How about a 3D printer that sprays the material into the shape of a garment tailored to your exact measurements? Clothing might become a temporary thing, where you select an outfit, print it, wear it, and then break it down to be used again in a different item. Good-bye, laundry; hello, recycling.

That, however, gets into the social economy of textile production. So tune in for that next week!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Clothing Basics — 22 Comments

  1. Having dealt with both post-apocalypse and high fantasy clothing, I find the degree of craftsmanship put into construction depends on an economy that will support people sitting and doing nothing but make clothing. Not going to happen post-apocalypse or pre-history. In those cases it’s wrap and secure with ties.

    In the Pacific NW, cedar bark was a staple for hats and cloaks. It naturally makes long sinuous strips that can be plaited and wound into most anything you need, especially baskets. But also broad brimmed conical hats and lovely mats that can be draped over the shoulders. Naturally water proof if woven together tightly. This construction can be done almost by feel during the long dark nights in the communal long house.

    • Yep, the labor burden of making clothing will be the next essay. I am resisting (or trying to resist) the urge to write an entire essay about buttons and things like that — how there’s actually quite a lot of work that goes into those. But there’s also a point at which these essays are getting too far down into the weeds on a particular topic . . .

      • if you find yourself surrounded by weeds, make salad. 🙂
        (that’s what I was told, anyway)

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Clothing Basics - Swan Tower

  3. You can make yarn out of dog or cat fur, but because the strands are very short it’s usually spun mixed with wool, to lend tensile strength and flexibility. The resulting knitted or woven fabric is very warm, too warm for ordinary wear. Shorter strands are better suited to felting, which is how beaver fur was made into top hats.

    • Now I’m imagining somebody ranching Persian cats for the longer fur . . . <g> I mean, that’s more or less what happened with Salish wool dogs, where they didn’t have the sheep’s wool to blend the dog hair with.

      • There was an episode of _Boss Baby_ (the Netflix series) where a woman was making sweaters out of (SPOILER) cat hair…hairballs.

        • I would think the hairballs wouldn’t be in good condition for that sort of thing . . . but I can’t say I’ve ever really tried, so who knows.

  4. Sea pens? I’d known the skin of tunicates (and salps, I think) was called a tunic…but I hadn’t known sea pens could be used for anything beyond the subject of pictures.

    Thank you for a great and informational article.

    • I don’t remember now where I first came across a reference to sea silk, but it was fascinating to me — I’d never even heard of it until quite recently.

  5. Would the stuff from sea pens also be known as byssus? I ran across an article (months ago and can’t find right now) about one of the few people in the world (apparently) who still knows how to make the fiber into fabric.

    This isn’t the article I was thinking of, but it sounds like Chiara Vigo is the right woman.

    • Yes, byssus is the proper term for the fibers. I’m not surprised very few people know how to work with it; the stuff was always rare, and doesn’t lend itself to mass production.

  6. I was fascinated to find out that ramie is made from nettle fibers, and is probably the stuff the princess was gathering in the graveyard to make the shirts that would change her brothers from swans to human beings again.

    Also, I belong to a spinning group, some of whom beg any pet owner for the gleanings of fur after we have brushed our critters. The undercoat of a long-haired cat spins up as soft as cashmere, and is (eventually, when you get enough) great for watch caps. And there was one woman who used to have a deal with a pet salon to give her dog fur to make into rugs.

    • It’s a different kind of nettle from the stinging variety; I had always assumed the folktale involved the latter sort. But I guess it would be easier to work with the non-stinging kind. 🙂

      I would adore a cat-hair hat! But sadly, my husband would be allergic to it . . .

  7. There’s a book on early textiles called Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth W. Barber. I found it a very readable and interesting book.

    • Thanks for the rec! Interesting that it’s titled “women’s work” — spinning and weaving are commonly associated with women, but not in all cultures.

  8. I have owned several ramie shirts for summer wear, sice I live in the high mountain desert of NM. It has the feel of a lightweight muslin, and is very comfortable on summer days when the temp may hit 110.

    Thank you for a fascinating essay.

  9. I had a husky. She lived out doors because the house was too warm. Every spring I save her brushings. The thick undercoat (in a beaver it is called muffoon) filled several grocery bags each year. A friend who was a spinner and a knitter glommed onto it. She had to mix it with sheep wool to actually knit it because strait dog wool was much too warm for anyone but winter mountain climbers. Lovely blond color. One year’s combing made a lovely ski cap. The next year’s became mittens. They lasted for decades.

      • Easily done. If you don’t want to comb the dog yourself, just google on it — someone at Etsy is surely selling dog-hair yarn, and possibly even items knitted out of it. (If you can’t find a hat, just buy the yarn and I’ll knit it for you.)

        • My husband knits, actually, so he’d probably be offended if I asked anyone else to do it. 🙂 But the truth is that I would really only use it when we’re visiting his family in Massachusetts for the winter holidays.