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!