As I write these words, I’m wearing sweatpants and an old faded shirt. I suspect that most readers are also wearing clothes. Oddly, humans are the only animals that make and wear clothing. Our ancestors evolved in the tropics of Mother Africa, where it was so warm that many folks preferred the comfortable and practical bare naked look. Evolution spent several million years fine tuning our bodies for life on the savannah, and the result was an excellent design.
After humans migrated out of Africa, and colonized tropical Asia and Australia, some folks decided to wander north. It was a cool place to live, and the farther north they wandered, the cooler it got. In snow country, tropical primates were like fish out of water. Brrrr! They wrapped themselves in animal hides, lived in protective shelters, and huddled around warm campfires.
Over time, they learned how to cut and sew hides into custom tailored clothing that provided better protection for both humans and body lice. Eventually, they learned how to spin plant fibers into thread, which could be used for stitching seams together. In the Republic of Georgia, researchers have found spun and dyed fragments of flax fibers that were 34,000 years old. At some point, folks learned how to weave thread into fabric. We aren’t sure when. Cloth made from natural fibers is perfectly biodegradable, leaving few clues for modern archaeologists.
Kassia St Clair wrote an interesting book about fabric, The Golden Thread. It’s not a comprehensive history, but a collection of snapshots — linen wrapped mummies in Egypt, the silk monopoly in China, wool production in medieval England, slavery and the rise of cotton, synthetic fibers, and so on.
My great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cleaton Rees, was a handloom weaver in central Wales, and so were many of her female kinfolk and neighbors. Flannel was made from wool produced by herds of sheep grazing on the surrounding deforested hillsides. Prior to power looms and factories, millions of women spent much of their lives spinning, weaving, and sewing in their homes, where they could also tend to their children.
I learned about St Clair’s book by reading a fascinating essay, No Wool, No Vikings. My ancestors also include Vikings from the west coast of Norway, where the homesteads were scattered across numerous rocky islands. Boats were how they got around. Sheltered deep water harbors were not common, so boats were designed to ride high in the water, so they could stop in shallow places, or on beaches. Early boats were propelled by paddles or oars.
Sails were not used until clever folks learned how to add keels to boat bottoms. Keels made wind powered sea travel possible. Large, sea worthy, shallow draft boats with sails set the stage for the Viking era — several centuries of rowdy raiding, pillaging, bloodshed, and colonizing that rocked northern Europe.
These new boats totally surprised many communities that had formerly been safe and secure for centuries. In A.D. 98, Tacitus wrote about the Suiones, who lived along the Swedish coastline. For them, the sea provided an invincible defensive barrier. It was impossible for enemies to attack them by water. For the first time, Viking ships made many safe places vulnerable to violent surprise attacks.
While history recorded the names and sagas of some heroic male warriors, it disregarded the hard working women who made the Viking era possible. The adventurous lads were attired in wool from head to toe, slept under wool blankets, and traveled long distances in boats with woolen sails. This required large numbers of sheep, and enormous amounts of tedious human labor. The wool of 18 sheep was needed for each blanket. It took two highly skilled women more than a year to make a typical square sail.
Viking sails were another revolutionary turning point in the human saga. They enabled Scandinavians to cross the Atlantic and establish settlements, like L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. In Viking times, most of humankind spent their entire lives fairly close to their place of birth. Imagine gaining the ability to sail to unknown lands more than a thousand miles away. This was a mind-blowing possibility. It rubbished the traditional perception of space and limits.
Long distance sea travel flung open a ghastly Pandora’s Box. Sailing ships enabled aggressive conquerors to colonize vast regions around the world. Environmental history is loaded with horror stories of pathogens delivered by long distance sea travel — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, and countless others. Millions of unlucky indigenous people were forcibly absorbed into oppressive alien systems.
Anyway, wool was a life preserver in snow country. The notion of “no wool, no Vikings” can be expanded to “no wool, no Britons, Saxons, Scots, Picts, Teutons, Gauls, Vandals, etc.” Prior to the nineteenth century, clothing was the product of extremely labor-intensive processes. For hardworking common folks, clothing was precious, and carefully kept mended and patched. Many likely owned little more than what they were wearing. Like moon explorers, wool space suits enabled tropical primates to survive in chilly life-threatening environments.
In the eighteenth century cotton began displacing wool. Large cotton plantations emerged in the American south, where legions of slaves enjoyed miserable lives. Power looms and cotton gins sharply reduced the labor needed to produce fabric. Cotton remained the dominant fabric until the 1970s, when synthetic fibers rose to dominance — rayon, nylon, polyester, and so on.
In recent decades, polyester clothing has shifted from cruddy, stinky, and creepy to comfortable, practical, and very cheap. It’s made from petrochemicals, which arouse the snarling displeasure of Big Mama Nature. A lot of the apparel sold at stores in your community is made by poor women who work long days, in nasty conditions, and maybe earn $37 per month. The apparel industry is the world’s biggest employer of women, of whom only two percent earn a living wage.
As the human herd grows, more folks enter the consumer class, and clever marketers wickedly accelerate the pace at which super-trendy styles suddenly become horribly uncool. So, the demand for new clothing accelerates. “In 2010, for example, it was estimated that 150 billion garments were stitched together, enough to provide each person alive with twenty new articles of clothing,” according to St Clair. “For the first time in human history, the vast majority of fabric being made has become disposable, something to be consumed and thrown away within weeks or months of being made. Synthetic fibers made this possible.”
Marc Bain reported that the future of clothing is plastic (synthetic). Wool has become an endangered fiber. Cotton production experienced modest growth since 1980, and has now plateaued. Polyester zoomed past cotton in 2007. In 1980, its production was 5.8 million tons, rising to 34 million tons in 2007, and is projected to soar to 99.8 million tons by 2025.
It’s daunting to contemplate the future of clothing. Wool production is limited by the availability of grazing land, and the need for much manual labor. It seems impossible that the huge human herd can go back to dressing in wool. Cotton production requires cropland, fertilizer, extra-large doses of pesticides and water, and lots of energy-guzzling machinery.
The human herd recently zoomed past 7.7 billion. Should current cropland be used for producing more food, more fiber, or more urban spawl? Oil is a finite nonrenewable resource, and the mother of polyester. The easy to extract oil is about gone, and what remains is increasingly expensive to produce. Resource limits guarantee that the plastic clothing era has an expiration date. All industrial scale apparel production is ecologically unsustainable. On the bright side, neither cotton nor polyester biodegrade when buried in landfills. So, the latest fashions in coming decades might be mined from dumps.
Will climate change solve this challenge by transforming snow country into a toasty tropical nudist colony? Our ancestors once lived like the San people of the Kalahari, in a time-proven low impact manner. Their way of life was leisurely compared to the workaholics of snow country. The San had no need to spend much of their lives spinning and weaving. They had no need to construct sturdy warm cottages. They had no need to produce and store surplus food for consumption during the icy months. They had no need for herding livestock, or planting crops, or mining minerals, or building cities. Imagine that.
St Clair, Kassia, The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, John Murray, London, 2018.