In addition to fire, another technology was key in allowing the migration of humans from the “cradle of life” in Africa to virtually all corners of the globe: clothing.
In our naked form humans are not that impressive to look at, relatively weak (compared to most large mammals) and pretty much devoid of insulation in the form of hair – unique in the world of primates (although no shortage of fat these days).
We do however possess some useful physiological characteristics which allow us to adapt to a wide range of climates (such as the ability to sweat to reduce overheating or shiver to generate heat). Originating in a warm climate we should not be surprised that in our naked form we are fairly well adapted to heat. It is possible to adapt physiologically to lower temperatures, but this takes time and on a genetic timescale these changes led to significant changes in body shape – but perhaps surprisingly not regrowth of all over body hair. However even a perfectly physiologically adapted human would have a hard time surviving in the higher latitudes without both fire and clothing. On the other hand even a poorly adapted human can survive a very cold climate with appropriate clothing and fire.
These days clothing has largely lost its primary function of shelter for the body from the elements. We spend so much time indoors, in cars, trains or planes that we rarely require our clothes to provide protection from extreme weather. How good does a coat have to be if it only needs to get you from your front door to your car? Clothes primary function now is aesthetic not functional and the fashion you wear is a key indicator of both your status level in the hierarchy and the subculture you identify with (hipster, surfer, goth, emo, hippy, actually I have no idea what the kids are into these days, but this activity points to a strong desire to belong to a tribe).
Despite the fact that there are probably more clothes in circulation now than ever before (per capita and in total), and their cost so low due to globalised manufacturing, the fact is these clothes are extremely badly designed from the point of view of basic survival practicalities or even just basic comfort. Industrially manufactured clothing is actually not designed to fit you. It is designed to ‘not fit’ just enough so most people don’t notice (in the name of standardisation to a minimum set of size options). All manufactured clothing is symmetrical, however most real humans have slight but significant size differences (muscle imbalances) between each size of the body. Also clothes are designed for the ‘mythical’ average person, which in civilised society is pretty much a physical weakling. I always have a problem with trousers because I cycle and have thicker than average thighs for my size. This results in people wearing either uncomfortably fitting clothes which are tight in all the wrong places or wearing clothes that are slightly too large for their frame – which restricts freedom of movement by having too much material in all the other places.
Also these clothes are of such poor quality that we would literally have a major clothing crisis within a relatively short period of time should they actually be required for the purposes of weather protection and outdoors work. I wager many of these clothes would fall apart within hours when presented by a challenging outdoor environment. Even relatively strong common clothes such as jeans (originally designed as work wear) would likely only last a few months of hard use and even these are not considered as appropriate clothing by any serious outdoors people (denim takes ages to dry out). To be sure there are so many clothes in circulation that it would take some time, a few years or maybe a decade (at current wear rates) to get through this stock (most people have high redundancy in their wardrobe) however the vast majority of these clothes are simply not fit for purpose when we consider the lifestyle changes most people will need to make.
The globalisation of the clothing industry has had some well documented negative impacts both on the localised manufacturing it displaced and even more so on the workers in the sweatshops which make them economically competitive, however one aspect which is particularly relevant here is that because the clothing is so cheap and such low quality (not to mention the need to keep up with changing fashion) that clothes are essentially disposable which is an enormous and extremely damaging waste of resources and source of pollution. They are not designed to last more than a season and certainly not to be mended. You wouldn’t dream of investing the time in mending something which was so cheap to replace. This skill has therefore largely been lost. Clothes which are obviously mended (with for example patches) are socially unacceptable because clothes are so cheap you would have to be extremely poor to not be able to afford new ones. In fact many of these clothes are simply un-mendable because they fail in a way which can’t be easily fixed. This is all going to change in the near future. The economic feasibility of manufacturing cheap low quality disposable clothes in Asia which is enabled by labour arbitrage and cheap transport energy is unwinding as the cost of that energy (in the form of oil prices which directly affect transportation fuels) rises and also the expectations and standard of living in those manufacturing countries like China and Indonesia rises. What this means is that the destination countries of Western Europe and North America will suffer a significant clothing shortage (once the stockpile runs out) until the local industries can be regenerated to fill in the gap. Repairing and even making your own clothes will become common again – until recently this is how all clothes were made. And when (if) the local ‘industries’ do return they might just start making clothes which are easily maintainable, practical and built to last – out of locally sourced textiles at a suitably low energy scale (human power).
What makes for suitable clothing?
Like any product the suitability of clothing depends on the requirements we have for it. Our clothing should meet some or all of the following requirements:
- Durability: it should be able to withstand hard wear in tough outdoor environments and last for a long time.
- Comfort: it should be well fitting with good freedom of movement.
- Protective: it should provide some measure of protection against sharp objects and the sun (long sleeves etc.).
- Weatherproof: is should provide some protection against the wind and precipitation.
- Insulative: it should provide insulation, preferably even when wet.
- Fast drying: it should dry out quickly.
- Breathable: allow perspiration to escape (mechanically if necessary)
- Maintainable: it should be simple to mend by hand (e.g. no zips)
- Modular: clothing should work together to provide a wide range of environmental options.
- Antibacterial: it should provide natural hygiene and or be easy to clean.
- Colours blend in: matched to your environment.
- Producible from local materials with low tech techniques.
Almost all books on outdoor survival recommend a layering approach to clothing. This allows for maximum flexibility across a range of conditions without too much weight to carry. This is consistent with our requirement for modularity and is also, since no textile has yet been developed which can provide all the above, a system which can work together to meet our requirements.
Layered systems have the following components:
BaseLayer: moisture management
The layer closest to the skin is called the baselayer. This should be long underwear and its job is to control moisture by wicking perspiration away from the skin. The best choice materials are polypropylene (an oil product) and wool. Avoid cotton because this stays wet and holds moisture next to the skin. It also loses its insulative properties when wet and it can be dangerously cooling in cold weather. In the days before central heating woolen long johns would have been common.
The next layer is the midlayer. This has two functions, firstly to absorb moisture from your baselayer and transport it away to evaporate into the environment and also to provide insulation against the cold. The midlayer could consist of more than one garment (e.g. a shirt, sweater, fleece or padded jacket such as a down jacket). Wool and goose down are the best natural insulators available. These work by trapping air next to the body and preventing a loss of heat by convection. Wool has the excellent property that it retains its insulation value when wet (I once rolled a sea kayak in the English Channel in January wearing a woolen beanie and even though when I finally got back in it was soaked with frigid water I could feel it still keeping my head warm – I didn’t even bother to ring it out). Down on the other hand completely loses its insulation when wet.
Shell Layer: weatherproofing
The shell layer protects you from wind and precipitation. Anything with a particularly tight weave will make a good windproof shell. If it isn’t wet then it is better to wear a wind rather than waterproof shell as they are better at letting perspiration out. Shell clothing should be breathable if at all possible as trapped perspiration can soak you from the inside. Mechanical venting (i.e. openings or zips under the arms) is best. Modern fabrics are the most common waterproofs these days although traditionally waxed cotton canvas was used. Ironically waxed canvas jackets seem to be increasing in popularity once again, albeit as a fashion item…
Another interesting (and expensive) material is Ventile. This is a type of cotton with a very tight weave in which the fibers swell up when wet creating a waterproof barrier. It was originally designed for immersion suits for fighter pilots in World War 2.
However when it comes to waterproofing Joe O’Leary, primitive skills expert and author of “The Wilderness Survival Guide” has this helpful advice (pp13):
“After countless soakings wearing all sorts of clothing combinations, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you just need to accept the fact that if it’s raining and you’re in the open for an extended period, then you’re going to get wet whatever clothing you’re wearing. With this in mind, the key points with any foul-weather clothing system are to have a good, tough, quick drying, windproof outer layer that keeps the wind chill off, inner layers that retain insulation and warmth when damp and a dry set of inner clothing for changing into when you eventually make or find shelter.”
The choice of materials is the most important factor in clothing selection, both now while industrial options are still available and in the future when only “natural” options are available. Ironically natural fibers are actually superior to industrial high tech clothing in most cases when considering our requirements.
There are 3 classes of fabrics, plant based, animal based and synthetics.
We will take a closer look at some of the currently available fabrics and evaluate their suitability and supply prospects going into the future as well as some of the longer term alternatives.
Cotton is arguably the most important fabric in production today for the reason it is both durable and comfortable against the skin. It is a seed fiber produced from the seed head of the cotton plant. For our requirements the best forms of cotton fabric are cotton canvas (in various weights) and Ventile. The majority of clothing however is made from polycotton, a blend of polyester (typically 65%) and cotton (35%). This is usually done for the reasons of minimising manufacturing costs, however some very durable, lightweight and fast drying polycotton clothing, particularly trousers such as military combat clothing, are available. Additionally cotton canvas is used as the base fabric for waxed waterproof clothing.
As we have noted cotton is a very poor insulator when wet and since it absorbs water easily it gets wet easily, even from perspiration. This is a benefit in very hot climates as it can help keep you cool but in cold climates it can be dangerous. This is where layering (for example durable cotton over insulating wool) comes into its own.
Both pure cotton and polycotton clothing are unlikely to be available for very much longer however as both are dependent on petrochemicals (polyester being an oil based product).
“[C]otton cultivation is no longer possible without the use of chemical fertilizer, which is derived from natural gas, and pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides, which are oil-based. About a quarter of all insecticides used globally are lavished on cotton [despite it accounting for only 2% of cultivated land]; without them, the crop is destroyed by weevils. (Even with these chemicals, the weevils seem to be winning the battle, evolving resistance faster than new chemicals can be developed.) Thus, the future availability of cotton is likely to be too low to make it a useful source of ….. fiber. On the other hand, flax can be cultivated without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, provided proper crop rotation techniques are used.”
Another problem with cotton cultivation is the large amount of water needed. According to Mark Boyle (The Moneyless Manifesto pp277):
“For every kilo of final cotton textile, 11,000 litres of water is used, meaning that for every cotton T-shirt we buy 2,700 litres of water have been consumed.”
There are however several potential replacements for cotton, all which can be grown easily in temperate climates without the need for petrochemicals.
Bamboo is a very interesting material for fabrics and it has some very significant advantages for clothing manufacture. It is extremely fast growing and can be grown completely organically with the advantage that it doesn’t have any natural pests. It requires much less water than cotton and some species are even edible so it doubles as a food plant!
Bamboo fibers are very soft and they don’t require chemical treatment as they are naturally smooth. This makes bamboo clothing very comfortable, even for those with sensitive skin.
Bamboo isn’t quite as durable as cotton in my experience and it has a much higher elasticity, however it has a couple of other significant advantages over cotton. Bamboo is a naturally antibacterial, antifungal and odor resistant fiber, much like wool, which is good from a hygiene point of view.
Finally bamboo has excellent wicking properties and also has insulating properties (even when wet) and also appears to provide some protection from UV light.
By some reports chemicals and industrial processes are used in the manufacture of bamboo clothing, however I suspect it is possible to process bamboo into clothing with entirely hand power and no chemical inputs. More research here would be extremely valuable.
Flax is a potentially excellent replacement for cotton, especially for canvas production. It was cultivated extensively in Britain during the second world war to address a canvas shortage because of disruption to international cotton supplies. Flax was also the primary yarn used to make linen in Europe until it was displaced by cotton. Flax seeds (linseed) are used as a source of omega-3 and linseed oil is a useful resource as we will see below. Although flax can be grown without inputs it does require good fertility and it is susceptible to fungus and pests. While it does have a perennial variety (Linum perenne) it is the annual (L. usitatissimum) which is cultivated as an agricultural crop.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis family (Cannabis sativa sativa) which has been bred for fiber and seed production. It is a fast growing and productive plant and can tolerate a wide variety of conditions. It is a wind-pollinated annual or short-lived perennial. It has been used as a textile fiber for several thousand years in China and was also a key source of fiber for rope, particularly for sailing ship rigging and bow strings. Hemp seeds are reputed to have significant health benefits and high nutritional value when consumed and can also be used to produce seed oil and paper. Hemp can even be used to make biodegradable plastic and fuel although I hesitate to recommend wasting such a valuable resource on such un-necessities.
According to Mark Boyle (pp280):
“Hemp is one of the most crucial agricultural crops for a sustainable future as it can easily be managed with no imported inputs. Unlike other crops intended for clothing, it is very resilient and needs no pesticides; it adds nutrients to the soil and so can be intercropped with other useful plants that need what it supplies (therefore requiring no synthetic fertilisers); and the fact that it grows quite thick means there is little need for weeding”.
Hemp is a wonderful plant however it has one serious (short term) problem. Because of its relation to the marijuana plant it is currently banned in the US and the UK (without a special Home Office license) despite the fact that is has been bred to contain extremely low amounts of THC (the psychoactive substance in marijuana). Where it has been legalised however (for example in Canada and Australia) the hemp industry has grown extremely rapidly and is now a multi-million dollar industry.
Hemp originally created quite a coarse fiber which is why it has a reputation for being an itchy material from which to make clothing. However plant breeding has created hemp with finer and therefore softer fibers which are much more suitable for clothing. It is important that we don’t lose the heritage of these plants which is another reason the current ban on hemp is problematic for our future resilience.
Flax and hemp are interesting options however they both fit more into the category of “agricultural crop” which implies domestication and cultivation and the issues that come along with those, particularly as in their cultivated forms they are annuals which means a bunch of work to grow. There is however a more than suitable alternative which is so pervasive it probably doesn’t require any cultivation at all: the stinging nettle.
Although nettle textiles are starting to break into the eco-clothing mainstream those not familiar with nettle fibers might be surprised to find out that nettle clothing has been produced for possibly thousands of years until fairly recently when it was displaced by cotton.
Nettle fibers can be as fine as cotton and are much finer than flax so potentially more comfortable as a clothing material.
Probably not surprisingly flax, hemp (cannabis) and nettle are all related. The common feature which makes them all suitable for fiber and textile production is the bast (inner bark) surrounding the stems and the fibers they create are therefore known as bast fibers. Bast fibers have a higher tensile strength than other fibers. Other potentially useful bast fibers are jute and ramie.
A good rule to remember when harvesting nettle is that the taller the nettle the stronger, longer and thicker the fiber. There is of course a trade off between comfort and durability / ease of creating yarn.
Processing plant fibers
The plant fibers from flax, hemp or nettle need to be harvested (by hand) and then the stalks need to be retted (controlled rotting) for up to 10 days by immersing them in water. This is to allow bacteria to break down the “glue” which holds the fiber together. They then need to be dried out. The next part of the process involves first breaking and then scrutching (scraping) the stalks to release the fibers. This sounds involved but it basically means hitting the stalks with something heavy.
Once the woody outer part of the stalks have been removed the fibers need to be hackled: combing the fibers to remove the short tangled threads called tow and splitting the fibers into individual strands. The hackling comb is fixed to a table and the bundle of fibers is pulled over the comb. Different sized combs can be used to create different grades of fiber. Typically 3 grades are used from coarse to fine. The fibers are now ready for spinning.