Ballgown to beret

The science news last week featured this ugly customer and its disgusting slime.

A disturbed hagfish can produce large volumes of slime. Once the mucus is removed, the remaining protein fibers can be reprocessed into something like silk. That’s even weirder than a sow’s ear, I think.

But it leads neatly into one of my favorite worldbuilding concepts: where stuff comes from, and one of my particular favorite areas within that, cloth and clothing. Clothing fits so neatly at the intersection of climate and culture, and comes in such variety, from the raw materials on up.

So about those raw materials. Let’s start there. Do they come from plant stems, like linen, or seedpods like cotton and kapok? Or bark, or roots? What about animal products: skin, hair, fur, wool? Or fish slime? Fibrous minerals like asbestos, which can be woven?

If the raw materials are collected wild, who collects them? If cultivated, whose job is that aspect of agriculture?

Who processes the raw materials, and with what level of technology? Early medieval European cultures processed linen and wool with drop spindles and simple but effective looms. It was slow, and even the simplest clothing was incredibly valuable.

The wool must be washed, combed and spun into yarn. For linen, the stems of the flax plant are rotted slightly (called retting), and the fibers combed away from the straw. Then again they must be spun into yarn. Then the yarn can be woven into fabric, and cut and sewn into garments.

(Dyeing is a whole separate issue, and a complicated process.)

Or is it entirely mechanized, the processing and the weaving and the making of garments? That’s largely the situation much of the world today. Our clothing is incredibly cheap, often nearly disposable, while at the same time of a fineness hard to duplicate with hand tools. (Except for the finest Egyptian linen: we just plain can’t reproduce that with machines.) Industrialization offers up more possible materials: fibers processed from cellulose (rayon), or from petrochemicals (nylon).

What is done with the finished product? Which aspects of clothing are needed for protection from the elements, and which are fashion? A culture that lives entirely in climate-controlled environments may only need the fashionable aspects.

Who does the work, from procuring the fiber, to processing it, to spinning, weaving, tailoring? Is is low- or high-status, or variable across the tasks? (Raising sheep is much lower status than fashion designer.)

Where do people/aliens/whoever get clothes? From a custom-manufacturing robot? From a shop? From a tailor? Make them at home?

You get the idea. I find this kind of thing endlessly fascinating. Where stuff comes from is often ignored or not thought through in worldbuilding, especially in medievaloid fantasy, but thinking about it a bit can lend depth to even a highly-advanced spacefaring culture.

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