Posts Tagged ‘fabric’

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.

The Far Future is Before Our Very Eyes

The second annual Science in My Fiction Contest is on and bedeviling writers! This year, in addition to asking writers to base their short story submissions on recent scientific developments, all contest entries must also be stories set off-Earth.

At a stretch, nearly any scientific advance made on Earth could be applied to the far-future, and authors of speculative fiction should ideally always practice that kind of literary yoga. But while some technological leaps are more obviously applicable than others, many things are taken for granted on Earth to the extent that we need to be reminded that they require re-thinking for all other settings. 

Because of the contest’s secondary requirement, I’ve been tweeting daily links to recent space travel and far future-relevant scientific developments. Not everyone follows me on Twitter, however, so I’ve decided to bring a few examples of SiMF Contest-ready science to the blog for helpful discussion and speculation. 

Wherever else in the galaxy humans are ever able to settle, we will first need to travel there. Everything we take with us may become lighter than feathers once outside Earth’s gravity, but before then, it must be launched. Every ounce of weight correlates to the amount of fuel required for lift-off. Once weightless, all cargo still has volume and mass, so we must also account for how much room is required to store it when it’s not in use, without cramming in the crew like so much ballast. These issues are tricky for short missions and incredibly problematic for long missions, but some far future dilemmas may have answers rooted in ancient arts. I give you Textiles in Space

Essential items like food, water, tools, and people are not the only things we send to space. On short journeys, of course we include materials for science experiments, and satellites to be put in orbit, but we also allow astronauts a few small personal items. For example, several flutes recently circled the Earth. On short missions, these little things are of arguable worth in space, but on long missions they could become hugely important – psychologically, if in no other way. But again, every item aboard ship takes up valuable ‘real estate,’ and so the size of allowable personal items must be carefully reconsidered for long-term space travel. Fortunately, we humans are capable of placing remarkably high significance on our virtual possessions. Talk about space-savers. 

Astronauts are scheduled to within an inch of their sanity. Every moment is carefully planned to ensure that the science gets done, all maintenance is performed, and everyone sleeps and exercises enough to protect their health. Even their so-called ‘free time’ is scheduled in advance. But people are people, no matter how far off-Earth we may travel. Even if we take great pains to send no trouble-makers into space, it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts some shenanigans. Why? Well, rules are all well and good, but rule-breaking is powerful stuff. Eventually, every long space mission will have to deal with man-made mischief. Perhaps if we designate time for it on ships’ calendars we can mitigate the damage… 

Those are just three examples of obvious or easily ignored science that could be useful for writers speculating on the future. I’ll bring up more like these as the contest progresses, but in the mean time, what are your off-Earth science suggestions for SiMF contestants?