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Worldbuilding: Fabrics

At some point people decided to protect themselves from cold, wet, insects, and stinging plants. Thus began the convoluted journey from fig leaves to New York Fashion Week.

In Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds, you can introduce us to stunning and unusual clothing items based in reality or magic.

Let's examine some of the realistic options.

Animal furs from brown and black bears, polar bears, lions, tigers, cheetahs, rabbits, raccoons, and others were worn by the earliest cave dwellers. Other animal parts such as tails, claws, teeth, heads, and quills were also utilized for decoration.

Bird feathers from all species were collected and adorned everything from hair and wigs to hats and clothing.

Grasses and woven plant fibers were worn by Polynesian dancers and African chieftans.

Leather is produced by tanning animal hides and skin such as cows, horses, lamb, pig, ostrich, kangaroo, ox, yak, deer, elk, eel, alligator, stingrays, ostrich, and snake. At different times in history, leather made from more exotic skins were highly desirable. Leather was used for everything from book-binding, shoes, boots, coats, hats, furniture, whips, belts, gun holsters, vests, to saddles. The skins are cleaned, prepared, soaked, then stretched and dried. They can be further treated, oiled, stained, coated, and embossed.

Angora comes from the downy coat of a rabbit originating in Ankara (present-day Turkey). Phoenicians found the rabbits while exploring Spain. They were responsible for exporting the rabbits to other people around the globe. The Romans raised rabbits for food before they used their hair. French monks began to domesticate the rabbits and through breeding developed the French angora rabbit. They later developed machinery that could process the fine wool. French angora rabbits were imported to the U.S. in the 1920s. The majority of angora is currently produced in China.

Broadcloth was a milled wool that was carded and loom spun. It was popular in the medieval period in England.

Brocade is made with colored silks, with or without gold and silver threads. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it was considered a luxury and worn by nobility throughout China, India, Greece, Japan, Korea, and Byzantium. Brightly colored brocade was also woven by Mayans in Guatemala.

Cashmere (Kashmir) is obtained from goats and is finer and softer than sheep's wool. It is manufactured largely in China and Mongolia. Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian Republics produce lesser amounts. It was in use as early as 300 BCE. It gained popularity in the Middle East in the 1400s. Cashmere shawls were introduced to France in the early 1800s.

Cotton grows on a shrub found in the Americas, Africa, India, Iran, China, Egypt, South America, Mexico, and Australia. Cotton was independently domesticated in the Old and New Worlds. Fibers are combed, spun, then woven into cloth, crocheted, and knitted. It runs from fine to coarse and is turned into calico, cambric, chintz, denim, seersucker, terrycloth, and twill. It was used in clothing, bedding, window treatments, paper, bookbinding, thread, embroidery floss, tableware, fishing nets, sails, coffee filters, and tents. Earliest records are in the Indus Valley during the Neolithic Period (6000 - 5000 BCE) and became widespread across India (2000 and 1000 BCE). It was used in Persia (5th century BCE), Ancient Egypt, and the Han dynasty (207 BCE - 220 CE). Britain mechanized weaving it and exported cotton in the 1700s. It was brought to the American colonies from England.

Hemp is found primarily in the Northern hemisphere. Samples of hemp were found in Japan dating back to 8000 BCE. Hemp paper was made during China’s Han dynasty over 2000 years ago and samples date back to the Neolithic age. It is believed to have been utilized as a drug during the Neolithic age in many areas of the world including Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Ukraine, East Asia, Tibet, and China. However, it is believed it wasn’t used as a textile until the Iron Age. Hemp rope was used on sailing ships. Use of hemp spread to South America then North America in the 1500s.

Linen is made from the flax plant and dates back to 34,000 BCE. Flax fibers are separated from the stalk, the inner fibers are rotted by soaking them in water. The outer stem is scraped away then pulled through combs. The strings are then spun and woven. Linen is used in clothing, damasks, lace, sheeting, twine, rope, and canvas. Linen was the predominant fabric from 300 to 600 CE.

Lace was originally made from linen, silk, and gold or silver threads. It was hand-tatted or crocheted. Cutwork lace was made by removing threads from a woven fabric. Bobbin lace, such as Chantilly lace, was made with wood, bone, or plastic bobbins and pins stuck into pillows to form patterns. Tape lace was made using a machine or hand loom then joined together. Knotted lace combined hand tatting and macramé (knot tying). Irish, pineapple, and filet lace were crocheted with a crochet needle. Shetland lace was knitted. Machines eventually took over to mass produce lace. Needle and bobbin lace became widespread and popular in the 1500s. It was used for collars, cuffs, shawls, mantillas, and embellishments. Missionaries introduced lace to the native Indian tribes in North America.

Mohair comes from the Angora goat, originating in Ankara (historically known as Angora), in present day Turkey.

Sackcloth was a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat's hair. It was popular in the Middle East as a loin-cloth. It was also worn for religious purposes, on very special occasions, or at mourning ceremonies.

Satin is warp-face weaved from silk. It is now also made from nylon and polyester.

Silk is produced by multiple insects including caterpillars and spiders. The most famous are Chinese silk worms. Silk has been produced in China, South Asia, and Europe since 3630 BCE. It spread to India (2450 - 2000 BCE). It was traded to the Roman Empire. Italy produced silk during Medieval times. From the 4th to the 6th centuries, there was no public knowledge of silk fabric production except for that which was kept secret by the Chinese.

Synthetic fabrics were first developed in the early 1880s. Synthetic silk was invented in the 1870s. Rayon and acetate are made from wood. Nylon was made by Dupont in the 1930s and was used for stockings, parachutes, and ropes. Polyester (Dacron) was introduced in 1941. Acrylic and polyolefin followed.

Velvet weaves two thicknesses of material at the same time and was expensive to make. Velvet pile is created by warp or vertical yarns and velveteen pile is created by weft or fill yarns. Velvet can be made from silk, cotton, linen, mohair, wool, and modern synthetics such as rayon.

Wool is woven from sheep or goat hair. Fleece is collected then spun and woven. It is water resistant and holds heat. Sheep were domesticated 10,000 years ago. Woolly-sheep were brought to Europe from the Near East in 4 BCE. It was known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Wool was also a predominant fabric in 400-600 CE.

Suggested references:

1. World Textiles: A Concise History by Mary Schoeser
2. Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles by Phyllis G. Tortora
3. History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser
4. Tatting: Technique and History by Elgiva Nicholls
5. Leather: History, Technique, Projects by Josephine Barbe
6. History and Fashion by Anne Kraatz
7. Home Tanning and Leather Making Guide (1922): A Book of Information for Those who Wish to Tan and Make Leather from Cattle, Horse, Calf, Sheep, Goat, Deer & Other Hides and Skins by Albert Burton Farnham
8. Home Manufacture of Furs and Skins: A Book of Practical Instructions Telling how to Tan, Dress, Color and Manufacture Or Make Into Articles of Ornament, Wear and Use by Albert Burton Farnham 

Next week, we continue our exploration of apparel with the topic of footwear.

For advanced world-building, the SBB Build A World Workbook is available in print and e-book.

Other titles in the series:  Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book takes you from story seed to conflict outline. The fourteen companion Build A Plot Workbooks, in print and e-book, offer step by step development prompts: ComedyCon, Heist & Prison BreakFantasyGothicHistoricalHorrorLiterary (Drama),  MysteryRoad TripRomanceScience FictionTeam VictoryThriller & SuspenseWestern.

SBB II Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book and the Build A Cast Workbook in print and e-book help you build a believable cast and add conflict based on the sixteen personality types.

SBB III The Revision Layers in print and e-book helps you self-edit your manuscript.

Free story building tools are available at  

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