On Fabric (aka Fossil Energy is Indistinguishable from Magic)

I recently purchased a 6 piece queen sheet set for my bed and marveled at how something so useful, and so difficult to make myself, could be so inexpensive, costing only $30, or about 2 hours of my labor at minimum wage.

I did a little digging and found this video on how fabric was made before fossil energy:

And this video on how fabric is made today with fossil energy:

A podcast I monitor serendipitously had an episode today on the history of fabric making.


Author and journalist Virginia Postrel talks about her book The Fabric of Civilization and How Textiles Made the World with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Postrel tells the fascinating story behind the clothes we wear and everything that goes into producing them throughout history. The history of textiles, Postrel argues, is a good way of understanding the history of the world.

For those who prefer video:

For those who prefer audio:

Postrel described the process required to make fabric products:

  • get fiber
    • grow plants or breed sheep
    • harvest plants or sheer sheep
    • clean fiber
    • transport fiber to spinner
  • spin fiber into thread
    • align fibers
    • stretch and twist
    • transport thread to weaver
  • weave fiber into fabric
    • set up warp threads
    • pass weft thread through alternate warp threads
    • cut and hem edges
    • transport fabric to manufacturer
  • manufacture final product
    • dye fabric
    • cut fabric
    • sew fabric
  • transport product to consumer

Postrel also provided some interesting data:

  • A single pair of jeans requires 10 Km of thread.
    • The fastest pre-fossil energy manual spinners in the world could produce 100m of thread per hour taking 13 x 8 hour days to produce enough thread for one pair of jeans.
    • A modern fossil energy spinning plant can produce 10 Km of thread in a few seconds.
    • Postrel did not provide data on how long it took to manually weave thread into denim for a pair of jeans, but the video above gives a pretty good idea.
    • A pair of jeans today costs me $15 or about 1 hour of my labor at minimum wage.
  • A basic twin sheet requires 46 Km of thread or 59 x 8 hour days for a fast pre-fossil manual spinner.
    • Again, no data on the weaving time.
    • Linen was, until the industrial revolution, a valuable family asset.

I can’t write a post without drawing a connection to reality denial.

In this case, Russ Roberts, a relative rocket scientist as far as mainstream economists go, never once in the interview drew a connection with non-renewable rapidly depleting fossil energy.

There was a long discussion on the economics of applying “technology” to textile production. But zero awareness of the link between technology and non-renewable energy.

Roberts did draw a connection between food and textiles in that he observed only 2% of the population are now farmers. Again, no apparent awareness of the centrality of natural gas for fertilizer and diesel for tractors and combines.

I’ve added Russ Roberts to my list of famous polymaths in denial, although I probably should have added instead “all economists except Steve Keen”.


20 thoughts on “On Fabric (aka Fossil Energy is Indistinguishable from Magic)”

  1. This is why I’ve learned to sew patches into my jeans, and new collars into my shirts, rather than just toss them into the rag bag. And this is why I have a rag bag, rather than buy a roll of shop rags at the auto parts store. And why I re-use cloth rags instead of pulling another roll of paper towels out of the big plastic wrapper they’re sold in. Since extinction is unthinkable, I anticipate poverty instead, and plan and practice ways to adapt to our coming impoverishment. I hope that cheerful display of patched jeans in public space helps establish a trend of conservation, if only to the extent that somebody remembers “that crazy old guy, in patched jeans, buying expensive local produce at the farmer’s market”. “He knew what was coming, didn’t he?”


  2. Alice Friedemann over at energy skeptic has reposted an essay about the making of a pencil and how fossil fuels permeate every aspect of our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Friedemann’s post is very interesting.


      “My family tree begins with … a Cedar tree from Oregon. Now contemplate the antecedents — all the people, numberless skills, and fabrication:

      All the SAWS. TRUCKS, ROPE and OTHER GEAR to HARVEST and CART cedar logs to the RAILROAD siding. The MINING of ore, MAKING of STEEL, and its REFINEMENT into SAWS, AXES, and MOTORS.

      The growing of HEMP, LUBRICATED with OIL, DIRT REMOVED, COMBED, COMPRESSED, SPUN into yard, and BRAIDED into ROPE.

      BUILDING of LOGGING CAMPS (BEDS, MESS HALLS). SHOP for, DELIVER, and COOK FOOD to feed the working men. Not to mention the untold thousands of persons who had a hand in every cup of COFFEE the loggers drank!

      The LOGS are SHIPPED to a MILL in California. Can you imagine how many people were needed to MAKE FLAT CARS and RAILS and RAILROAD ENGINES?

      At the mill, cedar logs are CUT into small, pencil-length slats less than a quarter inch thick, KILN-DRIED, TINTED, WAXED. and KILN-DRIED again. Think of all effort and skills to make the TINT and the KILNS, SUPPLY the HEAT, LIGHT, and POWER, the BELTS, MOTORS, and all the OTHER THINGS a MILL requires? Plus the SWEEPERS and the MEN who POURED the CONCRETE for the DAM of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company HYDRO-ELECTRIC PLANT which supplies the mill’s POWER!


      Once in the PENCIL FACTORY—worth millions of dollars in MACHINERY and BUILDING—each slat has 8 GROOVES CUT into them by a GROOVE-CUTTING MACHINE, after which the LEAD-LAYING MACHINE PLACES a piece of LEAD in every other slat, APPLIES GLUE and PLACES another SLAT on top–—a lead sandwich. Seven brothers and I are mechanically CARVED from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.

      My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The GRAPHITE is MINED in Sri Lanka. Consider these MINERS and those who MAKE their many TOOLS and the makers of the PAPER SACKS in which the graphite is SHIPPED and those who make the STRING that ties the sacks and the MEN who LIFT them aboard SHIPS and the MEN who MAKE the SHIPS. Even the LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS along the way assisted in my birth—and the HARBOR PILOTS.

      The graphite is mixed with CLAY FROM Mississippi in which AMMONIUM HYDROXIDE is used in the REFINING process. Then WETTING AGENTS and animal fats are CHEMICALLY REACTED with sulfuric acid. After PASSING THROUGH NUMEROUS MACHINES, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then TREATED with a hot mixture which includes CANDELILLA WAX from Mexico, PARAFFIN WAX, and HYDROGENATED NATURAL FATS.

      My cedar RECEIVES 6 coats of LACQUER. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the GROWERS of CASTOR BEANS and the REFINERS of CASTOR OIL are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

      Observe the LABELING, a film FORMED by APPLYING HEAT to CARBON BLACK mixed with RESINS. How do you make resins and what is carbon black?

      My bit of metal—the ferrule—is BRASS. Think of all the PERSONS who MINE ZINC and COPPER and those who have the skills to MAKE shiny SHEET BRASS from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black NICKEL. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story would take pages to explain.

      Then there’s my crowning glory, the ERASER, a rubber-like product made by reacting RAPE-SEED OIL from Indonesia with SULFUR CHLORIDE, and numerous VULCANIZING and ACCELERATING AGENTS. The PUMICE comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is CADMIUM SULFIDE.


  3. Fibers made from petrochemicals now make up something like 60% of clothing worldwide. Lower end clothing now is mostly plastic: underwear, basic T-shirts, shoes, many shirts, coats. In a few cases the functionality of such items is improved, but mostly not. High quality cotton, leather, and any quality wool garments, are not affordable by the average consumer. My guess is there is not enough farm land or pasture land to grow or raise the natural fibers for 8Billion people. We now depend on “cheap” oil to cloth ourselves. This is a clear sign of massive overshoot and reliance on oil to keep the current system going.


  4. John Weber over at sun web used to post videos of various manufacturing processes. They are still available. Two takeaways: the sheer complexity of the work process and fossil fuels underpinning everything


    1. Thanks for that, Stephen. Reading a few posts, this is quite memorable:

      “The building of thousands of furnaces in hundreds of medieval forests to satisfy the extensive demand for iron was a major cause of deforestation. . . . From the very beginning, the fuel used was charcoal, the black porous residue of burned wood. . . . The extent of the damage caused by iron smelters to forests can be appreciated when one realizes that to obtain 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of iron it was necessary at that time to reduce approximately 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of iron ore with as much as 25 steres (25 cubic meters) (883 cubic feet) of wood. It has been estimated that in forty days, one furnace could level the forest for a radius of 1 kilometer (over a square mile.)”



  5. http://creditbubblebulletin.blogspot.com/2020/11/weekly-commentary-scorched-earth.html

    Covid’s precision-like timing was supernatural – nothing short of sinister. A once in a century international pandemic surfacing in the waning days of an unrivaled global financial Bubble. A historic experiment in central bank monetary management already floundering (i.e. Fed employing aggressive “insurance” QE stimulus with stocks at record highs and unemployment at 50-year lows). A Republican administration running Trillion-dollar deficits in the midst of an economic boom. Yet, somehow, reckless U.S. fiscal and monetary stimulus appeared miserly when compared to the runaway excess percolating from China’s epic Credit Bubble. Monetary, fiscal, markets, at home and abroad: Covid bestowed end-of-cycle excess a hardy additional lease on life.


  6. I’m impressed. Art Berman, the go-to guy on the planet for peak oil analysis you can trust, is also more than competent on climate change.


    Arguments about climate change are what my friend Perry Fisher called the “great and silly debate.” It is great because climate change is serious and affects all of Earth’s inhabitants. It is silly because it doesn’t matter what we think about it. The effect of the debate is to make one side or the other feel better or worse about what is happening whether we like it or not. To say that climate is always changing, that temperatures have been higher during previous periods of Earth history, or that deviations from the warming trend invalidate its truth, ignore geological context and miss the point.

    Figure 3 shows the same data on a logarithmic time scale to compare more recent earth history with its more distant geologic past. Among the various projections on the right-hand side of the figure, RCP8.5 represents the “do-nothing” or business-as-usual scenario. It indicates CO2 values by early in the next century that exceed levels from more than 99% of the last 420 million years. A return to unstable climate would make agriculture impossible again.

    What lies ahead during the lifetimes of our grandchildren will most probably not be comparable to anything since the development of multi-cellular life on Earth.

    P.S. Check out Berman’s polite reply to an idiot commenter on his site.


    1. I still contend that most people do not comprehend the AGW forces in play, nor the horror show consequences that are baked in. Perhaps it’s for the best.

      *“The world’s leading expert on “ocean heat” has researched how many Hiroshima bombs equal the amount of heat added to the ocean on a daily basis. Which is a major byproduct of global warming. “As of a few years ago, the answer was three (3) Hiroshima bombs per second; now it is five (5) Hiroshima bombs per second… and that’s real” (Carter).

      It’s impossible to fully comprehend numbers like that, which may be one of the biggest obstacles to fully understanding the depth and breadth of climate change. But still, 5 Hiroshima bombs per second Wow!”*

      November 20, 2020

      Expert IPCC Reviewer Speaks Out

      “Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion/XR recently interviewed Peter Carter, M.D., who has the distinguished title – Expert IPCC Reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

      The interview was conducted to get to the bottom of what science says about the state of affairs, specifically the health of the planet.

      The following is a video link to that brilliant interview, inclusive of a treasure trove of contemporary science events (time: 41:21 Nov. 11, 2020):”

      Additionally, a synopsis of the interview follows herein, but it does not do justice to the emphasis as expressed by the participants:

      Dr. Carter: “We are in a climate emergency, in an unprecedented Earth emergency… it’s an emergency of our climate, an emergency of our oceans… this is not one of many challenges, this is the challenge for all of humanity.”

      The upcoming 26th COP (Conference of the Parties) to be held November 2021 in Glasgow is on the docket for scientists and bureaucrats, as well as big moneyed interests, to knock heads in a formal setting to discuss the state of the planet. If all goes according to plan, like past COPs, powerful economic interests will sabotage what would otherwise be a rather dim forecast of a planet in various stages of collapse, some terminal.

      We’ve seen this act (COP) repeat over and over, ever since COP1 in Berlin in 1995, as each successive COP-ending-ceremony finds the Parties congratulating each other, slaps on the back, for one more successful climate conference of 20,000-30,000 able-bodied professionals wiped-out from overconsumption of Beluga caviar and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but subsequently carbon emissions increase the following year, and every following year thereafter. What’s to congratulate?

      More to the point, the annualized CO2 emissions rate is +60% since COP1, not decreasing, not going down, not once. After 25 years of the same identical pattern, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the take-home-work from all 25 COPs mysteriously turns into the antithesis of the mission statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

      ““Climate change is an existential threat to the survival of life on Earth, particularly including human kind.”

      At this late point in time, there are no easy choices. The challenge ahead is daunting: “Everything is accelerating, everything is at a record high. In a nutshell, everything is getting worse faster.” (Carter)

      Global warming has morphed into a quasi-heat machine as global temperature for the first six months of 2020 registered 1.3°C above baseline, a number that has new significance ever since the IPCC Special Report/2018 about the risks of exceeding 1.5°C.

      Accordingly, it is generally acknowledged that 2.0°C above baseline is, in Dr. Carter’s words: “Out of the question, a catastrophe!”

      Carter: “A world at 1.5°C is a disastrous world, no question.”

      Carter: “2°C is an impossible world.”

      The problem arises because global surface heat is accelerating, not decelerating. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, accelerating like never before, is widely acknowledged by scientists throughout the world. New research published only a couple of weeks ago shows atmospheric carbon dioxide now at the highest level in twenty-three million (23,000,000) years.”

      “All over creation, danger is flashing in unison: “All of the accelerating data trends together result in a trend that the biosphere is headed in direction of collapse, meaning the human species will be lost.” (Carter)

      more more more



      1. Thanks, I saw that interview and discussed it here.


        I left this comment on YouTube:

        Very good summary of the threat. Very poor understanding of what to do about it. Burning carbon is the human economy, and renewable energy depends on burning carbon. Two things must be done. First, increase the interest rate which will shrink the economy and make everyone poorer so we burn less carbon. Second, implement democratically supported rapid population reduction policies. Population reduction reduces burning carbon, but in addition, if it is too late to prevent a climate incompatible with civilization, then we will still have reduced total suffering, and perhaps saved a few other species.


  7. Here is an intelligent and balanced overview and history of peak oil by fellow Canadian Blair Fix.

    Although I know most of the content, I would find it difficult to write as competent an essay. Congratulations to Blair for a job well done on a difficult task.

    I want to add one relevant comment about something that is rarely discussed. Our species has achieved some impressive scientific and engineering accomplishments. Two factors were central to these successes.

    First, an improbable mutation for denying unpleasant realities was required to enable our uniquely powerful brain to emerge. I’ve written about this many times. For example: https://un-denial.com/denial-2/theory-short/

    Second, an improbable store of over 1,000,000,000,000 barrels (160,000,000,000,000 liters) of oil was required to leverage our brain.

    Someday I intend to more fully research and write on this, but my current understanding is that the existence of this amazing quantity of ultra high quality energy was anything but certain. An improbable confluence of geological, biological, and climactic factors had to align in just the right way to create this oil. It may never happen again on this planet.

    We very easily could have remained as chimps not knowing what to do with the oil beneath our feet.

    Or equally easily, Einstein could have been too busy to think about traveling at the speed of light, having to grub for tubers because there was no oil to make farmers productive.


    Do you remember peak oil? It was all the rage a decade ago. Now, almost no one is talking about it. The funny thing is, the problem never went away. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

    In 1956, M. King Hubbert predicted that the global production of oil would peak around the year 2000. Looking only at conventional crude oil, it turns out that Hubbert got the timing right. As Figure 5 shows, the global peak of conventional crude production came in 2005. But despite getting the timing right, Hubbert got the height of the peak wrong by a factor of 2.

    It may just be luck that Hubbert got the height of the peak wrong but the timing right. But this luck still illustrates an important principle: exponential growth can quickly eat away at any resource. Hubbert underestimated the amount of crude oil we would discover. But we exploited this larger reserve faster than he anticipated. So his timing remained correct.

    To be fair to Hubbert, when he made his prediction, the size of the crude oil stock was uncertain. Today there is less uncertainty, which makes modeling easier.

    Perhaps the most rigorous prediction (to date) for conventional oil production comes from John Hallock Jr. and colleagues. In 2004, Hallock estimated the conventional oil reserves in all of the major oil-producing countries. Based on the range of these estimates, Hallock then created different scenarios for future oil production. In 2014, Hallock and colleagues revisited these scenarios to see which one was correct. Global oil production, they found, was following the low-end estimate. Figure 5 shows Hallock’s low-end model. It’s shockingly accurate. For the last 20 years, the model has predicted the global production of conventional oil to within 2%.

    The real test for Hallock’s prediction will come in the next few decades. If the model is correct, we’re on the precipice of an oil-production collapse. By 2040, the model predicts that we’ll be back to 1960-levels of oil production. But by then, the oil will be used by 3 times the population.

    Technological optimists think that unconventional oil will push the peak of total oil production into the distant future. I’m more skeptical. Assuming Hallock’s model is right, I doubt that unconventional oil sources will offset the coming collapse of conventional crude production. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that we’re able to harvest low-quality shale oil precisely because we’re producing so much conventional crude. Take away the conventional crude, and I’d guess that harvesting low-quality shale oil will become unfeasible.

    Whatever happens, it’s clear that the future will be unlike the past. Every living human has known nothing but energy boom. But when you harvest an exhaustible resource, the bust always comes. It’s just a matter of when.


  8. Some of Heinberg’s most recent essay is good if you skip over the partisan politics crap.

    One quote stood out:

    Remember that we are all just frightened animals trying to survive.


    This is the part of the essay where the author knowingly offers guidance toward a collectively desired outcome. In this case, that’s exceedingly difficult. My guess is that, over the coming years, the nation will be shaken to its foundations. And those foundations, resting as much on genocide and slavery as on democracy and freedom, may not hold. What to do during such a time of upheaval?

    I intend to hold fast to my goal of trying to minimize casualties. That requires maintaining social cohesion, which in turn means steering clear of demonization and rumor-mongering. If you share my goal, I suggest you avoid the temptation to start fires or dance on your enemies’ graves. Push yourself to step out of the confirmation bias bubble we all tend to slip into, so as to hear what others are saying and why. Push yourself and others in your circles to avoid making blanket judgements about people with different political or cultural beliefs. If you’re in a community where this is possible, consider hosting a People’s Supper (you can even do this virtually): these have brought together 10,000 people from different backgrounds and viewpoints in more than 100 communities across the US since 2017.

    Remember that we are all just frightened animals trying to survive. Help those in need. Be a good neighbor. Educate, don’t disinform. And take care.


  9. Shocking temperatures across the Arctic
    The hottest October ever in Europe is now followed by a November weekend with an average of 6,7°C above normal across the Arctic.

    “Heating is continuing to accelerate at an unprecedented speed in the north. The anomaly high temperatures this weekend are following a row of bad news this autumn.

    November 21 came with temperatures 10-12°C higher than normal 30 years ago, according to the Climate Change Institute with the University of Maine. For the entire Arctic, the heat was on average 6,7°C higher than normal.

    A belt of warm air is currently stretching from northern Greenland across the North Pole to the Laptev- and East Siberian Seas north of the Russian mainland. Northeast of Svalbard via Franz Josef Land to Severnaya Zemlya see similar heat.

    The Russian Arctic waters have a delayed growth of sea ice this winter. Open waters trigger warmer weather, and as previously reported by The Barents Observer, this October was extraordinary warm at several of the Russian archipelagoes, between 6-8°C warmer than normal. September also the warmest in Russia’s 130-year recorded history of measuring temperatures in its Arctic regions. ”


    The party’s not quite over, but the humans have been handed their hat.


    1. We had wild thunder and lightning here a couple days ago, followed by a little snow. My 90 year old uncle who’s lived here his entire life says he’s never seen a storm like that before.


  10. Another study showing the efficacy of vitamin D on Covid and discussion on the “conspiracy” of silence about vitamin D.

    My idiot government is running an ad every hour to telling me to wash my hands and to install an app on my phone but never mentions vitamin D.

    Rather than a conspiracy I suspect a more likely explanation is that most government employees are C students at best.


  11. Postrel and Roberts think clothes will be made the same way in 50 or 100 years, only with more advanced technology and at least as much energy


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