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”.
33 thoughts on “On Fabric (aka Fossil Energy is Indistinguishable from Magic)”
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?”
Yes he does.
My ecologically-precocious parents were instilling those ideas into me back in the early 1970s. Yet, despite all predictions, we don’t seem to be any closer to that impoverishment, at least it doesn’t appear that way. As a society, Britain looks nicer than it did back then: cleaner, healthier, less racist or misogynistic, longer-living and with rather better fashion sense. Clothing made these days seems to me to be far longer-lasting, probably due to its high plastic content. Repairing it is rarely necessary and charity shops are stuffed with good-quality replacements.
Someone tell me how mistaken I am.
Things on the surface are indeed remarkably good, assuming you’re not among those who where living paycheck to paycheck and lost their job due to Covid, and assuming you were not born into a desperately poor and over-populated country.
It’s only when you lift the hood and look in the engine compartment that you see real cause for concern.
The fuel tank is almost empty (peak oil), the lubrication system is failing (monetary system), the coolant system is overheating (climate change), and the radio is stuck on a channel with a whack job preacher promising that prayer will fix the car.
You are totally mistaken & did not back your argument with any data or references. The UK is almost as bad as the US in most decline metrics.
One in seven UK businesses ‘on brink even before lockdown’
The UK post GFC austerity measures had the exact opposite effect than they claimed they would have. They made the already poor poorer, pushed millions who were borderline into poverty, gutted NHS & other services.
The only effect on the rich & oligarchs is they gained more power & wealth, (and privation contracts which cost more & give worse service) which was the true goal all along.
It’s just a matter of time before one sided austerity comes to Canada.
Declining net energy at the root – yes, but when the cuts go to the lowest 80% while the rich continue to get obscene welfare bailouts & tax exemptions you can’t pin it all on Declining net energy. Not yet.
Austerity policies have never worked as claimed, nor can they. Their purpose is to maintain the status quo at the expense of the masses under any circumstances. Austerity policies are not about change or reform of their nations system.
It’s too late for reform of the current system in any national version. Only those in power, fear & denial want to preserve it, because it’s all they know & it’s keeping them alive right now (as it sets the table for unspeakable horrors).
Nothing is/will hurl the humans to their doom quicker than the current consumer capitalist systems & dogma. The MPP’s favourite biological creation (capitalist fire apes).
I can’t envision system going anywhere. Further decline—>Collapse.
Hmmm. I can’t deny that what I saw in my home town in the 1970s is nothing like today. People had backyard loos, no fridges, there was graffiti and many phone boxes were vandalised or used as toilets, the care of people with mental illness was dreadful, there was widespread sexual and domestic abuse, racism was not just tolerated but openly encouraged, women were still told to know their place… to claim that the sacrificial work of many thousands of ordinary folk whose names are not in the history books had no worth or effect is to insult them and to deny reality.
Still, you are entirely correct about the direction of travel regarding climate collapse. Capitalism is still being promoted as the only means to keep the lights on and our mouths fed. Unless we can destroy it and replace it with something that works for us all, we’re doomed.
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.
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Thanks, Friedemann’s post is very interesting.
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.
Good point. This is how they make polyester thread:
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
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.)”
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.
P.S. Check out Berman’s polite reply to an idiot commenter on his site.
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
Thanks, I saw that interview and discussed it here.
I left this comment on YouTube:
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.
I have read Fix’s all essays, a few more than once. As a life long scientist I admire his insight, precision and writing.
Don’t sell yourself short on your ability to explain things in a clear and concise manner.
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Some of Heinberg’s most recent essay is good if you skip over the partisan politics crap.
One quote stood out:
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.
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.
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.
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
Steve St. Angelo on why we are heading for a depression that never ends.
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Norman Pagett with some insightful comments:
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My guess is that when you’re blessed with an above average endowment of energy and natural resources, with a modest (but still much too high) population, you can push a debt backed fractional reserve monetary system to a more extreme (and more dangerous) state.
Oh (Oh) Canada.
James should have been a poet…
My favorite Canadian band with a new old tune….
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All that success & Sarah can only afford 1 pant leg – declining net energy strikes again.
They remind a bit of the young Bare Naked Ladies – very talented & don’t take it/life so seriously.
Another great Canadian band.