Monday, January 3, 2011

What are "Post Carbon Textiles"?

Ok. I'm sure you are wondering what exactly are "post carbon textiles"? Well, I have been following the topic of "Peak Oil" for a number of years. Peak Oil is the moment in time when either half the world's resources of oil have been used or when oil "production" reaches a maximum and thereafter, inexorably declines. Check the right sidebar for some links with more background on the subject. (more links to come soon)

Now, what does this have to do with textiles (that's clothes, towels, rugs, etc- everything made of fiber of any kind)? Producing anything takes energy- whether we are talking about food, clothing, buildings, transportation- everything. As human population has increased, we have been using more and more energy to produce all that we make and use. The discovery of fossil fuels made this much easier. We have been using fossil fuels to produce everything we use every day. The going rate, so to speak, to produce 1 kilocalorie of food is 10 kcals of fossil fuels. Now, imagine if you were to no longer have those fossil fuels available. Trouble!

Ok. In all the peak oil and fossil fuel related books I have read and most of the blogs, email lists, and other communication I have read, I have found very few comments or discussions about textiles. When clothing is discussed, there seems to be the impression that:

1) We have so many clothes already made, it will be years before we have to worry about producing more.

2) It can't be that difficult to make fabrics, etc. 

and finally,
3) Most people are SO far removed from what it takes to produce textiles, that the complexity is way beyond most people's comprehension.

So, my aim has been to write a book about the future of textiles in a world without fossil fuels. I've been working on it for a couple months and the project gets bigger and bigger! I'll have to work on narrowing the focus to get the greatest impact.

One of the first parts of this project has been to disprove the idea that we have so many clothes that we don't really need to work on textile production for quite a while. In order to do this, I purchased a set of clothes from a big box store. I bought a pair of jeans, one long sleeved top, one short sleeved top, and a long sleeve hooded fleecy jacket for a total investment of $44.47. I tried to just buy what was available- without thinking about how they would wear. I'm trying to take the clothes that are normally available and see how they stand up to hard wear.

I believe we will, in the future, have to be living a much more physically demanding life- growing our own food, fiber, and making many of the items we use in our lives. This lifestyle will put much different demands on our clothing and other textiles and I don't believe they will live up to those demands.

For a little more background, I have a small farm- I have a large garden where I raise a lot of the vegetables for my family (3 full time people and one college student who comes home to stock up on applesauce, pickles, tomatoes, jam, etc), chickens and ducks which are raised for eggs and meat, maple trees which I tap for sap, beehives, and a greenhouse in which I have an aquaponics system. All this requires a lot of work to maintain and get the greatest production. Clothes have to put up with a lot of use!

So, today is the first day wearing my new clothes. I am finding right away that I may have to buy one additional item. We heat our house with wood and it's kept fairly cool and I am thinking my jacket is not up to the task.

I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone about my project and post carbon textiles in general. I'll be blogging about many other aspects of my book project as well. Thanks for taking time to read my ramblings!


  1. Just started a long comment but ran into problems with profile attachment. Didn't have any. Now I do. So, just wanted to say this looks very interesting and want to wish you much success. Will be following your progress.

  2. Thank you so much for discussing such an important topic Lori! I can't wait to see your results. I, too, have found an extreme lack of information in regards to textiles.

    My wife and I are very peak oil-aware, even to the point where we are researching how to obtain a treadle so that we can use a non-electric sewing machine. I was shocked to find out that NOBODY, I mean NOBODY makes those anymore, not even reproductions. The only way to get them is to either inherit them from your ancestors or to buy them for thousands of dollars on eBay, some which are in poor to moderate condition. I find this extremely disturbing and hope that some of the big sewing companies (one of which is Singer who was one of the original treadle manufacturers) can start developing a treadle again, hopefully that can be reengineered to make it last long and work even better than the old-school kind.

    Do you have any advice on this? Have you found this to be true as well? My wife and I want to get used to sewing our own clothes, but don't want to buy a sewing machine we won't be able to use when the power goes out. Maybe I'll have to suck it up and buy one of these antique treadles to be able to do this, or just learn to sew everything by hand...

  3. Hi Eric,
    I haven't had to look into the availability of buying a treadle sewing machine as I bought one years ago just because I liked it- way before I had even heard about peak oil. I do know that if you have one, it is possible to replace the belt. That is another item I will look into as time allows.

    Learning to sew by hand is a great idea. Even if you do find a treadle machine, learning by hand will teach you alot more about construction basics than by machine. You will also learn what if really takes to hold clothing together especially in areas of heavy wear. I don't always find that machine made clothing has seams as strong as needed.

  4. Eric,

    I found one on Craigslist for $70 ... someone's grandmother died and the lady was cleaning out her stuff. It was made in 1921 and is in pretty good condition.

  5. Janome makes modern treadle powered machines for the Amish. You can buy one at AllBrands Sewing. You will need to mount it on a treadle base. Those can be found on Craigslist or purchased new at Lehmans.

    I purchased my working condition White treadle locally for $50.

    There is a yahoo group called "treadleon" in which members discuss their treadles, how to fix them, find parts and purchase them.

  6. I would like to thank you for beginning this discussion and I am thrilled with your experiment. There have been other garment centered sustainability challenges I have read about like The Brown Dress Challenge but they wore lots of other clothing with the brown dress.

    At our state fair, I really enjoy the historical building. There have been exhibits on making beer -- from farming the hops-- how that was done to the actual brewing without the modern amenities, the tools used etc. Also there was a great exhibit on flax-- how it was grown, harvested and obtaining the fibers, the process from fiber to spinning to weaving. Boy, it was quite a labor intensive process. It was quite shocking. I'll never take a yard of linen for granted again. I have also viewed a film on silk production, the traditional workshop and then the modern factory. There are still traditional silk farms/workshops in Asia (can't remember the name of the locality it was filmed in--it may have been in India). There was an article on the Treehugger site about silk farming without killing the worm

    I think that the fiber/textile issue may be what it takes for hemp to be legalized as it is a very hardy plant, has many applications and produces a strong fiber.

    My thoughts

  7. Kathleen,
    Thanks for your comments! I"ll have to look into the Amish treadle machine and the "treadleon" group. Glad to hear that's happening.
    I read an article by Rob Hopkins, author of the Transition Handbook, about going beyond just reading about harvesting wheat. The important point of that article was that we not only have to have the books and other resources to have on hand in the coming years, we need to practice while we don't have to for survival so we can go through the learning curve, adjust methods to take into account modern knowledge, and gain some level of proficiency at the craft. If we wait until after fossil fuels get prohibitively expensive before trying, we run the risk of not having time before we are all running around naked and very very cold.

    I think in the future we will all no longer take material goods and food for granted. I do hope we can get hemp legalized well before processing of other fibers becomes too expensive.

  8. What an excellent idea! My girlfriend knits (and I've tried {grin}) and watching the labor that goes into making a small garment like a hat from manufactured yarn has made me realize how much of a hidden investment our modern clothing is. I look forward to reading your story and learning from it.

  9. Thanks. It is really a hidden investment to most people- I've decided it's even more hidden than where our food comes from. Stay tuned for more- I'll be writing about cotton on Monday.