What does the word “fabric” actually mean?
Thanks to the cotton industry’s marketing campaign, the word “fabric” conjures up our past & present lives – and clothes, curtains, carpets, upholstery, and more. We use the word in many ways. It’s the “fabric of social life” or the clothes we wear or the “fabric of the universe”. It’s the past that’s woven into into history. We wear it, sleep on it, sit on it, drive on it. Gloves made from fabric protect us from thorns and dirt and cold. In fact, we use “fabric” so often it’s become ubiquitous.
Thankfully there are different fabric compositions, known as cottons, polyesters & other synthetics, wools, silks, and vegetable fabrics such as hemp, jute & flax. Ultimately thought it is the stuff that covers us, protects us, becomes our past present and future but I ask now: What is it, really? How does it become a shirt or glove or hat or something from the past that cannot be rewoven?
The glossy beginning is easy to understand. Fabric starts like most things on earth: There are the seeds that grow into plants. Next, the plant creates a fiber. It’s the cycle of life, beautiful and natural. But, in cases of fabrics like Modal, a “seed” is made from vinyl acetate and methyl acrylate – these are also precursors to PVC pipes. Modal plants are “grown” in chemical plants (that can explode) in Texas or run without any environmental protection in China. In either case, once the plant is grown, we rip the stalk and process the fibers until we can spin it into yarn, knit or weave the yarn into fabric, and wind on machines until there is enough fabric to complete a bolt. We’ve gone from a seed (real or synthetic) to a processed bolt of fabric, which has been created for easy next steps in the process: transportation, measured for cutting & ultimately sold.
Wait, but isn’t the purpose of this writing to weave a modern day yarn into an impactful and meaningful fabric lesson for our lives and in so doing explore messages of modern day fashion? So, let’s get back to it.
Fabric has been used and written about in such great books as Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. Also, Leo Tolstoy spoke of it. Poets especially like the term for its vivid imagery. The British poet Wilfred Wilson Gibson lived at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th century. He wrote, “Come, for the House of Hope is built on sand bring wine, for the fabric of life is as weak as the wind.“ Is he referring to fabric as a tapestry made from the wind? Which wind is he referring to? A weak light breeze off the water in summer? What kind of material looks like weak wind? Could you imagine a winter coat made out of a fabric described as weak wind?
~~~Buy the warmest winter coats available because they are made from Modal, a fabric that will protect your body from the elements of wind, wet & cold. But Modal is a synthetic fabric made from the seeds of chemical plants in Texas. Against your skin it will feel like a toxic fabric that is as weak as the wind. ~~~~~~
Would we all be happy if all our clothes, all the time, were the delicate color of eggshell? I’ll just have to say it – too vanilla – too boring for this world. Where would New Yorkers get their clothes if everything was white? Fabrics have to be drowned in dyes, which require more chemicals, processing, water, people, resources transport & waste to produce. Remember, we don’t want to live in a vanilla world of fashion. Where would Versace be without color?
Turns out there is a lot of waste in our weaving of fabric into life’s history. The biggest culprits that come to mind: Water - CO2 -Toxic chemicals – not to mention good old fashioned landfill waste. There’s so much of it that it’s a topic for another time. Just know that it is in 100,000’s of metric tons, millions & billions of tons of all of the waste.
“The future is a hundred thousand threads, but the past is a fabric that can never be rewoven,” claims author Orson Scott Card on fabric in his book Xenocide. What is he alluding to? Perhaps he means that you can’t rewrite history and the future is limitless. But I interpret his words to mean that cotton is grown from a seed that needs 400 gallons of water to grow, it takes tremendous resources to create enough cotton to make a t-shirt, none of which can be returned to the earth. Not the water, energy or t-shirt itself. As we look to the future, we should be thinking about our use of resources – that can’t be rewoven. Fabric can be but by switching from industrial growing practices vs. growing organically we can “reweave” the story. Organic cotton takes the same amount of water to grow as non-organic but it doesn’t use all the bee killing fertilizer & GMO properties used by BIG AG.
All of this “processing” of fabric in poetry and everyday fabric is giving me whiplash. Let’s bring it back to looking at the fabric of our life.
Fabric is bold like tapestry. Flimsy like gauze. As strong and beautiful as silk. People use it for power. We protect ourselves with it. We hide ourselves with it. We make statements with it. Famous writers use it to describe our past and our future as a way to describe time moving.Ultimately, it is the substance that covers and defines us. How we choose to wear it, to blanket our world and reuse what we already have will weave a future of weak wind, unless we consider both the origin and life cycle of all the fabrics in our lives. What's in your closet?
Ok…where was I?