By Meguey Baker
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Meguey is a museum curator and material historian specializing in textiles.
Part 1: Thread & Clothing
When you are setting out to invent the universe, follow the thread. Literally. Thread is one of the foundational inventions of people, for tying things, carrying things, making nets and fishing lines and etc etc, and turns into cloth fairly soon. What do people in your world spin? How is it gathered? Who does the work? Who profits? What does that imply about social structure?
Worldbuilding, for roleplaying games, creative writing, art projects, research, can often feel cobbled together. There’s a temptation, especially in roleplaying games, to either lift a real-world culture (and deal with how to adjust it for your purposes without being appropriative or dismissive) or make a table or pick-list, randomly grab a couple things, and try to weave a cohesive background from it. That works fine for many folks! Another way can be starting with whatever basic premise one has, and looking at what that implies, and filling in the details as you get to them. This is “play to find out” on a world-building level. Maybe you have no idea how your world handles food preservation until it comes up, and then it’s all “oo, underground pits? Water-cooled jars? Drying in the wind and sun? Salted? Soaked in honey? What is it! And what does that imply about the world?!?!” The most reliable starting place I know is thread. If you are looking for something different, Follow The Thread makes it holistic.
It’s exceedingly difficult to create a broad enough yet complete enough list and fill in all the details to capture the exact world you want. We don’t live like that, and that sort of organization is beyond most people’s focus and time scale. What we CAN do is follow any thread out. This is a good example of one way that can go:
Basically, in your pre-1700 tech level world, you should have all your characters have an awareness of and some experience with spinning. Everyone knew about spinning. Women spun a lot. Queens spun a LOT. Also sewing and embroidery. My goodness, the embroidery. It’s astounding how entirely central to life textiles are. Herds and fields need tending, cloth and clothing need making and selling, all secondary and tertiary trades that show up around that core are the whole of your social structure. So, from a game design world building angle, ask yourself “where do they get fiber to spin for thread? how do they make cloth?” and follow that thought experiment out. There’s your world.
Roland Boshnack replied to a thread I wrote about this on twitter:
Roland: Troll bristles
I answered: Awesome. As they fall (or are brushed) from the troll, or do they need processing in some way first? Soaked in something to make them pliable? Pounded to break down and draw out the fibers? How often can / does a troll shed?
Roland: I thought about this ALL NIGHT. Let’s compare hairy trolls to sheep. Sheep are sturdy, gregarious, docile, and foragers. A couple of shepherds and a handful of dogs can easily herd even enormous flocks. The main thing sheep need is space to graze. Sheep have about a 20:1 mass-to-yearly wool ratio. (Super simplifying here.) So 140 lb. of sheep produces about 7 lbs. of clean raw wool yearly. For personal use, that’s not bad at all; a small flock could easily provide a family’s clothing and then some.
Trolls, on the other hand, are ornery, solitary, and while technically omnivorous, prefer to hunt. However, they’re even more sturdy than sheep, as many an adventurer has discovered. Can’t use dogs to herd them; they’ll eat the dogs. You’ll need a team of trollherds. They also produce less trollwool; they’re at about 50:1. So a 500-lb. troll only produces 10 lbs. of bristles a year. Bristles aren’t quite as “clumpy” as sheep wool, but you do still have to wash them (thoroughly) and spin them. It’d have to be a specialized textile, given the amount of work (and food) that goes into raising and ranching trolls. On the flip side, they need far less space.
I asked: If this is a specialized fiber, it’s not the everyday-use fiber. Most places wind up with a plant fiber and an animal fiber – what’s the plant fiber the trollherds wear while they are tending the trolls for the high-value fiber? What makes trollwool more valuable?
Roland: So our trollwool village is going to be situated somewhere that doesn’t have enough space for sheep, which likely means they don’t have much farmland, either. Perhaps the town grew up around a fort on a mountain. The village is relatively small, and most of the population is directly involved in troll ranching. To make this plausible, trollwool fabric would have to be a luxury item, so it’s either very pleasing (ha ha ha), beyond-flax tough, or magical in some way. After all, if trollwool isn’t worth the effort, then the village will dissolve.
Me: Think about nettles which become ramie with a lot of work, or the absolute stench of the royal Roman purple, or the urine used to set bright dyes, or the reek of tanning leather – a LOT of high-status textiles go through a highly unpleasant stage!
Roland: Yeah. You can make fabric from a lot of stuff, but if it’s not at least as comfortable and hard-wearing as cotton – let alone as tough as wool, linen, and leather – then you start to run into the “why bother” problem.
Me: You bother because the sun burns, rain/wind/snow is cold, bugs bite, thorns scratch, plant oil irritates, and, perhaps the major driving reason not connected to survival, adorning oneself is fun! So you use what you have. If trollwool IS the everyday use fiber, that just focuses your entire worldbuilding around trolls and trollhearding.
(Trolls in my interpretation of your worldbuilding are kind of like camels or llamas but even more ornery.)
Roland: Yeah, wow, okay. You’re absolutely right. Thinking on the implications of textiles really does help with worldbuilding. . . . I’m going to have to write up this village now. Dangit.
Thread is one of the most constant and most versatile resources humans have, and we use it to record things we want remembered in a visible, impactful way. Paint is probably the next way, because pigment goes hand-in-hand with dye. Carving is also RIGHT THERE, but, like we often forget that the stone age was also the wood age, because stone persists where wood does not, we must imagine every carved stone thing surrounded, culturally if not physically, by string and wood and low-fired clay not meant to endure.
Think about how people record stuff in your worldbuilding. Tiny clay tablets? Lead seals? Carved in bamboo? Wax poured in wooden trays? Carefully coded string? Turns out Dr. Sabine Hyland, PhD in anthropology from Yale, has been working on this decoding process FOR A DECADE! So I’m skipping the semi-breathless “look what this 20 yo man did over summer break!” version of this story told on Pocket, and saying “Check out the CAREER of this woman!” She gets this level of acknowledgement in the Pocket article: “Sabine Hyland researches Andean anthropology at the University of St. Andrews.” No Dr. on her name. No recognition of a decade in the field. No mention that the student was fully aware of her work and focusing on a tiny piece. The fact is, this underlines another entire point about textiles and history: textiles, from making to saving to researching, is largely work done by women, and therefore often discounted in the historical record and in the reporting. In your world-building, whose words are kept? How is history held and passed down? Who does that? What is considered worth noting? What gets lost because whoever comes after dismisses some voices as “less important”, “less reliable”, or “less worthy?
It is SO time intensive to make clothing, it gets listed in probate inventories and passed down in wills All The Time. People ran ads for lost or stolen clothing in the newspapers in the 1800s. Stolen clothing could be sold, cut up and sold, worn, made over and worn, even taken back into yarn if it was a knit thing. Not to mention buttons and buckles and etc. Add embellishment with beads or ribbons or metal threads made it more costly. What laws show up around fabric in your world? Are there rules about who gets to wear what? Why might someone steal a garment?
Someone asked me to calculate out the time for one person to get the wool from one sheep processed into a shirt and just the process of getting the wool ready to spin proved my point. You’ve got to remember that from the time we realized sinews could hold furs together and fibers could be twisted, through the 1000s when the spinning wheel shows up, and then another 750 years till the spinning jenny arrives in 1764, Every Single Yard of thread is spun by hand. Making thread is a full-time job, as crucial to human survival (in most climates) as finding food or water or fuel.
Weaving is a whole different thing! Just, for goodness sake, please realize that the idea of “extra” clothing is Super New! So yes, make clothing the focus of your heist stories!
What people wear shapes not only the surroundings through its manufacture, it shapes actions in that world. The cut of clothing, which must build from the woven cloth, dictates the action a body can take. If you look at fashion in history, one thing you will see, if you look through a lens of body mechanics and social history, is where the body is constrained, when, and why. Let’s start with the Roman toga, a symbol of power made of wrapped cloth that needed to be held in place. The things were MASSIVE, and Heavy – the weight of the wool helped hold them in place, but the citizen’s left arm was fully occupied with holding the weight of the toga, and it had a slight hobbling effect on the legs.
Someone is bound to say “But Meg, fibulae!” To which I answer “Sure, to hold your tunica together at the shoulders, or fasten your chiton – both lighter-weight garments suspended from the shoulders and belted.” And people at home? Or doing any dirty physical work? A tunic is the whole deal, from Egypt in 500 BCE to like 1500. Something that happens over and over and over is that people stop at the formal portraits of public figures and infer that is what everyone wears, and NOPE! Even Lil Nas X sometimes just wears a t-shirt and shorts.
As different parts of the body move in and out of focus, for celebration or scandal, clothing fit adjusts to the social needs. If the culture you are building wants people to move slowly and keep gestures within the sphere of their face, dress them in slim-fitting skirts and keep their upper arms restricted in some way. If you want people to move fast, give them wide skirts or pants. If you want people to reach or swing their arms, put enough fullness in the upper arm to allow the arm to lift. For example, a 1960s mens suit jacket sleeve creases across the upper arm. That means if he tried to lift his arm out from his body, the underarm seam would strain in protest; he can move his arms like a LEGO figure, front to back, but not outward. His shirt, under the jacket, is cut looser! Watch in movies when someone takes their suit jacket off, and how much easier it is to move!
Additionally, the idea that different professions need different clothing, or that different people have different access, is Super Real, and something to absolutely consider in your world building. You will notice, if you read my roleplaying games, that clothes play a part. In Under Hollow Hills, part of the way your character shows change is in their clothing. They might wear green and gold ribbons when all is sunshine and summer skies, but switch to a brown knit cap in the gloom of winter. A red velvet vest might give way to mud-covered lace. What we wear shapes how we move, how we carry ourselves, how we convey who we are in the world and if we want to blend in or stand out, if we follow trends or keep to classics or buy what we can afford. That’s true for fictional characters too.