Follow The Thread: A Worldbuilding Guide

By Meguey Baker

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Meguey is a museum curator and material historian specializing in textiles.

Part 3: Technology, Agricultural Impact, & Transport


Something to make a hole and something to pull through it. Before there is woven cloth of spun thread, there are sewn hides and bundled plants and worked bark. Using long fibers — animal sinews or flexible grasses or long roots — to lace through punched holes works just as well to keep you protected from the elements, and you wear what you have access to. When you are looking at your world, what do the people wear?

Consider some of the oldest clothing known, worn by Otzi in the Copper Age, BCE 3270, when stone tools were giving way to copper tools that would usher in the Bronze Age. He wore a hat, breechcloth and belt with leggings tied to the belt, knee-length coat held closed with a second belt, and shoes. In his sewn belt pouch, he carried precious tools: tinder for lighting a fire, antibiotic fungus, and a repair kit consisting of a bone awl for piercing holes in leather and a flint flake for cutting long narrow strips. More than the bow and arrows, more than the short-bladed flint knife, more than the very latest thing, the copper ax — it’s the sewing kit and what it means that anchors Otzi’s technology level. The wheel doesn’t come along in the archaeological record for another 2000 years, possibly inspired by the drop spindle, which was going strong in Egypt in the manufacture of linen thread not too long after Otzi fell. Meanwhile, silk cloth production was already a staple in China 400 years before!

Technology can be extremely localized, and people use their local textiles and technology! Who has access to it? Who uses it? Who holds its secrets? Is it held by artisan-priests? Controlled by the state? Passed down through family lines? What does that imply about family and social structure? What wealth is connected to which parts of producing thread?

If your people wear woven cloth, they must have fiber they can spin into thread, a loom to weave the thread into cloth, shears to cut the cloth, and some way of fastening that cloth to the body. The raw fibers need to be cleaned, made pliable, straightened, spun, woven, cut, sewn, perhaps dyed at any stage. Clothing must be held closed in some way — belts? Buttons? Buckles similar to modern ones show up around 1200 BCE, buttons that function as we expect in approximately 1300 CE, hook & eyes at the end of the 1800s, zippers are not really a thing till 1917. Smocking adds stretch and helps with fit, and has been around since at least the middle ages, but elastic as we know it didn’t show up till 1820. How do people get into and out of their clothes?

Do people grow and spin and weave and dye and sew their own clothing, or is some part of that work done by other people? What does that imply about craft specialization and division of labor? What are all of the attendant technologies and tools people doing those tasks would need? It’s advantageous to have all the steps of textile manufacturing at any scale happen close together — what else needs to be nearby to ensure the well-being of the people?

Follow one thread, linen. Flax needs to be grown in fields and tended for 100 days, then ideally pulled up by the roots, or cut, when it is about 4 feet tall. The stalks dry for a few weeks (let’s call it 114 days since planting) before being beaten to shake off the seeds, soaked in still water for a few weeks (135 dsp) to break up the outer layer (and by the way, this part is smelly, because the outer layer is basically rotting away), then set to dry for a month or so (165 dsp). Next comes a massive amount of hand work, to get the rough flax fibers processed to smooth linen cloth. A good baseline for a skilled worker spinning thread is about 5 yards a minute, and for weaving, a yard of plain cloth in an hour. It’s entirely reasonable for the most basic linen garment to take 300 hours of labor. What are the social rules around each part of this process? Who spins, who weaves, who sews? Who is tending the fields? Who does the harvesting? 

When you think about technology in your world-building, think about how different parts of the world adapt and adopt and invent things they need at different times. Otzi’s bone awl and flint gave way to needles and scissors, and eventually the Egyptian floor loom became the 1801 CE jacquard loom with the punch cards that lead us directly to the computer. 

Also consider how that technology impacts the entire system. Manufacturing silk was a state secret for 4000 years; the supremacy of cotton was built on slavery; hemp was everywhere in the age of sail then vilified by the war on “the devil’s weed”, and is now slowly transitioning from the high-end luxury fabric it was in 2000 back to a regular use fabric again; synthetics developed alongside the chemical industry.  

Agricultural impact and the recent “past”

For most of human history, we have been largely an agricultural species with little patches of urbanity. Not all world building results in rural settings, but it’s important to understand why and how cities happen, and some of the consequences.  In talking about the family, bathing, and health, Ken Burnside brought up some of the causes of the shift, which has disconnected us from the intense work of planting and tending crops and caring for animals, and also from the endless work of making thread and cloth.

Ken: Prior to roughly the 1880-1890s and public works projects on sewers and sanitation in cities, the overall annual mortality rate in cities was between 15 and 25%. Largely due to diseases like typhus and opportunistic infection from injury. Prior to the McCormick reaper, in the 1850s, there were roughly 10 agricultural workers per city dweller, or 8 fisherman per city dweller. Recruiting soldiers from farm kids or fishermen was easy! Getting shot at, marching, living in squalid barracks or on campaigns Was still less work for more money than working on the farm. The McCormick reaper created a huge labor surplus, as gathering the crops no longer required *everyone* to spend three weeks of unending labor helping bring in the harvest for their neighbor’s farms.

Suddenly, non-farm population went from one in 10 to one in 4. Cities absorbed these extra people, all looking to make a living…and undereducated, unskilled, and exposed to new-to-them pathogens. Going “out to the country” for health reasons had always been for wealthy people. Moving to a city, for 5,000 years, meant getting sick: mild fever, sniffles, diarrhea, coughing and asthma, opportunistic infections. This got *very* bad after the McCormick reaper quadrupled city populations in a generation, and made weaving a “mechanical” trade, to boot!

The “healthy strapping big farm boy whose purity of heart contends with the ills of the city” is a trope because of this dynamic. A farm kid was generally bigger (better nutrition) and more muscular (more physical labor) than a city kid. And got sick faster, because the kids who survived growing up in the city had immune responses that were tamped down enough to not make them horribly sick and die, just constantly *mildly* sick and functional. This has shaped “common sense” for all but the last 150 years.

It’s why Clark Kent is from Smallville Kansas, and why Superman is “farm boy” decent, and why Steve Rogers and Peter Parker go from being scrawny city kids to able to lift cars. They’re both reactions to this received wisdom. What penicillin did was “finish the job” on letting the farm to city transition be survivable. There were sulfa drugs prior to penicillin that also helped, but modern cities rest on the McCormick reaper, public sanitation, and antibiotics. Which all happened in a 90 year span.

Part of our current rural-urban ideological divide (and the political mess in the US in 2021) stems from that 5,000 years of received wisdom about wicked, smaller, visibly sickly city dwellers tricking and exploiting honest farm folk. The antisemitic caricature matches urban caricature. The US Senate was originally intended to balance urban interests and allow “wiser” urbanites to make foreign policy decisions without undue influence from petty farmers in the House. The Southern slaveholders dominated the House through the 1840s, and kept a “tied” Senate.

Then the McCormick reaper happened, and city population (and voter participation) exploded and the North radicalized *and* got fantastically wealthy. In the 1852 elections, the Southern dominance of the House faltered. It got worse in ’56. They lost the Presidency in 1860. That was the first time that the North had the Presidency AND the House in the country’s history. Suddenly, “virtuous farmers” were ruled by “shifty city dwelling sick people!” The Right Way of Life was Threatened! Those radicals were going to up-end the Natural Order!

And this lead to the Slaveholder’s Treasonous Rebellion. And our current conservative political party still plays this trope about horrible city dweller “elites” and “ethnics” to appeal to the rural (and increasingly elderly) voter. Because their virtuous farm kids? They go off to the city to get schooling to run the increasingly technology driven farm… And stop coming *home*. Or they do come home and call Uncle Jeff a racist homophobic Nazi because he still believes in Right Farm Living and is Properly Suspicious of them City Folks.

About 50 years ago, the Dept of Agriculture unleashed commodity farming to feed industrial pork and beef production. Packing livestock in close quarters makes them sick. Let’s feed them antibiotics. Huh. Massive doses lets them get bigger, faster, if you feed them more This turned the 160 acre diversified family farm into a single crop cash producing entity. When the market boomed, there was no earthly way for the family farm to compete. Farmers went into debt to finance machinery, the market boomed, and the US embargoed grain sales to USSR.

Which caused a price collapse in corn, farm revenues plummeted, and those loans backed by that family farm land couldn’t be paid. Local banks foreclosed, had no interest in running farms, and wanted cash now. So they sold the farms as distressed assets. And lost money. This in turn triggered the S&L crises of 1987-1989, which put in well intended regulations that made it much harder for banks to lend money to cash strapped small businesses. Which led to the Great Banking Cannibalization of the 1990s. Meanwhile, who was buying those distressed assets that used to be family farms? Vertically integrated meat processors. Who buy over 95% of the antibiotics made in the *world*. Every time the price of soybeans or corn dips, family farms go bankrupt and are bought out, cheap.

This has accelerated in the last 20 years. When family farms become extended feed lots, vets retire and don’t get replaced. Local doctors leave, hospitals shut down, local stores shut down, property taxes rise to meet revenue shortfalls and services get cut anyway. So: Your kids go to school and come back as liberals, Doc closed up the vet practice, you have to drive two hours to go to Walmart because Blaine’s Farm & Fleet shut down, you’re in debt for four years of earnings… Is it any wonder that anti-urban sentiment is so strong?

Meg: Almost as if everything is actually interconnected, and you can’t just radically change one piece of the whole system. And to loop it back around, rural populations are still dramatically under vaccinated against COVID, in part because of the whole history you just laid out!

Ken: Yep. “Them City Folks want to change our DNA and make us liberal Christ Haters all by making a hoax about the China virus that can’t hurt Healthy Farm Folks what Live Right.” God, I wish that were an exaggeration.

Ken’s brief history of the effects of the McCormick Harvester is one example. What are the realities vs the perceptions of living in different places? How does that create friction? How do people interact with different technologies, ideas, or products based on this fricion?  What signifiers do people have in their clothing about where they consider “home”? 

We could also look at when and where it’s been important to look a certain way, to signal your allegiance to or removal from the laboring class. Think about the way in which clothing has followed political trends and influence. From revolutionary kerchiefs to a rejection of imported fabric, from Marie Antoinette’s white dress and it’s impact on both the slave trade and the French embroidery industry, to John Kennedy showing up and leveling the top-hat trade, how people dress, and who is watching them, has a big impact on society.  

Rivers, Roads, and Railroads

How do the people involved in textile production, from planting crops or moving animals through wearing and perhaps marketing the finished clothing, get where they need to go? What paths from the grazing grounds to the river where the fibers are washed become roads with rest stops, homes, and businesses connected to the textile process? Where do you put the smelly parts of textile production? How easy is it to get raw materials to a mill, milled fiber to a spinnery, thread to a weavery, fabric to someone who can cut it and sew it? When you are making maps and thinking about trade for your worldbuilding, these are the sorts of questions to start with. Trade starts in basics and in luxury goods at the same time — if a boat shows up with interesting new fabric, or dyes, or embellishments that could be used to decorate fabric, that’s as good as being able to swap with the folks over the hill for the darker colored wool their sheep produce so you both can make more interesting fabric. 

Rivers always come first — the more navigable they are, the more important they become and the more they shape all human life along their banks. Does the river flood gently and predictably or violently and unpredictably? What does that mean for the industry and culture along the way? How is that reflected in what the people wear? More stability tends to mean more time can be spent on decorative aspects, more volatility tends to mean more time is spent on durability.

Roads come next, and refer to networks of trade and travel as well as actual overland routes. Who travels? What do they wear? How do they signal, from a safe distance, that they are both worth allowing to pass and not a threat worth confronting or a target worth accosting? Why do they travel? Where do they stop along the way? How do they view travelers to their home area?

Railroads show up to follow rivers, climb hills, or move freight starting in about 200 CE. They depend on a wheel, technology for laying track, and an even larger network of stop-over places and support systems for the horses that pulled them, as well as the people who loaded goods in at one end of the line and took them out at the other end. A need to invent railroads points to a need to support mass production — what does that look like in your world? What are they making and moving and why?

Think really really hard about why anyone might move away from centralized mass transit provided by railroads and navigable rivers. Locally, in my part of the world, there was a really robust system of railroads and trolleys for a hundred years, from 1820 to 1920. It was accessible, affordable, and effective for moving people and materials all over the region and the country, drawing lots of investors. The Great Depression  was a major blow, and the push to return to mass transit has been amping up for the last 50 years. Stronger mass transit means fewer highways means more land left in agricultural use, which connects right back to fiber production and textiles. Where are the struggles over land use? Who controls the access to travel? Who can afford to travel? How often?

Other Installments:

Part 1: Thread & Clothing
Part 2: Babies, Washing, & Staying Healthy
Part 4: Screen Saver Technologies, Reading List, & Questions


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