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 4: Screen Saver Technologies, Reading List, & Questions

Screen Saver Technologies

Finally, let’s talk “screen saver” technologies and skills. These are things that are so vital to everyday life that they slip from our consciousness unless we have clear reasons to still pay attention. There’s a “rule of threes” here; a healthy human can maybe survive, usually, three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. People and things that help keep air and water and food coming on schedule can become so basic we assume they will always be there and unless we are intentional about remembering, the tendency to forget them is huge. Here’s a starting place: 

  • Water – cleaning, carrying, washing, taking away filth
  • Food – growing, harvesting, processing, cooking, feeding, cleaning up, by-products
  • Protection from the elements – heat, cold, wind, pollution, too wet, too dry

When you are world building and writing skill lists, look at those first and what they imply. How do people get safe water? What do they eat, who grows it, who cooks it? What do they wear to protect themselves from what elements? Who makes it, who cleans it?

We do a few things for sure in life: 

  • We are born
  • We love
  • We carry stuff around a lot 
  • We die

What vital, invisible skills do those things imply? How is pregnancy and labor and delivery viewed? How are newborns cared for? What relationships are cultivated? What do we make to carry things and are there cultural rules around who carries what? How do we track where things are? Who cares for the sick and dying? What do we do with dead bodies? How do we mark all these occasions, the being born and loving and moving things and dying? And look really closely at the real-world ways in which “screen saver” skills we cannot live without sink to the background, performed by people that often are pushed to the background. Think about how vulnerable people in our world are cared for or not, how disruptive people are regarded and held with compassion or not, how desperate people are made welcome or not. Do you want to replicate that in a world you create? Why? The steady beat I return to is “where have I not looked” and then I try to look there. If some voices seem to be missing from the story, from the world, where are they?

Remember that all life comes from the sun, and there’s a reason fire is sacred; we’ve pushed that so far into the background we get annoyed when the internet is wonky at 1 AM. Let’s examine how we might imagine things differently when we have the chance.

Reading List

Human lives need thread. How you handle textiles in your world tells me a lot.

The Fabric of Civilization – Virginia Postrel
From Paleolithic flax to 3D knitting, explore the global history of textiles and the world they weave together in this enthralling and educational guide. The story of humanity is the story of textiles — as old as civilization itself. Since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture.

Virginia Postrel synthesizes groundbreaking research from archaeology, economics, and science to reveal a surprising history. From Minoans exporting wool colored with precious purple dye to Egypt, to Romans arrayed in costly Chinese silk, the cloth trade paved the crossroads of the ancient world. Textiles funded the Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; they gave us banks and bookkeeping, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. The cloth business spread the alphabet and arithmetic, propelled chemical research, and taught people to think in binary code.

Every room in every building started out with a purpose. How people use living spaces changes over time based on need. This book is Eurocentric, but it’s a solid start.

If Walls Could Talk – Lucy Worsley
Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? Why did medieval people sleep sitting up? When were the two “dirty centuries”? Why, for centuries, did rich people fear fruit?

In her brilliantly and creatively researched book, Lucy Worsley takes us through the bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen, covering the history of each room and exploring what people actually did in bed, in the bath, at the table, and at the stove-from sauce stirring to breast-feeding, teeth cleaning to masturbating, getting dressed to getting married-providing a compelling account of how the four rooms of the home have evolved from medieval times to today, charting revolutionary changes in society.

An important companion to Worsley, Ruth Goodman’s living history archaeology is amazing. Start with this one. She can make combing through probate records sound like a treasure hunt.

The Domestic Revolution – Ruth Goodman
Goodman traces the amazing shift from wood to coal in mid-sixteenth century England, a pattern of innovation emerges as the women stoking these fires also stoked new global industries: from better soap to clean smudges to new ingredients for cooking. Laced with irresistibly charming anecdotes of Goodman’s own experience managing a coal-fired household, The Domestic Revolution shines a hot light on the power of domestic necessity.

The public (written) record only holds so much, and usually it’s a carefully edited version of the actual true experience of life. This series is just an astonishingly good dive into human history, from pre-Christian Rome to 1998. Start with the volume that covers the era that matches the tech level you are looking for, but always remember there are volumes before that, including before the Rome volume. And one that could have been written since. 

A History of Private Life – ed. Phillippe Aries
A History of Private Life is a treasure-trove of rich and colorful detail culled from an astounding variety of sources. This absorbing “secret epic” constructs a vivid picture of peasant and patrician life in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

If HPL seems daunting at first, go for Francis and Joseph Gies. Life in a Medieval Village is a good starting place to think about populations etc. If your fantasy medieval village has an alchemist, but no midwife? I am looking at you askance.

Life in a Medieval Village – Joseph and Frances Gies
A lively, convincing portrait of rural people at work and at play in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the village of Elton, in the English East Midlands, the Gieses detail the agricultural advances that made communal living possible, explain what domestic life was like for serf and lord alike, and describe the central role of the church in maintaining social harmony. Though the main focus is on Elton, c. 1300, the Gieses supply enlightening historical context on the origin, development, and decline of the European village, itself an invention of the Middle Ages.

Human history is absolutely FILLED with song – prayers, lullabies, work-songs, teaching tunes, protests, remembering times past, encouraging and comforting and inspiring singing by everyday folks. Your world should sing, too. Start here:

RISE AGAIN, the 2015 sequel to Rise Up Singing, contains 1200 additional songs. It includes an even richer variety of genres with full chapters of early rock ‘n roll, blues, country, jazz standards, Motown, British invasion hits, etc. in addition to lots of terrific traditional and composed folk songs.

Far more basic than that, though, and perhaps more useful, is how your world provides basic regular care.

When There Is No Doctor – Werner, Thuman, & Maxwell
Useful for health workers, clinicians, and others involved in primary health care delivery and health promotion programs, with millions of copies in print in more than 75 languages, the manual provides practical, easily understood information on how to diagnose, treat, and prevent common diseases. Special attention is focused on nutrition, infection and disease prevention, and diagnostic techniques as primary ways to prevent and treat health problems.

Every living person has parents who were told how they should raise them. Dream Babies is a historiography of childrearing advice that you can use to design the current cultural norms for your world.

Dream Babies – Christina Hardyment
Parents have long been bombarded with conflicting advice on how to bring up their babies: from Locke, Rousseau, and Truby King to Spock, Penelope Leach and Gina Ford. Behaviourist warnings in the 1920s about physical contact (‘Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap’) swung to Jean Liedloff’s ‘continuum concept’ that babies should be wrapped round mum and fed on demand. Today enthusiasts for the ‘family bed’ are at war with Gina Ford’s call for a return to the strict routines of pre-Spock days. Who is right and who is wrong? In this updated edition of her classic account of how and why the experts’ advice has changed with changing times, Christina Hardyment analyzes the anxieties of our own age and gives parents much-needed confidence in their own ability to choose the advice that best suits them and their babies.

I spent a lot of years being the damage system due to having actual emergency medical training. Great for all sorts of world-building questions.

EMS  – American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
In 1971, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) published the first edition of Emergency Care and Transportation of the Sick and Injured and laid the foundation of EMS training. Today, the Eleventh Edition transforms how EMS education is delivered throughout the world and helps develop world class EMS providers around the globe.

Of course, you need to know how they got hurt.

Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor – Roger Ford
An epic, 4,000-year illustrated volume, Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor traces the evolution of the entire spectrum of weaponry through stunning photography and authoritative coverage. All the major arms through the ages including edged weapons, clubs, projectiles, and firearms can be found in the guide.

And since you’re here, think about how gender and sexuality etc play out in your world. How would you make things different?

S.E.X. – Heather Corinna
Whatever your gender or sexual identity, whether you’ve already been actively exploring your sexuality or are only just getting curious, S.E.X clearly spells out what you need and want to know–no shame, no judgement, just comprehensive and accurate info in a clear, straightforward language.

Of course, think critically about race and racism, recognize cultural exchange AND appropriation, and think about how people live and travel and evolve in your world.

Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes
In 1994 Bryan Sykes was called in as an expert to examine the frozen remains of a man trapped in glacial ice in northern Italy for over 5000 years—the Ice Man. Sykes succeeded in extracting DNA from the Ice Man, but even more important, writes Science News, was his “ability to directly link that DNA to Europeans living today.” In this groundbreaking book, Sykes reveals how the identification of a particular strand of DNA that passes unbroken through the maternal line allows scientists to trace our genetic makeup all the way back to prehistoric times—to seven primeval women, the “seven daughters of Eve.”

There’s a ton of other stuff that happens after thread. This book is fun and interesting, even though it mentions thread waaaay too late in the development of culture, and never talks about weaving or sewing.

How To Invent Everything – Ryan North
What would you do if a time machine hurled you thousands of years into the past. . . and then broke? How would you survive? Could you improve on humanity’s original timeline? And how hard would it be to domesticate a giant wombat?
With this book as your guide, you’ll survive–and thrive–in any period in Earth’s history. Bestselling author and time-travel enthusiast Ryan North shows you how to invent all the modern conveniences we take for granted–from first principles.

Just the Questions, Please

  • What do people in your world spin? How is it gathered? 
  • Who does the work? Who profits? 
  • What does that imply about social structure? 
  • Where do they get fiber to spin for thread?
  • How do they make cloth? 
  • Do they need processing in some way first? 
  • Soaked in something to make them pliable? 
  • Pounded to break down and draw out the fibers? 
  • What’s the cheaper plant fiber the [trollherds] wear while they are tending the [trolls[ for the high-value fiber? 
  • What makes [trollwool] more valuable?  
  • How do people record stuff in your world? 
  • Tiny clay tablets? Lead seals? Carved in bamboo? 
  • Wax poured in wooden trays? 
  • 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? 


  • What laws show up around fabric in your world? 
  • Are there rules about who gets to wear what? 
  • Why might someone steal a garment? 


  • Does the society you’re building value in terms of the most vulnerable people, the very young and very old, and how are the people who care for them treated? 
  • Do infants stay with their parents, as a biologically related nursing pair? 
  • Is cross-nursing between families common or strange? 
  • Are there wet-nurses, whose sole job is breastfeeding babies? 
  • If infants are sent to wet-nurses, why? 
  • What ways does your world support breastfeeding parent-child pairs, and if it doesn’t, why not? 


  • How do people in your world deal with their waste water? 
  • What do people use to clean and dry their bodies and clothing?
  • Is washing the body or clothing considered private or communal? What are the taboos and traditions around washing?

Staying Healthy

  • How do the people in your imagined world handle routine infection and common injury? 
  • Who has access to medical care? 
  • How does the world you imagine handle large scale epidemics? 


  • 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?
  • 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? 
  • What else needs to be nearby to ensure the well-being of the people? 
  • 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? 


  • 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”?

Rivers Roads and Railroads

  • How do the people involved in textile production get where they need to go? 
  • What paths 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Where are the struggles over land use? Who controls the access to travel? Who can afford to travel? How often?


  • How do people get safe water? What do they eat, who grows it, who cooks it?
  • What do they wear to protect themselves from what elements? Who makes it, who cleans it?
  • What vital, invisible skills do the questions above imply? 
  • How is pregnancy and labor and delivery viewed? How are newborns cared for? 
  • What relationships are cultivated? 
  • What do we make to carry things and are there cultural rules around who carries what? 
  • How do we track where things are? 
  • Who cares for the sick and dying? What do we do with dead bodies?
  • How do we mark all these occasions, the being born and loving and moving things and dying? 
  • If some voices seem to be missing from the story, from the world, where are they?

Past Installments:

Part 1: Thread & Clothing
Part 2: Babies, Washing, & Staying Healthy
Part 3: Technology, Agricultural Impact, & Transport


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