Modern commercially-produced clothing probably makes up the vast majority of your wardrobe. Commercially-produced clothing has many advantages: It is inexpensive, it is widely available, and it comes in millions of different colors and styles. It is also available in a myriad of textures and materials. Many of these materials promise to perform at levels that would only be found in a Sci-Fi novel twenty years ago. Moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, ripstop fabric pervades sportswear and workwear alike. The modern performance fabric also has a sleek clean look that promises ease of movement and impenetrable protection. For all of the benefits these fabrics offer, they have one major downfall: sustainability.
I know what you’re thinking, “Oh here we go: Another bleeding-heart liberal complaining about the environment.” While synthetic fabrics are extremely damaging to the atmosphere and ocean and cotton is a major contributor to water shortages around the world, I’m not actually talking about environmental sustainability. I am talking about the ability to produce, procure, maintain, and use these fabrics in a SHTF situation.
Take a look at what you’re wearing now. Check the tags on all of your gear. If you look at the fiber content for the majority of the fabrics that surround you, you will notice one thing. Almost everything is a synthetic fiber or a synthetic blend. Synthetic fibers include Polyester, Nylon, Spandex, Lycra, Acrylic, Kevlar, Olefin, Acetate, and Zylon among others. All synthetic fibers are made of plastic. Fibers like Rayon, Lyocel, Tencel, and Cellulose Acetate are considered pseudosynthetic and are made of plant cellulose. Both synthetic and pseudosynthetic fibers require intensive laboratory procedures and equipment to manufacture and are nigh on impossible to produce at home.
Synthetic fiber production also relies on refined petroleum. If for any reason the supply chains of petroleum or other chemicals were to be compromised, the manufacture of synthetic and pseudosynthetic fibers would come to a standstill. Without fiber production, the manufacture of clothing, home goods, outdoor goods, and other industries would grind to a halt. Even an oil embargo could cause the cost of synthetic fiber production to rise to inaccessible levels.
Sure, you can stockpile clothing at you BOL. You can even stockpile fabric by the yard for making your own clothing. But will you have enough space to devote to such things when you could use that space for storing food, ammo, or medical supplies? Do you actually know how to make your own garments? Do you even know how much fabric is needed for a single garment? It is more than you think. Synthetic and pseudosynthetic fabrics are also vulnerable to light and heat damage. They are plastic, after all.
Synthetic fabrics also don’t wear well. They degrade after prolonged exposure to light and moisture. Most of them don’t allow your skin to breathe, trapping sweat against your skin. This keeps you hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. Most tear and ravel easily (with the exception of ripstop), and all fray terribly when snagged. If you’re ever around a fire, or even a hot piece of metal, the fabric melts. This is especially dangerous because the melted fabric puts off toxic gasses and will melt into your skin in a gooey blob, causing third-degree burns as it sears through your flesh.
Synthetic and pseudosynthetic fabrics are also noisy. They make a very audible and characteristic “swoosh” when they rub together. For some of the coarser weaves, the “swoosh” becomes a loud “zip.” This noise can ruin the stealthy stalking of prey or the clandestine escape. Synthetics are not a friend to noise discipline. Synthetic performance fabrics may be quiet, breathe, and wick away moisture, but they lack durability and are difficult to repair.
What then is a prepper to do? All the tacti-cool bags, vests, and holsters are chock-full of nylon and polyester. All your coats will melt when you light a fire to keep yourself warm or cook a meal. Your cotton blend shirts will eventually turn to shreds after long days of gardening in the sun. Surely there is something you can do! You actually have several options. You can attempt the aforementioned stockpiling, you can ignore the matter altogether, or you can begin incorporating natural fibers into your wardrobe.
Nothing Beats ParaCord
Certainly, natural fibers are not the answer to everything, There is no replacement for good ol’ paracord. Mil-Spec Nylon thread is my go-to for tarp repairs. The polyester ripstop of my husband’s old uniforms make for excellent reinforcement patches for the knees of work pants. However, in terms of everyday clothing, natural fibers can’t be beaten. Natural fibers like linen, cotton, ramie, hemp, jute, abaca, coir, and sisal are made from plant materials while fibers like wool, hair, and silk are made from animal proteins. Leather can also be considered a natural material, though it is not considered a textile.
Cotton is perhaps the most ubiquitous natural fiber in the United States, though linen, wool, and silk are also common. Ramie is an Asian cousin of linen and shares its breathable, moisture-wicking properties. Hemp is uniquely versatile and can be spun and woven into textiles or used for cordage. Jute, abaca, coir, and sisal are rarely used for garments and are better served as cordage or insulation. Hair, whether goat, camel, horse, or even human, is often used for stiffening in fine tailoring or for luxury suit fabrics.
Though fibers like silk and camel hair are not likely to be useful in TEOTWAWKI, and the cordage fibers are not widely available in their raw forms, fibers like cotton, linen or ramie, and wool will be the cornerstones of any natural fiber wardrobe. The advantages of natural fibers mirror the disadvantages of synthetic ones. Natural fibers are more sustainable because they do not depend upon petroleum or industrial manufacturing. In the right climate, all natural fibers can be produced at home. Small scale cotton farming may not be practical due to the immense drain on resources like water and soil nutrients cotton imposes. But one or two sheep or Angora goats can easily keep a family in wool, while providing weed control, milk, and meat.
Flax, the plant that makes linen, can be grown in many climates with well-draining soil. Flax is much easier on water and the soil than cotton, can be processed without expensive machinery like a gin, and even functions as an effective cover crop and green mulch. Ramie is exactly the same, though it performs better in wet climates than flax. All natural fibers are easier to spin than synthetics because they are not perfectly straight or slippery like extruded plastic. Though natural fibers like wool are susceptible to moths, proper storage can prevent your favorite coat from becoming your favorite lacy tablecloth.
Natural fibers also breathe better than synthetics. Don’t believe me? Ask the Southern Belles of the Antebellum South. All of their many layers of clothing were made from natural fibers. As a historical costumer, I can tell you that a linen shift, cotton corset, linen petticoats, and a cotton, linen, or silk dress are much cooler in the South Carolina heat than any little polyester cotton blend T-shirt and shorts I’ve ever worn. Even a worsted wool gown was comfortable in 80% humidity at 70°F. Finer weaves of merino wool are so cool and breathable that they are used for summer-weight sportswear.
The breathable, sweat-wicking properties of natural fibers make them especially suited for cold weather as well. Though cotton is not a good idea for winter-weight clothing, wool is the cream of the crop. Wool’s natural crimpy texture traps air between the fibers, creating superior insulation. These air pockets also make wool an effective insulator when wet. These pockets absorb water, holding it away from the skin. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling damp or losing any insulation ability. It is also one of the most durable fibers. According to the American Sheep Industry Association, a single fiber can be bent 20,000 times without breaking compared to cotton’s 3,000 times. Wool is also able to stretch 50% of its length when wet and 30% when dry, making it highly resistant to tearing. If the wool does tear, it is extremely easy to repair because when exposed to friction and heat, wool felts together, making a thick, waterproof fabric. Wool is also mold and mildew resistant, and the natural lanolin that coats the fibers nourishes the skin.
Though linen is often associated with breezy summer clothes, it is also useful in cold-weather applications. When used as a liner or bottom layer garment that lies against the skin, linen prevents sweat from building up under your clothes. If you exert yourself or are in a high-stress situation you will sweat, regardless of the temperature outside. Linen can wick away the sweat from your skin quickly and lets it evaporate much more quickly than wool or even cotton. This ability makes linen unbeatable for undergarments. A word to the wise, while linen makes an excellent foundation layer or breezy summer fabric, avoid lining wool garments with linen. If the wool does manage to become soaked the linen will draw the moisture inward towards your skin and prevent the wool from drying as quickly as it might have otherwise. The easiest way to avoid this problem it to make sure you have at least one layer of non-linen between your linen undergarments and wool outerwear.
Linen’s moisture-wicking ability will also help keep you fresher longer. Sweat won’t feed bacteria, causing body odor because it is soaked up instantly and quickly released into the air. Cotton wicks sweat away, but the fibers hold on to moisture longer, causing body odor. By keeping the sweat close to the skin, odor-causing bacteria are still able to feed on the sweat and cause body odor. Controlling body odor is important because if a predator or prey can smell you, you’ve lost the element of surprise. Maintaining personal hygiene is also important to maintaining morale and interpersonal relationships in a situation where stress and emotions are running high and people are forced to live in close quarters. All the benefits and drawbacks of linen also apply to ramie. If you are purchasing or weaving your own linen or ramie fabric to use for garments, expect the new material to be crispy, crunchy, and a little scratchy. The more you wear and wash the fabric the softer and more breathable it will become. If you buy finished garments in these fibers they will likely already be prewashed, though continued laundering and wear will soften them further.
Silk is often seen as a delicate luxury fiber, but in fact it is quite strong. Silk is one of the few materials used for sutures. Parachutes have also been made from silk, though now they are made of polyester ripstop to save on manufacturing costs. Silk is significantly more costly than other fibers de to the way it is produced. Silk is produced by the saliva of silkworms that feast upon mulberry trees. Mulberry trees are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8 and silkworms thrive in temperatures between 68° and 86°F, so if you happen to live in such a climate and wish to try your hand at producing silk, go with God. Due to its relative expense, however, silk fabric may not be practical in a prepping situation. The fibers, while strong, are easily weakened when saturated by water and will be stained when exposed to moisture. Silk is the least breathable of natural fibers, though it is still far more breathable than polyester. If you happen to have bolts of silk fabric laying around you could press it into service as a shade, sail, or tarp, however, silk is not worth investing in as a utility fabric. Waterproofed cotton will perform just as well if not better.
Finally, the most familiar and universal of the natural fibers: cotton. Everyone knows the basic cotton T-shirt that is handed out free at events or bought in a pack of six at the Walmart. High thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets are viewed as the premier bedding. The fluffy white fibers have graced our Q-tips since before anyone can remember. Many pages have been written about the dangers of using cotton as winterwear. Even our denim blue jeans are made from cotton. Cheap, versatile, durable, absorbent, cotton is the swiss army knife of fabrics. Though its absorbancy makes cotton not recommended for heat retention in cold or wet weather, cotton is a wonderful utility fabric and material for warm weather.
Rags from an old cotton shirt can absorb more water than a polyester dish towel. Though not as breathable as linen and ramie, cotton is soft and comfortable from the start. Unlike linen and ramie, cotton fabric is commonly found in both woven and knitted forms. Woven cotton is generally thinner, less absorbent, and stronger while knits are more absorbent, thicker, and stretchy. T-shirts are knits and bedsheets are often woven. You can easily waterproof an old cotton bedsheet or any other tightly-woven cotton fabric by soaking the material in a mixture of equal parts boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits and allowing the cloth to air dry. Multiple applications are advised.
The versatility and durability of natural fibers make them uniquely suited for everyday use as well as for use in a SHTF situation. While fibers like coir are not well suited for garment use, they can be invaluable soil amendments or replacements in specialized gardens. Silk may not be practical or commercially available, but if you manage to produce, spin, and maybe even weave it you will have a renewable luxury resource for trade. The fibers could also be used for sutures and delicate yet strong hand sewing. Cotton, wool, linen, and ramie are the heavy lifters of the natural fiber world and often perform better at temperature control than expensive and fragile synthetics. I’m not saying that synthetic fibers should be abandoned entirely though. While Nylon and poly ripstop certainly have their place, I hope you will consider how the benefits of natural fibers fit into your prepping plans. You may be surprised at what you find.