Textiles are materials formed from assembled fibre, whether that fibre originates from animal sources (such as wool or silk), plant (like flax] or cotton) or mineral (like asbestos or nylon). Textiles tend to be subdivided by form into cloth and cords - where cords include rope, string and similar things and cloths are flat sheets of any size. Individual fibres are first spun (extended to their length and twisted together) or extruded (in the case of artificial fibres) to form a basic cord - often known as yarn. Individual yarns can then be used as they are for some functions, twisted together to make longer and thicker cords (and eventually ropes) or woven into cloth. The weaving process threads strands of yarn through one another (usually at right angles), passing alternately over and under adjoining strands until a continuous sheet is formed which then serves as the textile cloth. The main alternative to weaving is to glue or otherwise adhere parallel strands to one another in a continuous sheet, but this remains a method with very few applications (although paper-making uses a very similar process).
Obviously this breadth of definition gives you a huge range to work with, from primitive stuff hand-knotted between a couple of tree branches to ultratech materials assembled by nanomachines - and in between lie all of the differences in quality and texture you might expect. Not to mention the colours that can be added by dye and the possibilities of other forms of decoration. Decoration could even be woven into the fabric - whether by mixing colours of yarn, as in plaids, or by weaving in fine metal wires as in cloth-of-gold. Until recently, the difference in properties between naturally occurring fibres made making fabric out of mixed yarn a fools errand: differential stretching, shrinking and aging between the different constituents would tend to make the whole unstable and prone to rapid failure. Latterly advances in material science have made blended fabrics more feasible, either by using synthetics that closely match the natural fibre with which they are blended, by pre-treating the natural fibres to alter their properties, or by using alternative construction methods1.
The development of textiles was a key technology for humanity, allowing the production of a vast range of goods including clothing and paper, not to mention many forms of furniture. The primary alternatives to textiles - mainly animal skins and bark-cloth - have significant issues with size, breadth of application and rate of production.
Game and Story Use
- It's hard to imagine a setting in which textiles are that interesting … until you take them away. In a campaign set in the Mesolithic or earlier, you get to find out what you can't do with animal skins.
- Obviously, there will be huge variations in price dependant on materials and quality of construction … and industrialisation can drop the price of almost anything.
- And if price (or quality or materials or even just style) varies by place, you've got a setup for a trade route.
- Finding the right cloth for the right purpose can be an important issue.
- An expert can probably tell a lot about a piece of cloth by analysing how it was put together.
- A rare textile, such as silk in ancient through medieval times, could be an important commodity or treasure item.
- Sumptuary laws might restrict who can wear clothing made of certain types of textiles.
- The formula or process for making an innovative type of new textile, such as Nylon, might make a good MacGuffin
- The classic Alec Guinness movie, "The Man in the White Suit" is an example of this.
- There's also the matter of special properties … especially in fantasy; what happens when you weave unicorn hair into cloth or rope?
- High-tech fabrics may also include all sorts of printed circuits and other woven in systems - perhaps including optic fibres that allow the surface of the cloth to act as a display screen.