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Conventional materials used in today's textile industry are not sustainable. But 'natural' materials (silk, cotton, ...) and synthetic (polyester, ...) require a lot of resources to produce and then labor to make into proper clothes.

Plus, one can't mass produce clothes or have a pre-stocked inventory as they are not one size fits all. The clothing will need to be tailored (at least) to the general physiological trends of the colony (who knows what people will look like 10 000+ years from now?).

Clothes need to be cleaned too. Some types of clothing are supposed to be thrown out regularly (e.g. underwear).

So, in a multi generational ship, what material would be optimal for clothing?

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Such a ship would be huge enough to have fields & crops – Basile Starynkevitch Feb 8 at 20:27
It strikes me this might be the kind of problem which is solved as a side effect of solving the major issues of generation ships, like food or repairs. Accordingly, I'd be tempted to say the clothing would be very dependent on the particular solutions your culture arrived at to make a generation ship a reality. A group that relied heavily on ecosystems will likely have very different clothing than one that relied on silicon and steel. – Cort Ammon Feb 8 at 20:38
You categorically declared all textiles as not sustainable, but clearly this is incorrect. (Most) synthetics can be recycled while (most) natural fibers can be broken down in a biosphere. In a biosphere that passively cleans its water, washing isn't a problem either (the water just gets recycled). I think our conceptions of a generation ship diverge wildly. Please spend a couple paragraphs establishing your setting and outlining how your ship works. – Jim2B Feb 8 at 21:21
...thrown out regularly...? Practically nothing would be thrown out on a multi-generation ship. – user2338816 Feb 9 at 10:01
Well, since the future of your generational ship does rely heavily on continuous repopulation, it might be a good idea to encourage the crew to wear... nothing. – AviD Feb 9 at 10:20

11 Answers 11

As itchy as it is, wool comes immediately to mind. The providers of wool can serve as sources of milk/cheese, meat, fiber, a great skin conditioner (lanolin), leather, fat for soap, and fertilizer, all good things increasing the odds of long-term survival. In such ships, processing of wool may well make it more comfortable; it is warm even when wet, breatheable, etc.

Cotton has the advantage of being a comfortable and absorbent fiber, but growing it depletes soil (in the 18th and 19th c, cotton ruined soil fertility); however it also provides oil for food, cooking, and other potential purposes.

Bamboo has the advantage of rapid growth, and can be used for food (early shoots), a soft and absorbent fiber, and construction material.

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I like the bamboo idea. I love my bamboo filled pillow <3 – Draco18s Feb 8 at 20:50
Bamboo is nice because then the kids will understand the "Eats shoots and leaves" pun for many more generations. – corsiKa Feb 9 at 6:24
@corsiKa is... that a benefit? – Jan Dvorak Feb 9 at 15:41
Hemp is better than cotton. Good for fiber, grows like a weed, and has psychoactive properties that could be considered beneficial. – Chris Kaminski Feb 9 at 20:01
@ChrisKaminski If you have an alternative answer that has not yet been posted, please post it as an answer so the community can vote on it properly. If you have an alternative answer that has already been posted, please vote on that post rather than commenting on an unrelated post. – Michael Kjörling Feb 10 at 12:13

In a highly climate controlled environment like a space ship, other than for utility purposes (pockets) and nudity taboos, there's no real need for clothing. The carefully controlled environment of the spaceship will eliminate the need to wear clothing to regulate temperature and for protection.

So reprogram your generation ship crew and colonists to forget the nudity taboo and only provide them with utility belts/tactical webbing to provide the necessary pockets and other utility slots.

Now you don't need to worry about making, sizing, storing, fitting, etc. the clothing and you don't need to worry about washing it either.

For activities in which clothing provides some protection or comfort, a minimum set could be provided - sports bra, jock strap, etc.

Activities requiring clothing for safety can of course retain their safety garb (I sure wouldn't acid spilling somewhere sensitive!).

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Feb 10 at 19:56
The only problem I see with your answer is one of temperature. If the temperature is high enough to be comfortable without clothing, then it would be more difficult to dissipate heat from any significant amount of labor (that is, anything that causes sweating.) The first method of heat dissipation is to remove some clothing. – anongoodnurse Feb 10 at 22:26

A ship intended for a 10,000 year journey has to grow all its own food (if you can't store clothing, you certainly can't store the much greater quantities of food required.)

With an onboard agricultural system, any of the traditional fabric materials (cotton, flax, silk, etc) can have a source. If the ship's ecosystem allows farm animals, despite the relative inefficiency in calorie production, then wool and leather become available. To argue that such production is too wasteful raises the possibility that the margins in the ship's agricultural capacity is too low for safety.

No matter what the agricultural system, though, there will always be a source of animal hides: people. I doubt that human skin is very tough or durable, but it's not clear that the environment requires much along those lines. And, of course, for very fine, high-status or ceremonial wear, the skins of young humans will be highly prized. It gives a whole new meaning to "kid gloves". Of course, this source cannot be a primary clothing source, since humans are very long-lived, so the availability rate of fresh hides is low.

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You just made the list of people I will never got on a spaceship with... – corsiKa Feb 9 at 6:28
That escalated quickly. – Azor-Ahai Feb 9 at 6:58
@corsiKa: Isn't the difference between nudity (Jim2B's answer) and human leather (this one) merely one of which taboo we're talking of? Yes, I too would be more comfortable with nudity than with wearing another human's skin, but that's because I was brought up that way; there is nothing inherently wrong with either. And while we're at it, a generation ship will use bodies for fertilizer, and will reprocess urine and feces... – DevSolar Feb 10 at 16:32
@DevSolar And that's fine. No one will be praised for having food grown with human-based fertilizer. But when young human skin is praised as ceremonial (i.e. higher value than other types of leather) suddenly less-than-honorable people are incentivized to kill children for their skin. Hence my apprehension about joining a crew where that's the case. – corsiKa Feb 10 at 16:51
@corsiKa: The added value is due to it being softer (hence, calfskin leather). But if I remember correctly, human skin makes for pretty poor leather in the first place, and while leather makes for good outer garments, it's not so good for pants, underwear, and shirts. So I'll leave it at a "novelty upvote". ;-) – DevSolar Feb 10 at 16:57

Just as the environmentalists say "there is no away", on a generation ship you cannot afford to eject so much as a single atom from it other than for acceleration or deceleration. Everything must be recycled. Food, water, clothes, equipment, humans. The final generation who land on a planet must contain in their bodies atoms from the first generation, and must be wearing atoms from the first generation.

So: reduce, reuse, recycle. It will probably resemble a wartime rationing economy. There will also probably be "traditional dress" rather than seasonally-changing fashions. After all, there are no seasons unless someone wants to turn the emulated sun up and down periodically. And there are plenty of places on earth where people wear century-old traditional dress, sometimes for tourists but not always so.

So the generation tribe will generally wear the same kind of clothing which can be maintained for years until it wears out beyond sensible repair. It then gets subdivided, recolored and used as trim for new clothes, or as cleaning rags. The original mission designers will issue everyone with utilitarian-ish uniforms, styled by the greatest designer available. The first generation will probably adapt them a bit. Then ritual sets in, as it must in order to ensure long-term stability.

Obviously this tends towards the use of synthetics for everyday wear: hardwearing, adaptable, recyclable. Polyester is easy to recycle. When you can't recycle it any more, it can be chemically reprocessed at moderate energy cost. Assuming you've brought an ecosystem with you, rayon is a good option: synthetic from wood pulp. When you're done with it, burn it and put the CO2 back in the atmosphere for the plants.

Clothing will be light and the temperature kept warm to compensate. If you're going to live in a bubble, might as well make it like a tropical island. Lie on the glass beach under the fusion-sun, fishing in the lake of generation-fish that are part of the food recycling system.

But humans are humans, and will bring heirloom natural fabrics for special occasions. There will be a thousand-year-old hat to wear, briefly, at the inauguration of a new leader, and suchlike.

The question of animals on a generation ship is a whole other avenue for speculation....

(This is making me want to write generation-ship fiction.)

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Unfortunately, you cannot simply go without clothes in a multigenerational ship. Even apart from considerations of supportive comfort (bras, underpants) consider that even very basic tasks like cooking and cleaning can't really be done naked without the danger of burns (chemical or heat based) to sensitive parts of your anatomy. Now consider that on board a generation ship you may be required to tend to a nuclear reactor, repair a maintenance robot with a welder, sort out that pesky oil leak on the shuttle, wade through a flooded sewage system or even go and clean the exterior windows on the bridge, and you can see the issue!

Clothing wise, why not recycle as much as possible? On a generation ship you either have sufficiently advanced handwavium based technology to create matter out of energy (a la Star Trek's replicators) or you have vast swaths of spaceship devoted to farming, food processing and other industries vital to surviving. Therefore, you're looking at either anything you damn well please in the first case, or animal and plant based in the latter.

In the first case, a repli-wardrobe would create your clothes from a set of templates, with minor alterations dependant on tailoring, fashion and (in the case where energy might be limited for personal use) cost. they would be worn as normal, and either recycled back into energy at the end of the day, or laundered as you would on earth.

In the latter case, a small proportion of the generation ship's compliment would be devoted to creating clothes for the ship's crew. Laundering need not be a group effort unless your generation ship's society is significantly collectivised. We all manage to launder our own clothes here on earth, after all :)

In both cases, they can all be recycled once they've reached their useful life either as energy or into things like painters rags or insulation. Waste-not-want-not is the watchword in a closed system.


Just another quick thought. Synthetics like Polyester are oil based, which precludes them. You might be able to run up something using corn starch or something similar, but I'm not a chemical engineer so I don't know anything more about that!

Therefore, your options in a non-replicator based system are essentially plant materials or animal materials, dependant on what's being grown aboard ship.


We can make synthetic oil from elements, given an energy input (Fischer-Tropsch). Or there's Rayon, which is made from plant cellulose. Some "biodegradable" plastic bags are made from corn, but they are intended to disintegrate rapidly - pjc50

There you go: plant material, animal material or synthetic oil from elements with the right input would mean it really depends on the type of generation ship you're creating :)

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We can make synthetic oil from elements, given an energy input (Fischer-Tropsch). Or there's Rayon, which is made from plant cellulose. Some "biodegradable" plastic bags are made from corn, but they are intended to disintegrate rapidly. – pjc50 Feb 9 at 11:57
Thanks @pjc50 - Added to answer :) – Miller86 Feb 9 at 14:22
Could good old polyethylene (100%) be made into something people would want to wear? If so, that could be cheaper than animal threads. – Jan Dvorak Feb 9 at 15:56
Most 'bamboo' clothing is really just rayon, using bamboo for the cellulose. Polyester is also possible from oils like linseed (although I don't know how efficiently it works), but that'd mean you could grow flax for both polyester and linen (and maybe rayon, too, for the fibers that aren't useful for linen) – Joe Feb 10 at 14:32


There are going to be a lot of dead people and animals over the course of such a long journey. Use what's available rather than letting anything go to waste. It's also a particularly long lasting and resistant material. It's valid for light protective armour in dangerous environments (labs and kitchens).

and should you have a particularly venerated ancestor you can honour them at formal events by wearing their face as a hat.

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Wearing clothing made from your dead ancestors. I dig it. – Colt McCormack Feb 9 at 18:24


Silk is the perfect textile for a generation ship. It is durable, lightweight, strong, and very comfortable.

There are examples of ancient silk that is still in tact today that was produced over 1000 years ago. It has also been proven that it can last longer than other textiles. In tact articles of silk clothing have been recovered from a shipwreck.

One example of the durable nature of silk over other fabrics is demonstrated by the recovery in 1840 of silk garments from a wreck of 1782: 'The most durable article found has been silk; for besides pieces of cloaks and lace, a pair of black satin breeches, and a large satin waistcoat with flaps, were got up, of which the silk was perfect, but the lining entirely gone ... from the thread giving way ... No articles of dress of woollen cloth have yet been found.

A challenge with silk is dealing with the production. Commercially produced silk is harvested from silk worms which kills them. This process is not very sustainable when dealing with a closed ecosystem of a generation ship. Spiders actually make a better quality silk, and the resource is renewable. It only takes about a week for a spider to regenerate after harvesting, so you can use the same spiders over and over for production. The main problem is that spiders produce so little silk, that it would literally take millions of spiders to produce enough silk for an entire ship.

1 Million Spiders Make Golden Silk for Rare Cloth

Over the past several decades, scientists have tried to create synthetic spider silk. If the silk could be produced synthetically, then there would be no need for millions of spiders on the ship. It may also be possible to have a genetically modified organism that can produce massive quantities of the silk. Perhaps spider genes could be implanted into a goat, or a pig which would give them the ability to secrete silk thread.

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Implant the genes of a tiny, yet poisonous (and in some cases fatally so) bug into far larger mammals. What could possibly go wrong? [For one thing, Mountain Dew might make "SpiderGoatPig" commercials. SyFy might then feature them in "SpiderGoatPigNado".] – Monty Harder Feb 9 at 20:35
Spider goat, spider goat/ eats no flies but lots of oats/ spins a web out of silk/ sorry kids there is no milk/Baaa-aaaaaa, here comes the spider goat! – Deolater Feb 9 at 23:44
The article you linked said that in fact there have been attempts to produce spider silk using genetically modified bacteria, among other plans. The problem is that spiders produce the silk as a liquid, and apply physical forces to rearrange the proteins, turning it into a solid strand of spider silk, which we are thus far unable to imitate as well as spiders (our strands aren't as good). Fascinating article, thanks! – Dan Feb 10 at 0:12
Silk lasts so long because it contains amino acids not used by most other forms of life. Putting this another way, silk lasts so long because it is NOT biodegradable. Spiders eat their own silk and are able to reprocess that amino acid but I don't know about anything else that can break down silk. – Jim2B Feb 10 at 16:58
@Jim2B Moths are the primary enemy of silk. Assuming that there are no moths on the ship, it should last a very long time. – Jason Hutchinson Feb 10 at 17:50

Polyethylene terephthalate

And other similar synthetic materials. It can be recycled. Easily, all you need is energy and neutral gas. On such ship, you'll have it. You need lightweight liquid containers anyway. And you will need to recycle them as well. Having one material for both saves recycling equipment. And we already are doing it, with PET bottles and polar fleece.

By the time multigeneration ships will launch, we probably will solve all health risks connected to PET (or prove them to be false). Or we'll be using safer material, one able to survive more recycle cycles.

The point is use one substance for as many items as possible, and with PET or something similar you have covered clothing, bottles, cups, windows, maybe some furniture, insulation on cables... None of these would be covered perfectly, but they can be covered adequately, and make recycling easier.

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Assuming this is around 10,000 years in the future, it is highly likely people will be using fusion/antimatter/another high density energy source. This means the ship can be designed so there is more than enough energy to do most tasks (especially since there is little gravity in space, so the ship can be any shape and hold any amount of fuel). Furthermore, there is already research into self-cleaning clothes, so that will take care of the cleaning issue.

If you want to save the energy though, you should probably go for a harder material (e.g. fibreglass). If you can get the material into fine enough thread, you can use it for a fray-resistant material. The only issue there is the fact that it will be uncomfortable, which can be solved with a thin layer of normal fibres.

Also, about mass production - it's not too hard to create a machine to custom-make clothes; it's just not very high on anyone's priorities right now. An efficient custom-made clothes printer is almost a certainty within a few centuries.

Note: I haven't really answered your question, but optimal doesn't mean it is the best idea.

Note 2: Feel free to comment on anything you feel I have left out/not considered etc.

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If people are advanced enough to build multi-generational ships, they will also be able to:

Build tailoring machines; scan your body, choose style and function, weave, knit and sew, done.

Reproduce artificially the kind of fabrics we wear now, like viscose. You can make viscose out of many different plants, and choose how fine or coarse the threads are. No need for silk worms, just turn the dial to silk, it has a vat of the protein it needs and extrudes it.

Recycle anything no longer needed, by reducing it back to protein and putting it back in the vat.

On a big enough ship people would wear everyday clothes, with variations for different jobs, and uniforms for officers. Since the physiology would be the same, clothes would not be much different from now - they still need to use the bathroom. I imagine on a big ship there would be recreational zones with forests and stuff... so sport clothes and boots.

People did not always get new clothes all the time. In the old days clothes were for life. Kids wore the clothes of their older siblings. People inherited good clothes, and re-tailored and wore them with pride. That could become a philosophy for all objects on the ship.

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A generation ship will have manufacturing facilities onboard, as the duration of journey will be far beyond the expected lifetime of most equipment. So I don't see why there should not be a synthetics clothing factory among the many electronics, robotics and repair shops.

I would rather question how clothes will be used and worn. If we assume that no miracle technology solves scarcity, fashion and other non-practical approaches will be severely impacted. Clothing might standardize, to increase re-usability and reduce resource consumption. As spaceships do not lose heat very easily, clothing might also be reduced and ambient temperatures higher. For protection and privacy, I don't expect them to disappear (who wants to work in a factory naked?).

Availability of resources will be the key factor. Fur and wool are probably out, but cotton can possibly be grown in hydroponics. But synthetics are probably the logical choice, and with the right materials can be the most easy cleaned and recycled.

With sufficiently advanced technology, I can imagine that you throw away your clothes in the evening into the recycling box, and get a fresh/recycled set in the morning, in the colour of your choice.

However, we should not forget just how much psychology goes into clothes. That is unlikely to disappear, and makes it incredibly difficult to make any guesses.

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