Could someone with textile knowledge share the wisdom and tell me what type of fiber for clothing different cultures should use or are best suited to use based on their climate and needs?

I know jute, sisal and kenaf are really tough but uncomfortable fibers, mostly used for non-clothing things but with heavy processing it can be turned into soft and smooth cloth...but then again is the heavy processing viable and worth over just growing softer and smoother fibers? I don't know, but I guess not...

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    $\begingroup$ I've given your tags a quick edit to fit with our usual practices, feel free to revert if you wish. Welcome to Worldbuilding, enjoy our tour and refer to the help center as and when. for guidance as to our ways. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ This is potentially too broad a question currently, requiring a book-length answer. A few more details would help narrow it down to something answerable. 1) Is this about humans? If not, details of non-human species are needed. 2) What is the technology level of the culture/s you are interested in? 3) Is this looking at Earth (you are naming particular plants on this planet as examples) or are you looking for general rules for plant fibres on any planet? 4) Are you only interested in plant fibres rather than animal-derived fur or woolen garments? $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 1:08

4 Answers 4


Why wear clothing at all?
Always consider the option of wearing nothing at all apart from decorative bits & bling and protective gear.

Clothing, for the vast majority of the human race, is a matter of culture not biology. (Consider that Tierra del Fuegans traditionally got along pretty well stark naked in a subpolar climate -- yeah, they evolved!)

Considering that civilisations always seem to have evolved in relatively warm & temperate climates, there's no good reason why people must wear clothing. Consider the needs your civilisations' peoples have:

  • decoration --- a decorative scarf or a jaunty sarong or perhaps some well placed body paint might be all that's needed for the day's activities. Mix and match with some bead strings or gold bangles and well dressed might mean not dressed at all!
  • sensible protection --- work gloves, a codpiece and perhaps some boots might be nice for building a house or working in a smithy; a surgical gown and mask would be real nice for medical procedures; but once the work is done, there's no reason to wear the surgical gown out of the hospital or the codpiece and heavy apron out of the smithy! Clothing to meet the needs of work or occupation is common sense!
  • other than that --- what's the point your culture is making by wearing clothing in the first place?

On pockets: pockets are indeed useful!, but are a relatively new invention (1600s or thereabouts). Before that time, people wore belts to which they could attach a purse or pocket. The word "pocket" literally means a little bag, just as a "poke" means a big bag or a sack. Such pockets can also be attached to a bandolier or even slung from a string around one's neck.

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    $\begingroup$ One other useful feature of clothing: pockets. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ Lack of clothing did not prevent people from surviving, but it did help to cope with the elements. It is difficult to saw how much clothing contributed to raise the life expectancy from less than 40 year to more than 80, but it probably did. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Jun 16, 2021 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Sunburn may also be a factor, depending on skin color and climate. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 16:21

Since your question does not provide many details of your world, I will focus on general principles that can be used to develop clothing for your project.

These five factors will influence clothing and its styles (in order of importance):

  1. Climate

Climate is the most decisive factor because some climates may require clothing and some not. For example, if your species live in zones that are too cold for them to survive without coverings, they will develop clothing. Likewise, if the climate is optimal (not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, etc.) there may be no need for clothing at all and it will not appear.

Climate also informs what types of fabric to use and how to wear clothing. For example, it is advisable to wear layered clothing (to trap air between layers) in the extreme cold. Similar considerations should be made for hot weather. Apparently, colour does not matter for hot weather, but weave (weight of the fabric and its pattern) and cut (loose or tight-fitting clothes) do (I vaguely remember that I read somewhere that black-white summer clothing debate is complicated and the best colour and style combination depends on wearer being in shade or exposed to direct sun, humidity, and the presence of wind. Unfortunately, I cannot find the link.).

  1. Technology

The technological level determines what materials are available and how they can be processed. For example, pre-industrial societies will have access only to natural materials (plant fibre, leather, fur, and alike) while technologically developed societies may be able to produce synthetic fibres (polyester, nylon, and alike).

Technological level affects types of available fabrics. Fabrics can be woven, knitted, or non-woven. In addition to different manufacturing processes fabrics can have different patterns which are dependent on available technologies. For example, brocades require rather advanced looms.

Processing goes beyond fabric creation. It also includes clothing-making techniques. For example, corsets are impossible in Stone Age (they require knowledge of specialised measuring, cutting, and sewing techniques in addition to special fabrics and sewing notions like corset ribs). Another important aspect is that most of the clothing in the pre-industrial world was tailored to individuals (as opposed to the prevalence of ready-to-wear garments of today). One of the first mass-produced clothes were military uniforms (1812).

Technology will also affect dyeing, embellishments, and accessories. For example, many lighter shades of blue would be very expensive and/or unavailable in pre-industrial societies. Embellishments are decorative elements such as embroidery, lace, frills, ribbons, buttons, and so on. Buttons are easy to make and they appeared very early in history. However, they became functional only in the 13th century. Accessories will reflect everyday needs and habits. (Take a look at these stunning lice combs!)

  1. Available materials

Availability of materials depends on climate and technology. Here is the list of the most used fibres in our world and another list of fabrics made of these fibres and their properties.

If I am not mistaken, historically the most used materials were fur, leather, wool, flax (linen), hemp, cotton, and silk. You can start with the history of clothing and textile to see specific examples of uses and styles.

There are also some rare exotic materials like sea silk. They can be used to make items displaying high status, e.g. Emperor's robes.

  1. Culture and Society

Culture, social norms, and local laws and traditions will dictate styles more than anything else. However, they may also restrict the use of specific fabrics or materials. For example, there can be luxury laws that prohibit the use of expensive garments (rare fabrics, jewels, gold and silver threads, etc.) by the lower classes.

It is important to remember that while culture and society may have lots of weird requirements for garments, the utility will be rarely compromised. Nobility may use very restrictive and impractical clothing but these cumbersome outfits serve a purpose -- to demonstrate the high social status. Peasant clothing (excluding garments for special occasions like weddings, funerals, and various celebrations) will always be practical and adapted to the local climate and predominant activities.

  1. Trade

No trade means that only local materials and technologies will be used. Styles will also be very homogenous and change slowly. Fast fashion is only possible in a globalised industrialised world where garments can be manufactured cheaply and fast. Historically clothing was not cheap and many items were passed down from one family member to another.

If trade exists, trade hubs will have a wider range of styles and fabrics. Remote and poor regions may not be affected if the trade is chiefly focused on luxury items. However, it is also possible that cheap fibres or clothes will be imported and become the common choice for the lower classes (as it is now with cheap clothing and fabrics imported to Europe and North America from less developed countries). Imported materials also can fully replace local materials if they are sufficiently cheap and abundant (this is less likely to happen in societies at low technological levels).


Firstly they will use whatever is available. Secondly they will trade or explore for better materials.

Without trade or expeditions there is limited ability to select suitable materials. In a non-trading or primitive culture the materials in use will be restricted according to

1: Whatever raw material is immediately available in the local area.

2: The skills of the local population.

For example a cave man living in a palm forest might just tie a palm leaf around his waist to cover his crotch. A more advanced culture might weave a skirt out of dried palm leaves. A yet more advanced culture might spin the leaves into threads and use the threads for knitting jumpers. These would still be rough but you get the idea, they have to devise materials using whatever is on hand so in order to know what clothing materials a primitive culture would be using you have to think about what environment they are trying to survive in, what raw materials they would have access to, and how advanced they are. People living in arctic tundra might not have access to any significant plants and are more likely to wear animal skins from the animals they kill for food. People living in hot tropical paradises might not be motivated to use clothing at all. People living in regions with populations of fluffy goats would be very lucky.

If trade is available then this completely changes the picture - we know that ancient cultures traded with each other to secure products and materials which were not available locally, going to incredible lengths to secure high quality fabrics. As long as trade is available then a single advanced culture would be able to make these products available to a great many less advanced cultures. Consider China supplying silk products to medeival Europe, one "China" would potentially be enough to ensure that everyone in the world had the option of buying a shirt even if it were expensive, it could also serve as inspiration for developing those skills locally.

In regards to your last comment - in my opinion someone who has been forced to wear a winter jumper made out of what is essentially tow rope would be highly motivated to find an alternative solution and might dedicate a significant portion of their life to finding that solution. It is possible that some cultures do not have the concept of explore or trade, but if they do then for a primitive culture in a harsh or temperate climate once reliable firemaking and shelter have been achieved, I think finding better fabrics would be an ongoing project.

A primitive culture of a hundred or so individuals would be in the position to mount exploratory expeditions to locate say sheep, goats, cotton plants, or other things suitable for threadmaking - once the principle of "soft is good" has been understood then they would be able to identify potentially suitable materials visually and by touch. This might even be the motivation for a non-trading culture to become a trading culture (imagine once again the long winter evenings spent itching in your palm-rope jumper and the long winter days spent tending to the wounds caused by your palm-rope jumper).

This all depends on where you want to go with the development of the culture - what they would be using is closely linked to other aspects of their culture - skills, areas known, willingness to trade and with whom, ability to explore, ingenuity, morality/religion (will they kill animals for fur?), agricultiral ability for growing jute or cotton, labour model (do the children and women stay at home and spin threads all day whilst the men chuck spears at the neighbouring tribe?) and probably many other things.

Edit: I realise this is a very general answer, the question is too broad to answer specifically but I think that applying general principles like this will allow for a decent level of realism - if you really flesh out your culture(s) then the type of materials they would use should become apparent.


There are a lot of possible variables here, so I'm going with only the most versatile options.

Flax. Definitely flax. It grows across the world from New Zealand to Europe (and it grows fine in the Americas, once it was introduced), it's been used since 30,000 BC and selectively bred for specific features as early as 7,000 BC, and it makes linen soft enough to make underwear out of. It was still in use across the globe until cotton became cheap in the 1900s.

For armor and other protective uses like thick gloves for heat protection, flax linen can also be layered and quilted to make gambeson, one of or perhaps the most widespread armor used across Europe in the middle ages, being much easier and cheaper to make than anything else (leather armor was surprisingly uncommon, for reasons outside the scope of this answer). Armor similar to gambeson has been made by many cultures throughout the ages.

Wool is still a common material in clothing, and was even more so in centuries past. It can be made into armor like gambeson, or coats, scarfs, shirts, socks, just about everything.

Cotton could obviously be used if the society has access to it. Both flax linen and cotton can be used to make cambric, a common material in European clothing for periods of the middle ages. And silk is an option, of course, provided they can learn to make it.

Everything I bolded can be easily researched for more details, with comprehensive Wikipedia articles about each to get you started.


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