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Up front, I am aware of this question. My question is more about the material than the style and is not a duplicate.

I was thinking about the clothing for my homebrew RPG and something about my intrepid band of space traders exploring the ice planet "Yetika" dressed in thick wool/leather coats appeals to me.

This question is in two parts:

  1. Do older textiles made from naturally occurring fibres present any clear benefits over synthetic fibres?
  2. Given the following information about the setting, is there any reason that organic materials would be preferable to fibres like nylon.

Here are some handwaves and background info.

  • Complex 3D printing is available and is capable of replicating any known textiles.

  • There's no shortage of energy because fusion is cheap. Therefore, it's not hard to make most textiles in a colony.

  • Radiation shielding for spaceships is very good.

  • There is enough of an infrastructure in space that if you're in a space suit, you're probably having a really bad day.

  • Space travel is really common. Humanity has spread across a good portion of our spiral arm colonising and currently setting up the infrastructure for mass terraforming so lots of people on inhospitable planets with minimal resources.

  • Since a clearer definition of "natural" was sought, I basically mean anything we could make up to 1900.

Answers do not have to be super hard science but the more believable an explanation, the better. Also, I'm willing to change the setting minimally, if you have a particularly believable explanation.

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    $\begingroup$ Cotton or linen over nylon always and for ever! How can one even ask if they are preferable to nylon? Happily there are artificial fibers other than wretched nylon; viscose (aka rayon), for example, is quite pleasant. Seriously, many many people prefer natural fibers over artificial one, except in specialized applications. They feel different on the skin. Nylon is vile. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 4 '17 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, if the 3D printing is complex enough, couldn't they just print wool and leather? Or is it not quite at the level of "replicating organic material"? $\endgroup$ – Michael Sep 4 '17 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ Hostile environment ("space")suits have to be designed to retain/radiate temperatures in the environment that they are used in. An A7L insulates well in straight vacuum, but poorly in an atmosphere. Even in Mars' rarefied atmosphere, which is a good analog for hard vacuum in most terrestrial laboratories, its heat retention is badly compromised. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 4 '17 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ For sleeping bags, down is a far better insulator than any man-made replacement. People use the synthetic insulation material because its is quite a lot cheaper. Those who want/require better insulation will fork out the extra money and buy down (if they can afford it of course) without discussion. $\endgroup$ – Jacco Sep 5 '17 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ imagine vat grown leather gloves that perfectly fit the contours and flex pattern of your hands instead of being stitched together. You could even grow in fingerprints to give better grip. $\endgroup$ – John Sep 5 '17 at 23:27
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It's worth noting that in the modern world natural fibres outperform synthetic fibres in some ways. Wool and down are still used, wool generally for its wicking properties as a base-layer and down for dry-cold weather insulation.

So the simple answer here is that people continue to use natural fibres because they're the best, and for whatever reason it's easier to harvest them in the natural way than it is to try and manufacture them.

Another point to consider is how are you defining 'natural'? It may well be that having worked out what is required from a fibre, that the best way to make it is to genetically engineer an organism to grow it.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 When using local natural organic materials in the environment in which the native plant/animal lives, you are adopting proven survival characteristics. Seal skin clothes are perfect in the earthly arctic, and cotton jeans are perfect in sub-tropical climates. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 4 '17 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ Definition of natural added. $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 4 '17 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ What is "wicking"? $\endgroup$ – Douglas Sep 5 '17 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ More examples. Leather is preferred for some applications, such as hiking boots and motorcycle jackets (where the purpose is not to look cool, but to protect your skin from road rash should you go down). Hemp fiber, or hemp-cotton mix, is also quite comfortable for mild to hot weather clothing. Silk makes a good inner layer for cold temperatures. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 5 '17 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ Wolverine fur naturally suppresses frost formation, which is why it is the prefered material in hoods in the extreme cold, It doesn't build up the layers of frost from exhaled humidity the way other materials do. $\endgroup$ – John Sep 5 '17 at 23:30
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If planetary colonisation, space travel, and terraforming are all good enough, this may not be enough of a benefit. However, natural fibres can biodegrade and be healthier for the environment - if space per person is at a capital (which it may well be, if your society has a particular incentive to colonise other planets), then looking after the current available space might be worth it.

Also, on a more social level: would there simply be some kind of cultural cachet inherent with natural fibres? Although one could theoretically synthesise anything, it suggests a certain amount of time, labour, and therefore money to produce something organically. Homespun hemp clothes could be the preserve of the rich and fashionable, while old Joe Bloggs is stuck wearing the cheap nylon clothes produced artificially in massive quantities.

Equally, however, those establishing an off-world colony may need to know how to use natural materials, if modern technology is still being brought to the planet (if the one 3D printer in the village breaks, they might need an alternative). Once technology does arrive in full force though, any organic materials and homewards from new planets may command a high price tag for customers on other planets, for whom this new environment is an exciting spending opportunity.

EDIT

It could be that some of the planets colonised in your universe have some kind of constraint imposed upon them (a question raised in Terry Pratchett's "The Long Earth", for example). What if you couldn't use metal on a particular planet? Would that hinder your 3D-printing technologies, so that colonists had to rely (at least temporarily) on organic materials and processes? And what if there was already a sentient indigenous species? Would your colonists attempt to merge with their culture (whatever that may be), or demonstrate their difference by utilising artificial or alien materials?

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point about cachet - you can make a car interior entirely from synthetic fibres, but to have an interior considered 'high-end' it really has to have leather. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Sep 4 '17 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ /cultural cachet / if there are companies they will advertise their product. How to distinguish one shirt from another? A company will use any angle it thinks will work. The naturalness of fiber might be one. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 5 '17 at 2:32
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Why not do blends?

If you can re-create natural fibers, AND what's currently available synthetically, it would make sense to do blends, like what we see in stores today.

Advantages/Disadvantages of natural fibers

  • Wicking, with wool, and breathability with linen (from flax) and cotton.

  • Shrinkage at high temps, wrinkling.

Advantages/Disadvantages with synthetic fibers

  • Less wrinkling, resistant to stains.
  • Not as comfortable
  • Can melt at high temps.

Polyester, for instance, can cause skin irritation and, stifling in summer. Current methods of production mean that there are toxins associated with them because of the chemical process used--if your method eliminates those, that would be helpful.

When it comes to durability, both sides, argue that synthetic is better or natural is better. I think it depends on what it's used for. Here's an exchange on the outdoor stack which talks about natural leather vs. synthetics.

Fabric blends of natural and synthetic get you the best of both worlds, but for things such as underwear and tees, that are worn close to the skin, you may want natural

Hikers that hike in the cold are actually the best place to get this info--and this is a debatable point. It can be personal and cultural, so I don't see why it would be a problem in your world.

This thread talks about when wool is a good idea (when there's a chance for wetness, so you'd want a wet cold, not a dry one, and glacial streams). And you'll notice that at least one of the posters shills for a blend of synthetics and wool. And this link talks about the actual structure of wool and its advantages.

If you want your folks to wear thick woolen cloaks, make sure it's wet, basically.

Because you say:

Complex 3D printing is available and is capable of replicating any known textiles.

It really doesn't matter if the fabrics are natural or not, you can make them have the same structure, even though, technically, they are synthetic as they are man-made and not derived from a natural fiber. And further, they can have any structure you would like, lightweight or not. They can be 100% wool structure, or be a blend to make it more lightweight, but still have the characteristics of wool.

As for leather, it isn't actually great for clothing in cold weather without a lining/fur/wool. It keeps the wind out, but is terrible insulation.

ECONOMIC FACTORS Part of what you need to solve is just what the limitations of the 3-D printer are, and how much it costs for various designs. If natural fabrics are cheaper to make via-printer, or to make using fabrics, those will be used. Also, the options may be limited-- as in, you make the blueprint or license for certain things more expensive--so wool and leather might be the cheaper option. If you're talking post-scarcity, or that it doesn't take a lot of time or resources, that's a different thing, but the printer has to be fueled somehow, and the raw materials used to make things have to come from somewhere.

CULTURE & CUSTOM It's possible the colony was given a bunch of fabrics for when they landed, and that's what they have worn ever since, because they do work for the population.

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There's a very good reason for natural fibers: Fire safety. If you get burned it's much better to be wearing natural fibers (which don't melt) vs synthetic ones (which generally do.)

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The only reason is prestige. Rarity means value. There is no physical reason to wear natural fibers on an ice world when you can have electrically heated clothes, natural fibers or synthetic.

Now if you are a trader, your clothes and look shows your success. Having a hand crafted woolen jacket shows your wealth and success as a trader far more than a off the rack, mass produced jacket.

In a world where anything can be robotically mass produced for next to nothing, the only things of real value is hand made

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Textile

Many contemporary synthetic fibres outperform natural materials. Take for example winter clothes. Uniqlo's HeatTech is made of acrylic, polyester, spandex, and rayon. It is much thinner, stretchier, and more comfortable than traditional thermal underwear. As a result, layering and moving around are much easier. The same goes for hot weather clothes. Synthetic materials of today are breathable, excellent at wicking moisture, and can actually cool skin. They can also be UV-protective, have anti-microbial properties, and dry faster. An additional benefit of new materials is easier care (less wrinkling and easier to wash) and longevity.

Since your civilisation has much higher technological level than ours I would assume that their advances would also result in better textile. The materials of the future will outperform anything that we have so far. It would be possible to fine-tune one's wardrobe for an occasion or a task at hand. Warming, cooling, protection, you name it...

Utility

New fibres will be used for their utilitarian value extensively. If they are cheap and readily available, the majority of the population will opt for them. The said HeatTech is very popular in Japan. Everybody is wearing it during the winter months.

The new materials will also dominate work clothes since they guarantee more freedom of movement and better protection. So, your traders, probably, will wear some synthetic clothes while exploring. Thick wool and leather might be appealing stylistically, but they lose in practicality. For example, wool can shrink and felt, it takes a lot of time to dry, and it is heavy. Leather can protect from the wind, but is not a good insulator and depending on type might require a lot of maintenance.

I would suggest looking at modern hiking and specialised gear. A significant part of it is made of synthetic materials. Also, even 'pure' wool, cotton, etc. of today tend to have some synthetic additions (sometimes as much as 5%) because blends are more resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage.

Fashion

Fashion always plays a huge role in our choices of wear, especially for public occasions. Your merchants might prefer traditional textiles for official and public appearances if it is what it takes to demonstrate wealth and status. In this case, you can experiment with various forms and cuts. For example, throughout the history, impractical garments were used to display one's high status: excessively long sleeves, full skirts, long trains, high heels, and so on. Anything that restricts movement, including weight, can be used for this purpose.

The use of traditional textiles as indicators of status would be even more plausible if they are not easily replicated. Something that takes time to make always has more value than things that can be mass-produced.

Another reason would be religion. If followers of a certain religion are required to wear specific clothes they will do it. But most likely, it will be a combination of traditional and new textiles.


IMHO, in your particular setting, the preference for traditional textiles will be chiefly driven by culture. Your level of technology is high enough to produce synthetic fibres way superior to anything that can be made using traditional technologies.

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Because of humanistisch high synthetic material usage, bacteria have been evolving to digest synthetic like products in a quick phase, resulting in small waste materials toxic to humans if the wind takes it up into the air. Because people didn't realise that this was the problem at the start, people who wear lots of synthetics got sick more quickly. The reason why these bacteria won't affect normal plastics is simple because normal plastics are stiff, and don't move, causing problems for these bacteria to remove their waste products from the living places.

This caused the global population to shift more towards people who liked the old clothes more, since their lifestyle was more healthy, so they could work more, and earn more.

After a while, this will result in a shift toward more natural products, because of the improved life expectancy when wearing those products.

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