We don’t often think much of the clothes we wear. Oh, we think of what color they are, whether or not our purse matches our shoes, does this make me look fat, blending in with our surroundings or not, but not the actual fabric. We lost our “fur” a long time ago, and we always seem to have items like jackets, sweaters, undies and socks in abundance. We now argue over the benefits of the latest innovations in fabric, whether it will wick moisture or not, how waterproof it is, but we never seem to worry about where we are gonna get the stuff to make all those wonderful new garments.
Fabric manufacturing was one of the first American industries to be moved overseas. Fabric is a commodity that is technical in manufacture, or it is extremely labor-intensive. Manufacturers searching for cheap labor were quick to jump on the “global” bandwagon and take advantage of low wages overseas.
I have long feared that in preparing for a TEOTWAWKI  situation we would not realize how precious fabric is to us. The technology to create, for example, cotton fabric, even a simple shirt, is very intricate. One of the first beneficiaries of the industrial revolution was fabric manufacture, and not only do we not know how to do it anymore, we do not have the factory tooling nor the people who know how to work that machinery any longer.
In Atlas Shrugged  by Ayn Rand, the old car manufacturing plant sat idle, but at least I still have a husband who understands the parts of a car engine and how they work. And those engine parts don’t wear out very fast. But clothing, on the other hand, wears out relatively quickly.
When a fabric manufacturing plant in the US would close up and move overseas, most of the time the [capital equipment] buyers at the plant auctions were foreign. They came over here and snatched up the tooling and machinery so that they would not have to reinvent the wheel. If you look closely at the machinery in photos of oriental women slaving away at fabric factories, most of it is of American or British origin.
So, what would happen if say a global oil crisis (nuclear war breaking out in the Mideast?) were to occur and we could no longer get any import goods shipped here? Oh yeah, we would have plenty of clothes for a while. Every Wally World is full. But they wear out, and long term, we would not be able to fill the gap. Making the garments is not that hard, and there are still many people who know how to do that. But most folks don’t realize that there is maybe a handful of fabric manufacturers left in the United States. If there are any, I can’t find them.
A few Christmases ago, I wanted to see if I could purchase gifts for my family members and still remain in the “Made In The USA” camp. Toys, I could find. Kitchen appliances, that was harder, but I could still find some through Lehman’s. I was able to find some clothing still manufactured here, but not when I started asking about the fabric. As soon as I would ask the factory personnel about the origin of the fabric, they would say that they bought the fabric from some company or other, and I would have to ask them.
So I would. And in every case, the fabric was manufactured overseas. Sometimes it was even dyed here, but never actually made here. That part of the clothing manufacturing industry is the most technologically difficult.
When I speak of this problem to men, their reaction is always funny to me. “Well,” they say, “aren’t there weavers? You know, the people who work with those big looms?” Yeah, there are weavers. Got one in your town? Do you personally know of anybody who does that?
Besides that, the thread and yarn manufacturing necessary to provide you with the raw materials to weave that fabric is not in the US anymore, either. I recently purchased a set of “cards” for carding cotton [or wool] at an antique store. When I checked out, the lady at the counter asked me what they were, and she was at least 60 years old. So far, no one I have showed them to even knows what they are, much less how to use them.
Spinning is a very lost art, and the people who know how to properly use a spinning wheel are extremely rare. I’ve seen one, but it wasn’t actually a real one, merely a reproduction. They are mentioned in some of the “back to nature” books, but the actual method of doing it is glossed over. After all, any woman should be able to figure that out, right?
Let’s look at that cotton shirt you are wearing as an example of how long it would take to make it by hand. First, you’ve got to know how to grow the cotton. My grandfather told me once that cotton sprouted but after that it was a plant that just wanted to die, so it might be hard, but we do at least have a few cotton farmers around. However, now they are planting genetically-altered cotton seed exclusively.
After that it must be harvested and de-seeded. While we don’t normally do this here in the states, we do still have some old gins around. Probably could be done.
But then the cotton must be carded into “batts” and spun into thread or yarn. On a spinning wheel, folks. To spin enough thread to set up a loom would probably take a week or more, just for a couple of yards of fabric. Then the weaving has to actually occur. I once had a friend who had a big loom to make blankets, and it would normally take her weeks of working in the evenings after her chores were done just to make one blanket. And a shirt takes more [linear feet of spun fiber for] fabric than a blanket.
Knit or crochet it, you say? Have you ever knitted? It takes forever. That is why stockings were so highly prized during the revolutionary war period. Now, I can knit a sweater in a few weeks, but things like stockings are made with much smaller needles and much finer yarn. It is very hard to knit with yarn that small, and incredibly time-consuming. And, once again, you gotta have the yarn in the first place.
My husband thinks I’m crazy, but in my TEOTWAWKI planning, I’m stashing away some fabric, thread and yarn. I’ve been a needle arts hobbyist for years, and if I have enough of those things, I can keep my family in clothing and blankets for years. But I know that it is going to be that long before we can ever recover the process, if we can. It would probably be faster to find someone who can sail across the ocean in a sailing vessel and bring back some fabric.
I’m also stashing away some needles and an old treadle sewing machine, plus some spare parts for it.
Otherwise, we’ll have to go back to the Indian method of tanning hides for clothing. I really don’t want to go that far back into the dark ages, myself!
JWR Adds: When my late wife (“The Memsahib”) went to be with the Lord two months ago, our family lost our fiber arts expert. She hand carded, hand dyed, hand-spun, and hand-knitted (or wove) many items that our family wears. Getting fully proficient took her about seven or eight years. She got so good at it that she taught lessons. She could even hand knit socks. Her skills with fiber arts were just some of many that we now miss, as we mourn her loss. Her Ashford spinning wheels  and hand-crank drum carding machine  now stand idle. 🙁
OBTW, speaking of socks, one important skill is darning . If you can’t learn how to knit socks, then at least learn how to repair your existing socks , darn it! Find a darning ball, darning needles, and several different weights of thread and yarn, for sock repairs.