An Old Sailor’s History of Textiles

In our modern life, even at sea, it is easy to take the bedding textiles we use every day for granted. I didn’t think much about Navy bedding until our COMCRUDESPAC Unit embarked aboard USS Boston (CAG-1) in 1967, bound for Vietnam. For my open-bay, aluminum-frame canvas rack, I got everything I needed:

  • A flat, lumpy pillow with a worn cotton pillowcase,
  • A scratchy wool blanket,
  • a skinny mattress filled with mystery material, covered with cotton ticking,
  • a well-used cotton fart sack to cover the mattress, and
  • a top sheet so threadbare I could have used it for a window if not for the puke stains.

I never took it for granted again, but things got better. My last trip was on a Spruance-class destroyer to make nice with the Russians at Severomorsk. It was fairly comfortable in the goat locker.

The Ancient Origins of Textiles

I didn’t realize until I started digging up the history how long humans have been making textiles. For most of recorded history, textiles have been the largest human occupation next to farming.

I pictured our Neolithic ancestors as wearing animal skins (or nothing) and sleeping on piles of whatever they could gather together, but it appears they were more advanced than that.

The oldest known samples of bedding fabric are 77,000-year-old hand-woven mats of sedge grass found at Sibudu, South Africa. People there still make and use them today. We could say the first manufacturing tools were the rocks they used (and still do) to mash the stalks and separate the fibers.

Those ancient materials had an advantage over the ones we use now—they are natural insect repellents.[1] I could have used it on some of my hunting trips.

Textile Fabric
Archaeological and Historical Timeline (approximate)

75,000 BC                Woven Sedge Mats in Africa

32,000 BC                Flax Fibers in Georgia

6,000 BC                  Hemp Fabric in Mesopotamia

5,000 BC                  Cotton Cloth in Mexico

4,000 BC                  Wool in Babylonia

1,000 BC                  Linen Cloth in Egypt

1855                        Artificial Silk (Rayon)

1913                        PVC (for finishing)

1941                        Polyester

1959                        Spandex

1966                        Kevlar

2016                        nanoPE

The Ancient History of Flax

Humans have been using flax fibers for 34,000 years. Archaeologists discovered fibers in an excavation in the Republic of Georgia in 2009.

We know from the Egyptian pyramids they were making bed sheets of linen over 3,000 years ago.

Flax was important to American colonists. It wasn’t a cash crop, but being able to grow and harvest it for food, clothing, and medication was important to individual families. Colonists did anything they could to avoid buying from the English fabric monopolies. Bartering with flax was a way to avoid paying taxes to the King.

The Plant that Powered World Trade

One of the non-psychoactive varieties of Cannabis sativa L., hemp is the oldest domesticated fiber. Archaeologists 8,000-year-old samples in Mesopotamia.[2] For centuries, hemp was the fiber of choice for sails, ropes, and rigging, and is still used around the world. It was critical for commerce and military purposes until the end of WWII.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence on hemp paper, and Ben Franklin used hemp string to fly his kite.

Hemp was so important to defense and commerce in 18th century America it was legal tender, and people paid their taxes with it.[3]

Today, we use hemp seeds for food products, fuel, lubricants, cosmetics, and paint. The stalks are used for canvas, cordage, carpet, clothing, shoes, paper products, and filters. Since it is illegal to grow in the U.S., we import tons of it from other countries, mostly Canada.

Could it be that cannabis is what makes the military bureaucracy so slow? The USDA maintained a large hemp farm in Arlington, Virginia until it was cleared to build the Pentagon.[4]

Since no one could possibly ingest or smoke enough Cannabis sativa L. to have an effect, we wonder why it is still illegal. Maybe it’s for the benefit of international trade, but who knows?

The Plant that Powered World Trade

Wool, the Medieval Money Machine

Evidence of fabric made from fleece dates to Babylonia in 4000 B.C. Over time, wool production became a cottage industry that employed thousands of people. From the 12th to the 18th centuries, it was the largest manufactured commodity in both regional and international trade.

Merchants hired rural farm folk to produce wool. The farmers produced their own food, so they were willing to work for less than people in the cities. At one point the wool trade in Venice employed 17,000 workers in the surrounding countryside.[5]

The 17th century English were expert at raising sheep, and the Flemish developed machines to handle the processing. Eventually, the British advanced water-powered mechanical processing, which they guarded closely with draconian laws. They protected their trade with their colonies by forbidding the export of sheep and machines or drawings of machines. American colonists who attempted to improve the quality of their homespun wool production could be punished by cutting off a hand.

The wool trade changed after the Revolution. Samuel Slater, who learned the trade in his native England, emigrated to America at the age of 21 with the machine designs in his head. He escaped by posing as a farmer.

Slater founded the first textile mill in 1793 in Pawtucket, and that was the beginning of industrialization in America. Slater freely shared his designs, and he became known as the father of the American Industrial Revolution.[6]

Wool, the Medieval Money Machine

King Cotton

Scientists have found 7,000-year-old bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton cloth in caves in Mexico. By 3,000 BC it was being grown and processed in the Indus and Nile valleys. Columbus found cotton growing in the Bahamas when he arrived in 1492.[7]

It wasn’t until Eli Whitney invented of the cotton gin in 1793 that cotton overtook production of other fabrics. Even though Slater’s mills and automated looms could produce cotton fabric quickly, getting it to market was a labor-intensive process until then.

Today, the cotton growing, harvesting, preparing, weaving, and finishing is mechanized. Cotton has remained the king of fabrics worldwide, but synthetic materials are taking over.

King Cotton

Synthetics, the New King

You might think synthetic fibers are a 20th-century invention, but George Audemars patented the first artificial silk fibers (rayon) in 1855. He made it of naturally occurring polymers in the bark of the mulberry tree.

Since then, we have seen increasing new inventions of fibers made from just about anything that can be dissolved into a polymer. It was only a little over a hundred years from the invention of silk to the manufacture of Kevlar.

The problem with rayon, polyester, and other resin fabrics is that they tend to melt or go up in flames. We had an issue with Navy uniforms in the 70’s, so researchers thought a cotton/polyester blend would be better. If you have been around for a little while you know about the uproar over the past five years.

Last year, Stanford researcher created a new nanoporous polyethylene (nanoPE). Researchers claim it will keep us cooler than cotton and older synthetics. I’m OK with that if it doesn’t make me look as goofy as Lycra. If you ever see me in Lycra on a bicycle, just shoot me.

Synthetics, the New King

What Next?

Fire retardant materials are great, and at least what the fleet has for bedding is almost serviceable. It’s a good thing there are a lot more options if you can part with a little cash.

I am a bit grateful I never had to wear blue pajamas to work. I heard a lot of pet names for the uniform over the past ten years. “Blueberries” is one of my favorites. Personally, I think dungarees and wash khakis were the greatest.

Now that you youngsters are all getting something new, I hope it is something you can be proud of.

-Cranky Old Retired MCPO




[1] Cohen, Jennie. "World’s Oldest Known Beds Repelled Bugs." December 08, 2011.

[2] "Hemp 101: What is Hemp, What's It Used for, and Why is It Illegal?" Leafly. November 14, 2016.

[3] Will, Oscar H., III. "The Forgotten History of Hemp Cultivation in America." Farm Collector. November 01, 2004.

[4] Goetzman, Keith. "Hemp Once Grew Where Pentagon Now Stands." Utne. May 13, 2010.

[5] Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd Series, Vol. 9 (2012). AMS Press, Inc.

[6] "Samuel Slater." Wikipedia. February 18, 2017.

[7] "The Story of Cotton- History of Cotton." National Cotton Council of America. Accessed February 22, 2017.

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