We have a lot to learn from the medieval scarcity economy

Question: what’s the difference between paper and fabric?

For modern peoples, it’s tempting to say that the two are completely different, that paper is made of trees and fabric is made of, you know…fibers? And this is mostly true. In the modern world, we grow trees specifically for making paper, because they create a fine, reliable grain and they grow quickly. Fabric, on the other hand, when it comes from natural fibers, is pretty limited – the only natural fiber most people wear is cotton or rayon (which, contrary to popular belief is synthetic only in the sense that it is multiple fiber scraps wound together, not that it is essentially plastic like polyester). And cotton already looks like something you would make clothes out of, even in its natural state – it’s fluffy and white and made of tiny little threads.

But paper and fabric are both a lot more flexible in their construction than we like to think. Paper can really be made out of any fiber that can be cut into small pieces and will dry without rotting. Fabric can be woven or knitted from anything that can be turned into string, which includes a wide range of plants, animal hairs, and just about anything with a lot of protein – a friend of mine who spins her own yarn once pointed out to me that you could technically make thread out of milk, and that made string cheese seem a whole lot weirder. Occasionally you’ll see alternative fibers marketed for both of these purposes – hemp has been a favorite for decades, and bamboo is becoming more popular, even in toilet paper. But for the most part we stick to the definitions we’re used to.

We don’t really think about paper and fabric as such flexible materials because, like most industrialized processes, we expect them to look and feel a very particular way, and we have been convinced (often by marketing) that they should be made out of only a specific material. Paper was arguably one of the first products to be industrialized, since if you’re going to use it you’ll need a lot of it, and it’s hard to make just one or two sheets of paper at once. Paper is made by turning any fibrous material into a pulp by mashing it with water and, if there isn’t enough already, adding a starch. A screen is then dipped into the solution to catch the tangles of fibers and lose the water. Once the pulp is formed into a sheet over the screen, it can be turned out and dried. That’s it. The more pulp you have (and the more screens), the more paper you can make. Even though paper has been available in parts of East Asia since the 2nd century BC, it became an industrialized product in Europe (Italy, more precisely) only in the 14th century, when it was almost exclusively made for export to the Middle East. Paper mills created a cranked rig that would feed screens through vats of pulp and plop them onto racks that could be stacked for drying. The process of grinding the pulp was also mechanized, with grinding dies rather than hand churning (like making butter). Even as this process first mechanized, paper was not being made out of trees – it was made out of old clothes.

Image result for medieval paper mill

The difficult part of paper production in the medieval world wasn’t actually making the paper, it was sourcing the materials. Cutting down trees for paper would have been an excessive effort for something that was already a luxury. Paper was only useful in Europe as an alternative to parchment or vellum, which are made from animal hides (typically calves or lambs). Monasteries and other book production centers already had a relatively efficient process for turning animals into writing surfaces, which included planning their textual output around their meat consumption (no big publications during Lent!). And while most book producers owned farmland, turning their crops into paper would have been a waste of food production space, unless wheat chaff were a good source for paper (maybe it is, the thought didn’t seem to occur to them). [See this lovely video from the Khan Academy for more information on medieval parchment book-making.]

The fact is that medieval Europeans, and non-industrialized societies more broadly, were wizards at multi-purpose products. As long as it didn’t take more energy to turn something old into something new than it would have to make the new thing from scratch, medieval peoples were all about reusing their scraps. That’s why when clothes had been worn to rags (which happened even for the upper class), and they just didn’t need any more dish rags, goddamit!, paper was a great next life for discarded fabric. It was already formed into strong fibers and was still easily broken down. And it could be bleached and take a lot of abuse.

I’ve been thinking about this industrious medieval paper production a lot recently as we as a society have really started to criticize the wastefulness of fast fashion, compounded by our sudden craze for throwing things away. It will be a gift to ourselves if we can learn to do with less, edit before we buy rather than after. But we also have the problem of garbage to deal with (and in addition to the garbage itself, there’s also the problem of the bags we use). And while it makes us feel special to use a bag that proudly declares itself to be made of recycled water bottles, we don’t really have a place in our current culture for things made out of recycled materials. We still prefer “real” fabrics made of wool, silk, cotton, and linen. We still buy new because scrounging for the right used thing sounds exhausting and unreliable. And not just clothes and paper, but furniture and appliances and packaging materials (on that last one – did you know that uhaul has a carboard box exchange?). Part of the issue is our mindset – we don’t want to face that we need to reuse way more than we do. But part of it is fashion optics – recycled materials aren’t known for being beautiful or comfortable, much less cool.

I recently came across this great video for how to make twine out of plastic grocery bags, and it kind of blew my mind. Mostly because it just looks good. The finished product looks like rattan or regular twine, not like plastic bags. And the production was so little effort – the woman in the video just cut the bags into loops and twisted them into string – I imagine a machine could do it in about 20 seconds. How long would it take to break down that shirt you never wear into pulp for paper? How hard is it really to collect the precious metals in old cell phones?

If we put effort into working with the materials that we have, not individually, but as corporations, industries, and countries, how much could we save?