The t-shirts that we so cavalierly toss into dresser drawers, throw into beach bags, and leave behind without a backward look represent a luxury unimagined by our forebears.
T-shirts are made of knit fabric--for those who are removed from textile production (another modern "luxury"), knitted fabrics are created row by row, looping a single thread through the loops of the previous row. Using knitting to make sweaters or other upper-body garments is a relatively modern concept:
"In Europe in the high Middle Ages, knitting was a new and exciting art. It was probably first invented in the Islamic countries around the Mediterranean, and may have penetrated Europe by way of either imported products or the arrival of trained craftsmen. The earliest surviving pieces in the Islamic countries probably date to the 9th to 11th centuries (800s to 1000s), and in Europe to the late 13th and 14th (late 1200s and 1300s)."
~Knitting: A Brief History
16th Century silk shirt
The jersey, a flat-surfaced knit, characteristic of t-shirts is knit in an unbroken spiral, which is why our t-shirts do not have side seams to irritate our skin. A handknitter uses circular needles or several double-pointed needles to create this tube of fabric, but we are the beneficiaries of two centuries of mechanization, for good or for ill.
T-shirt fabric comes in many different weights, but even the heftiest is knit at a gauge so fine that skilled handknitters would be hard put to replicate it by hand. T-shirt #1, for example, has 30 knitted stitches per inch! For comparison, a standard modern sweater has, perhaps, 5 stitches per inch.
Let's also pay tribute to the luxury of cotton, the lint of a seed that grows throughout the world where there is enough sun, heat and water to support the plant. The process that takes cotton from the field to the t-shirt is complex indeed, much of it dependent on mechanization developed in the late 1700's. Before that cotton fabric was generally considered a luxury product--artisans in India were able to produce the finest fabrics of handspun and handwoven cotton, but the skill and time involved were considerable. We no longer have such handmade products, but in their place we have the daily luxury of machine knit underwear, socks, and T-shirts in silky cotton.
And the colors! According to In Search of Lost Colour, a DVD produced by Maiwa Handprints about natural dyeing, a toga in the color purple we seen in T-shirt #1 would have cost $35,000 in today's dollars because the purple dye (produced by a small Mediterranean mollusk) was so rare. Given that this t-shirt is smaller than a toga, let's just say the T-shirt would be worth about $8,000! The inexpensive synthetic dyes that are used to color our t-shirts were not developed until the 1860s.
The history of textiles is quite amazing--the advances in production have come at a cost, without doubt, but we have choices never before known.
John found this one in Berkeley on June 17th, set on the curb in a paper bag with other clothing. It's pink, but the Mustang theme is so strong that it could be a man's shirt. Hard to tell.