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Monday, November 27, 2023

The Unbearable Softness of Engineered Fabrics

Heebie-jeebies is both the informal and the default technical term for a dysphoric response to an innocent-seeming stimulus. Styrofoam, celery, wicker: Something in these materials represents a sensorial crisis for certain human bodies. The primordial heebie-jeebies—revulsion perceived variously in the spine, the molars, the bristling of hairs on the back of the neck—are conjured best with images that beam the feeling straight to the flesh. “Fingernails on chalkboard” is the cliché (feel it now?), but there are other choices: “Fleece makes my skin crawl,” someone reported on a message board. “It makes my skin feel dirty and ticklish.” For me the words “hot, dry towels” reliably cause the very root of my tongue to … thicken and shudder.

Softness, though equally subjective, at least gets that lovely old word, soft, from the Old English for calm and agreeable. If heebie-jeebies are screeches and creaks, soft things are a major chord, resonant with well-being, reassurance, forgiveness, and even—what the hay—love. But we humans aren't easily lulled into the confidence that we're cared for. The human senses never cease detecting things the brain finds a way to dread. The skin on our fingertips is among the most sensitive in the animal kingdom, after only crocodile faces (might hypersensitivity figure into crocodile-caliber aggression?). Their mechanoreceptors respond to lacunae and threats as small as 13 nanometers in amplitude. (For comparison: A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick.) At this degree of sensitivity, fingertips can find discontinuities the mind may not be able to brook. Minuscule potholes in the surface of magazine paper, for example, can for some clash disagreeably with its apparent glossiness.


To create and assemble soft surfaces designed to touch skin intimately—specifically, to make clothing—requires at least awareness of heebie-jeebies. For a decade, groovy companies like MeUndies (b. 2011), Tracksmith (2014), Allbirds (2014), and Bleusalt (2017), all of which promote at least some of their garments as sustainable, have faced a key challenge. They've been creating synthetic-blend textiles that are soft like cashmere but not uncanny, as Minky, mohair, fleece, or chenille can be.

Tracksmith, which is based in Massachusetts, the ancestral home of American textiles, calls its Merino blend “stunningly soft.” Allbirds has managed to create “soft and cozy” wool shoes. Malibu-based Bleusalt claims its beachwear is composed of “the softest fibers on earth.” These boasts are not entirely just “the world's best cup of coffee”; they're empirical. Polymer chemists use the Kawabata Evaluation System, a set of extremely precise instruments developed at Kyoto University that measure the subtlest properties of textiles—the ones associated with what the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State calls “comfort perception.” By manipulating fabrics and exerting exceedingly low force on them, Kawabata instruments gather data sets including stretch, rigidity, compression, and surface friction on human skin. Of these, compression (thickness and loftiness) and friction (roughness) are believed to be what comprise the aesthetic of soft.

But even Kawabata can't understand what produces the anti-aesthetic of heebie-jeebies. That's a shortcoming, as anything that calls itself the softest thing on earth shouldn't strike even one central nervous system as horrid. As I study Kawabata's components, heebie-jeebies seem related to fabric's “shear”—the capacity of a material to impose stress when it runs along skin, thus scraping or chafing it, rather than when it comes at skin, which leads to pokes or punctures.

But here's my grander working theory: Those creepy sensations arise when fingertips, in sync with other finely tuned sensory systems, experience nanoscopically confounding surfaces like cardboard or paper towels as mentally unassimilable. They're neither friend nor foe. They flood the circuits. A human brain that balks at even naming a particular supersensory experience can't be expected to integrate it; the result is almost cellular bewilderment, and the mind expels the encounter as the body would poison it can't metabolize. Thirteen nanometers is far, far, far beneath nameable perception. And when the fingertips merely shear, and yet perceive, a dip so shallow, the brain is brought up short, with no way to index the experience.


Think of it: A strand of DNA is about 2 nm in diameter. What if, one day, a set of fingertips only six times more sensitive than our own could perceive DNA strands? Uncanny in the extreme. It would be like seeing ultraviolet and infrared; we'd need a new sensory lexicon to make sense of “invisible light” or the “texture of DNA.”

And indeed that's the danger for technologists of softness, the same one VR programmers confront: They might miss the mark of pleasurable and plunge into the uncanny valley. This is what many believe happened with polyester fleece, which was initially coveted for its softness. Many, including me, find that other “soft” stuff like silk, corduroy, velvet, and mohair hit us as too soft, so ostentatiously soft that they edge into the heebies. Maybe subjective softness is attainable, but universal softness is not.

OK but: How does Bleusalt do it? I swear I'm not shilling; I've just never met a person who didn't love the company's fabric, modal, which uses fiber made of beechwood cellulose. The process of pulping beech trees and pushing the mush through tiny holes to make thread was first invented in Japan in 1951 and later refined in Austria. Beechwood modal is unutterably soft, and that's empirical. On Kawabata, Bleusalt's beechwood modal shows up as twice as soft as cotton.

And thus all roads in textiles lead to cotton. One of Kawabata's benchmarks of softness is cotton, yes; but to mention the fiber is also to invoke a cautionary tale about protectionism, destructive land use, and above all labor exploitation and centuries of human bondage. The biggest and most profitable nonfood crop in the world, cotton sucks the planet dry. Some 2,700 liters of water are required to make a single cotton T-shirt, and cotton cultivation further exhausts soil, while agrochemicals irrevocably damage ecosystems in Pakistan and Australia.


What's destructive to the planet has also destroyed humans. In Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson discusses calico, the whimsical printed cotton fabric that the English went gaga over in the 17th and 18th centuries. Johnson hears “cotton's big bang” in the calico craze, which reverberates “from the ancient geological forces that deposited that crescent of black soil, to the appetite for cotton stirred up by the shopkeepers of London, to the brutal exploitation of the plantation system engineered to satisfy that new demand.”

“Thinking about pulling a cotton ball apart makes me sick to my stomach and gives me anxiety,” says a subredditor. But the author here isn't nauseated by cotton's history. Instead, MissAlexx is troubled by heebie-jeebies.

Could this sensation contain an apprehension of cotton's rapacity? I'm not going to say there's something extrasensory or paranormal in experiences like MissAlexx's. But I won't not say it either. As I can confirm when I think of hot, dry towels, heebie-jeebies can feel like an intimation of something plainly evil. Something bad is happening below the surface. Perhaps some of us can perceive in cotton fibers what Johnson does: the world of suffering its cultivation has visited on earth and its inhabitants.

Or maybe that is far too trippy for a discussion of fabric. Especially because the best ones, especially my beloved beechwood modal, let the mind relax—and offer solace. The solace they give comes without commands or obligations, without tightness or constriction. Instead, soft cloth, especially the kind that's also soft on the planet, reminds us with its blissful, textural harmonies that comfort zones are not always for cowards.

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