I visited my girlfriend's new apartment this week and after one night there insisted on getting her cotton sheets to replace the poly-blend sheets she already had. I think she thought I was a little bit nuts, but materials matter a lot to me.
And because I'm more obsessed with these things than the average person, I'm in a good position to talk about materials and why they matter. At the same time, I'm not really an expert in materials, so I can talk about them in general but not specifically. I don't really know the pros and cons of most types of wood or metal, for example.
It's indisputable that life is better than ever for humans overall, and a lot of that is due to advances in materials. Better metal alloys, better glass, and plastics have totally changed our lives. Items that were out of the reach to all but nobility can now be bought at dime stores. We can package food and water with an efficiency we couldn't dream of in the 1800s.
The downside, though, is that plastic is so comparatively cheap that we tend to use it even when it's one of the worst material choices available.
Take, for example, bedsheets. Cotton is an excellent material for bedsheets because it can absorb moisture, breathes well, and feels great against the skin. But cotton takes a bit of work to harvest and process, so it will always be more expensive than plastic. And if you're a sheet maker and don't think anyone's going to notice, you may as well make polyester sheets, or at least blend polyester with cotton to lower the cost.
But then you have a fiber that can't absorb water, doesn't breathe, and feels a tiny bit scratchy. I'm a pretty roll-with-the-punches sort of guy, but the feeling of polyester really bothers me. If you wear polyester clothes, you'll run into the same example.
Marketers are extremely sneaky, too. They'll call a robe a "silky smooth robe", implying that it's made of silk, while it's actually made of polyester.
In general, polyester is good at only one thing: costing the manufacturer very little to make. If you're buying something that's going to touch your skin and it's made of polyester, you're probably buying the wrong thing.
Another huge pet peeve of mine is fake wood. Even multimillion dollar apartments in San Francisco now have laminate or vinyl floors, both of which are essentially particle board (glued-together sawdust) with a sticker that looks like wood on top. But it doesn't sound like wood when you walk on it, doesn't feel like wood, and can't be refinished like wood.
To their credit, some of those floors are very durable, so there is a place for them. I bought a rental property with friends and we made the decision to install laminate because it was cheap and will last a long time.
IKEA is interesting because they make some furniture out of Actual Real Wood™, but they also make furniture out of cheap wood with a wood-pattern sticker over it. I believe in honesty in materials so I would only buy real wood or something that doesn't look like wood.
Glass vs plastic is a more interesting face-off because there are legitimate benefits to each. Plastic is stronger and doesn't shatter, but it does absorb flavor and turn cloudy. I chose plexi-glass (plastic) for the windows on my cabin because hurricanes come through the area, but I also know it will turn cloudy after a while, unlike glass. Plastic cups drive me nuts because they hold stains and flavors, and good glasses cost next to nothing.
Metal is a good choice because it's strong and it's honest. Whenever I buy a cheap bed, I try to get a metal one because it will be durable, look good, and isn't pretending to be something else. It also feels good to the touch.
And, of course, I love wool. Once I discovered that wool was the best material for clothing, I stopped wearing anything else. Some of the best wool stuff has plastic (nylon) woven in for strength, but that seems to be an okay compromise.
I decided to write this post when I realized that most of most people's possessions are plastic, and that very few of mine are. Off the top of my head I can think of my earphones, the white surface of my desk, the housing on some electronics, bathtub (cast iron is better, but wasn't available for the type of tub I wanted), and the box for my travel tea set.
I recently bought a fancy car, and I realized that most of the joy of driving it is because everything in it is an authentic good material. It's not particularly fast and it drives about the same as a normal car (especially just driving from home to Chipotle and back), but what makes it special is that it has virtually no plastic other than the radio, some switches, and turn signal stalk. Everything else is leather, wood, or metal. I've actually never bought a car newer than 1999, and one of the main reasons is even the high-end car manufacturers started filling the interiors with plastics around then.
Wearing and sleeping on good fabrics makes a big difference, at least to me. Having your car have nice materials is a much smaller gain. It's worth thinking about what your possessions are made of and thinking about whether that's actually the best material for that item, or if it was chosen due to cost. If you're semi-minimalist like me, you don't have to replace too many things before most of what you interact with is designed with the best materials for the job.
Photo is a weird fungus or something on a log on the island. Running out of good photos, but I'm about to travel a bunch, so I'll take some more soon.
We tend to appreciate our things better when they're made out of quality material. I think it's something we should always practice. We keep stuff longer because of the value we put in them, they last longer, and we consume less. Great post!
Life is definitely better for all, but the nickel and dime stores became dollar stores; where the materials used can be suspect. :)
Cotton shirts do feel better, but polyester can pack to a fraction of the size and dries much quicker. Not a fan of the look and feel, but I still prefer synthetics for backpacking and long term travel.
Alan Watts once said that calling American culture materialist is kind of silly. There is very little appreciation for material objects. Even well made expensive things are considered mainly for their prestige value. The logos, so prominently displayed on womens handbags are an example of that.
Another reason to avoid synthetic clothing materials is the thousands of non-degradable micro fibers they release into the water systems every time they're washed. The particles are small enough to pass through filters, so they go on to pollute the rivers and seas and enter the food chain. This was recently reported in the British press and is apparently a major problem, which could affect human an d animal health for generations.
Laminate is also popular because it is easy to care for. ---- "Unlike hardwood . . . laminate flooring does not fade in the sunlight and is resistant to stains, impacts and scratches."
Really nice post, Tynan.
I am completely with you regarding fake wood floors. My body actually can't even tolerate laminate, as my skin and my head area get very irritated from staying in a room with those floors even for a short while. That was the main influence that made me rethink material choices in other areas as well. In some cases it is a real necessity for me (floors, clothing etc.), in others just a matter of taste (cell phones, I have always chosen iPhones just because of the feel of the material in comparison to 99% of the phones from other manufacturers).
I was walking through the mall a couple days ago. My path took me past a bunch of stores and kiosks, including the Nike Store. I walked past it and looked at their window display. They had a really nicely photographed poster and some cool looking shoes in a bunch of different colors. The store was beautiful and looked like a fun place to be. At the same time, their shoes aren't particularly great, they aren't actually innovative, and they're made of cheap materials. There are many shoe companies that are way lower quality than Nike, but I don't know if there are any with such a disparity between their presentation and the actual product.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn't just nike or most of the clothes in the mall-- it's how our culture works now. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to a cobbler. He would design a pair for you, or use one of his existing designs, pick out some nice leather, and make you a pair of shoes. His design work, his execution, and his materials could all be leveraged about equally, so I'd guess that you'd tend to have either poorly designed shoes that are poorly executed and made of poor materials, or well designed shoes that were well executed and used good materials.
These days, things have changed. Design can be leveraged almost infinitely, which has changed the whole equation. Mass manufacturing ensures decent execution, but supplying top quality materials is difficult. A cobbler who makes a hundred pairs of shoes a year can take the time to pick out the best hides to get the best leather. That doesn't scale to making thousands of shoes a day, so material quality drops. Execution has become more consistent, but the benefits of cutting corners is magnified. Saving a penny on making a pair of shoes didn't matter to the cobblers, but it matters to Nike.
So these days, most of what people buy is well designed, decently and consistently executed, and uses relatively poor quality materials. In the mall I walked past a kiosk of phone cases. There were some that were blinged out. Pretty good design in that they fit perfectly on the phone the're meant for, the rows of fake diamonds are all uniform, etc.. Each one looks the same and is okay quality. But the materials are crap-- cheap plastic painted to look like metal covered in lackluster plastic "gems".
Tarot card inspired hands. I was able to try working with skin tones a bit more and try to add texture to different materials like the rope, bone, cloth, metal and wood. It was really fun to work on and I was stoked on it. Drawing hands is challenging, I mostly use my own hand for reference, but also use a plastic mannequin hand occasionally since it moves less. One thing that was difficult is that I only bought liquid acrylics in the traditional tattoo colors, so any of the colors outside of that spectrum had to be done in watercolor, back to square one. I've screen printed patches of these, I'll post a photo once they're sewn onto something.