Thoughts on Materials

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.

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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.

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