Gasoline and a Polyester Suit

I was putting away my laundry and realized how little I know about my clothes. It’s a wide span of ignorance covering something I interact with every day. Like my superficial knowledge of transportation, I trust the experts who make high quality garments to know how to create them.

A first level of ignorance involves the fabrics that clothes are made from. Dacron, cotton, linen, polyester, and wool just start the list of fibers. My list is short and shallow. I know some of them are natural, made from plants or animals. Others are synthetic, usually polymers, and are a recent invention. I know fabrics can be made from a combination of these substances. Some shrink when they are washed, others can be damaged in a clothes dryer set too hot.

What started me reminiscing on this began when I was looking at my laundry and wondering “Who designed this garment?” “How was it manufactured?” “What attributes were the designers considering?” “What is the science behind the little differences from one garment to the next?” “Who did the labor to put it together?” “What steps were automated?”

My cousin made a dress in the style of Jane Austen’s time. I also have the tools to make my own shirts, but don’t have the skills to be successful. I’d like to be better able to use my sewing machine, but I haven’t put in the effort. I’ve got thread and know where I can buy yards of cloth, find a pattern, and even get training. The whole exercise isn’t about the economics of clothing but rather the satisfaction of developing a new skill and making something to demonstrate that I have done so.

My Grandmother was skilled at crochet. My sisters, cousins and I have afghans that she made. It is a nice memento to keep her in my mind. The issues involved with those blankets are lost on me but it is a reminder of her love.

Transportation, I start by saying I don’t know the chemistry of gasoline and how it is manufactured. Next, I only have a cursory understanding of the physics behind the internal combustion energy. My vehicle seems like a straightforward object even though I know that it is not. Part metal, part plastic, it does the work to turn the wheels and follow my steering, but I don’t really understand the how and why. A simple example is that I can’t repair a door latch nor explain its mechanical principles.

In another facet of transportation, my knowledge of how roads are made, is mainly gleaned from watching construction teams working on a highway as I drive past–that’s horribly superficial. I know that there are inspections and standards for roads. The purpose of those regulations are to make roads reliable. I don’t see the calculations made in the design of bridges, but I do drive on them.

One of my shirts shows a simple design change that is evidence of its designer’s intervention. The bottom buttonholes of some of my button down shirts have a horizontal opening instead of the vertical buttonhole of the rest. That makes sense to me because it helps prevent the bottom button from popping open. Just as the top button is almost universally horizontal, these horizontal bottom holes were an insight by its clothing engineers. This gives me a a tiny window into the process of design and manufacture.

There’s so much I take for granted that someone else has expertise in. I don’t begrudge those experts and am glad when my car gets me home and my seams don’t rip.

It’s foolish to attack scientists and experts who use their expertise and advanced knowledge. Just because I don’t understand some point of that knowledge, doesn’t validate my rejection of it. Although I can wonder and try to learn more, I don’t reject them as “elites” and deny their science.

Worse than rejection is to impugn bad faith on professionals through conspiracy theories and denial of their commitment to ethical principles. One friend reminds me if you spot it, you got it. Shadowy accusations of bad faith and conspiracy are actually an indictment of their accuser’s bad faith, not a sign of insight, wisdom or superiority.

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