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I looked up the word in a number of dictionaries, but I am not sure which is its definition. Does it mean important, or physical, or else?

Not all clothing has to be made of woven materials, of course. It’s likely that for a very long time people made do with draped animal pelts and then began roughly sewing these together(although they would perhaps have used fibrous thread to do so). Ultimately, though, the advantages of using woven fabric for clothing would have become obvious. A fur pelt offers excellent thermal protection if someone is sitting still or lying down, but once on the move or in strong winds, this is less true, because pelts aren’t shaped close to the body. The more air gets between the body and the clothing, the less effective it is at trapping an insulating layer of air close to the skin. In fact, the isolating properties of clothing decrease very much when walking briskly. Clothing also needs to be breathable, because damp clothes are bad at keeping the wearer warm and become very heavy. Woven fabrics are more breathable than fur and, when specifically tailored to the body, make excellent internal layers, preventing cold air from getting direct access to the skin’s surface. Thus the ability to create woven clothing would have offered material advantages to our early ancestors once they had left Africa for cooler climes.

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History

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    Important, and perhaps practical. Jun 30, 2021 at 8:10

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As Kate wrote, the most generic interpretation would be "important". This is OED entry 6a: "Of serious or substantial import; significant, important, of consequence."

I would also suggest "real", which is hinted at by "substantial". While it may seem like a synonym of "important", it also acts as a bridge to Kate's other suggestion of "practical". This is similar to OED entry 2b: "Concerned with matter or the physical world; involving the presence, use, or action of matter."

In plain English: the advantages of woven clothing are not just "nice to have". Woven clothing brings important, tangible, measurable benefits; it affects life in a practical, real way.

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The answer by Luke Sawczak is quite correct. However, I want to add an additional point. The term "material advantage" is very often used in a specifically legal context, although that is not how the quote in the question uses it. In such a context, it can mean "physical advantage" (as opposed to emotional ot intangible advantage) and very often specifically "financial advantage". It also often means (in that context) an advantage significant enough to affect a contract, or to be worthy of legal action.

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Nothing new that Luke and Kate haven't already covered, but still if you need a close reference to the meaning, you can find it here.

  1. of great import or consequence

The new act proved to be of material advantage/benefit for the workers.

Again, import and consequence means the importance or significance of something.

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Material advantage comes from chess; where material refers to the number of pieces and pawns you have on the board. If you have more material than your opponent then you have a ‘material advantage’ as distinguished perhaps from a ‘positional advantage’ or ‘tactical advantage’ etc.

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