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It is my understanding that when materials for eg, are not attached to an object and you save the blend file - the materials are gone when you re-open the file?

How can you keep your materials - even when they are not attached to an object ?

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Click the F icon:

enter image description here

This adds a fake user which acts like an object using the material, preventing it from being deleted.

See the reference manual page on the topic.

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