What are you wearing right now right next to your skin? Do you prefer clothing made from natural fabrics like cotton, wool, or silk? Maybe you don’t mind synthetics like polyester. If you’re about to start a workout, you might put on something made from a “technical” material like polypropylene.
Actually, it turns out that all fabrics are technical and there is no such thing as “natural” fiber. That’s because the fibers that make up our clothing, and our bedsheets and blankets, towels, upholstery and carpets, seat belts and medical masks, oh, and don’t forget duct tape, are the products of technological processes and innovations that humans have developed over thousands of years.
Yes, it’s true that cotton, silk and wool have biological origins, but the plant and animal species that produce them have been selected, bred, and cross-bread – genetically modified in other words – for so long that they no longer bear much resemblance to their naturally occurring ancestors.
This idea of continuous innovation is the main theme – dare I say the common thread – running through The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, a book that explores history of textiles and how they are closely, um, interwoven with the story of civilization itself.
It’s written by Virginia Postrel, an author, columnist and speaker who focuses on topics at the intersection of business, culture and technology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal. The Fabric of Civilization is her fourth book.
The Fabric of Civilization
By Virginia Postrel
Basic Books, New York, 2020
One of the first things Postrel says in the book is that textiles and the making of textiles have been part of human civilization for so long they’re embedded into our language, and we often don’t even realize where our vocabulary comes from.
“We repeat threadbare clichés: “whole cloth,” “hanging by a thread,” “dyed in the wool.” We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We speak of life spans and spinoffs and never wonder why drawing out fibers and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.” [p. 3]
It’s much like textiles themselves: everywhere but unnoticed.
I really like the way The Fabric of Civilization is organized. The first four chapters are about the components that make up textiles: fiber, thread, cloth and dye. For each one, Postrel takes us through the history of innovation and development. The last three chapters are about the people who matter most in the evolution of textiles: traders, consumers, and innovators.
At the end of the book there’s a handy glossary which helped me finally sort out warp and weft. Warp threads go from top to bottom. Weft threads travel from left to right (weft – left) and then back again, over and under the warp threads.
I found the history really fascinating. Postrel tells us that the Stone Age could just as easily be called the String Age because early humans made string to attach stone blades to wooden spears and axe handles.
In just about every age, and in every part of the world, advances in the quantity and quality of textiles have occurred in parallel with other developments in agriculture and industry.
Our insatiable demand over centuries for ever-increasing amounts, types, and colors of textiles has heavily influenced the development of mechanical engineering, chemistry, weights and measures, and plant genetics. Yet, for me, some of the most interesting parts of the book were about how textiles have also influenced development in less obvious fields like communication, finance, management, and mathematics.
In the chapter on cloth, Postrel writes:
“Spinning trains the hands, but weaving challenges the mind. Like music, it is profoundly mathematical. Weavers have to understand ratios, detect prime numbers, and calculate areas and lengths. Manipulating warps turns threads into rows and rows into patterns, points into lines and lines into planes. Woven cloth represents some of humanity’s earliest algorithms. It is embodied code.” [p. 72]
And our demand for textiles really is insatiable. There’s a table in the chapter on thread showing just how much yarn it takes to make certain products. A pair of jeans, for example requires six miles of yarn, a twin bedsheet needs 29 miles, and a sail takes 60 miles. European countries couldn’t have launched the Age of Exploration without the ability to manufacture huge amounts of sail cloth.
This history has its dark episodes. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, which mechanically separates cotton fibers from their seeds, dramatically reduced the amount of labor involved in processing cotton. That made cotton far more profitable, which led to larger cotton plantations in the American South and increased demand for enslaved labor, since the cotton still had to be tended and picked by hand.
Postrel looks into the social aspects of fabric too, particularly in the chapter about textile consumers. After all, clothing isn’t just functional. We wear what we wear to show the world who we are, to express ourselves, make a statement, and to confirm our status.
“Again and again, textile consumers remind us that cloth is more than just stuff. It is desire and identity, status and community, experience and memory embodied in visual, tactile form.” [p. 215]
In general Postrel’s writing is lively and engaging. You can tell she’s really excited by what she learned in writing this book. However, some of her detailed technical descriptions of machinery and processes left me totally confused. If you want to understand the basics of spinning or weaving, for example, I think you’re better off watching some YouTube videos like this or this.
At the end of The Fabric of Civilization, Postrel tells us that when you look at a piece of fabric what you’re seeing is not just a product, but the cumulative results of countless innovations, some tiny, some giant, that have accompanied and enabled the rise of human civilization.
“This heritage does not belong to a single nation, race, or culture, or to a single time or place. The story of textiles is not a male story or a female story, nor a European, African, Asian, or American story. It is all of these, cumulative and shared – a human story, a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads.” [p. 249]
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Technologies and Threads Through the Fabric of Our Lives
Conversation with Virginia Postrel and Sonal Chokshi, host of The a16z Podcast, Oct. 2020