Time, Technology, and Textiles
A Review of The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020
In 1998, Virginia Postrel closed her now classic book The Future and its Enemies with the observation that “We live in an enchanted world, a world suffused with intelligence, a world of our making. In such plenitude, too, lies an adventurous future.” Though I suppose some might see her books written since then–The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamour—as somehow “artsy” and disconnected from the more traditional political and economic arguments of The Future and its Enemies, they seem to me to be deeper explorations into that enchanted world and the intelligence that suffuses it.
Postrel’s newest book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (out this month from Basic Books) applies this same sense of wonder and wealth to the subject of textiles. (Postrel is also the guest on this week’s EconTalk episode discussing this book.) The book is an ideal example of the value added to a subject by Postrel’s wonder-filled approach. As an avid knitter and embroiderer, an occasional crocheter, quilter, and constructor of clothing, I know a good bit about textiles. Nearly everything that I hoped would be mentioned in the book was in there–a discussion about the sea snails that provide the blue dye for tallit fringes? An exploration of the coal-tar dyes that provided D.H. Lawrence with one of his best images for beauty coming from unexpected places? The complex sexual politics of women and spinning? They’re all in there. (I did hope for a discussion of green arsenic dye, but that is a story that has been widely covered in other discussions of tragedies of the Industrial Revolution.)
And there is so much else I didn’t know. The radical nature of the first published weaving patterns. The sumptuary battle over–of all things–calico, which we moderns think of as a hopelessly out of date and “countrified” fabric.The complex interplay among weavers, dyers, and traders of different nations that resulted in kente cloth. Readers will pause throughout the book to examine the clothing they are wearing and the textiles that fill their home as Postrel points out what makes each of them remarkable.
And each of Postrel’s detailed explanations is fascinating. I was particularly entranced by her chapter on the gross and beautiful explorations of dying. The long history of revolting ingredients and smells that produce objects of great beauty sums up, for me, something central to the human condition–our endless hunger for the sublime, and our inability to achieve it without lowly tools and methods. But it also, in Postrel’s hands, becomes a reminder of that “world suffused with intelligence” that is so central to her understanding of how humans operate.
The best example I can give of this is her observation that: “Nowadays we call [indigo] that plant-derived coloring ‘natural’ to distinguish it from dyes formulated in chemical labs, including chemically identical synthetic indigo. But producing indigo takes far more artifice and effort than the word natural implies. Its source may grow in the wild, but turning leaves into dyestuffs for making blue cloth requires considerable technological prowess.” We have had that prowess for at least 6000 years, and in five concise and enormously readable pages, Postrel takes us through the development of that technology in ancient times, the later refinement of it into a portable technology that could be traded, and her own attempts to replicate the techniques for dying with indigo at home. Never once do we lose her sense that each step in the process of this technique is a leap for human intellect and a step into the future.
The political and economic are not absent in The Fabric of Civilization, either. Regular readers of Econlog and economic historians will find much to think about here, and textile historians will find new economic and political insights into their subject.
Though Postrel is happy to tell readers all about the different looms used to weave different kinds of fabrics, she is equally detailed in her discussion of the reasons behind different rates of pay for different kinds of textile workers in different times and places. She also reminds us that the history of textiles is the history of trade–not just in the existence of the Silk Road, or in the birth of banking from the textile merchants of the early Renaissance, but also in the use of different textiles as money, the development of arithmetic and double-entry bookkeeping as offshoots of textile trading, and on and on. She reminds us, as well, that in contrast to the too-frequent reliance on a narrative that focuses on colonialist oppressors appropriating the culture and art of the colonies, that artistic trade went both ways. Artists and consumers on both sides of these exchanges influenced and were influenced by trading partners. That’s a more complicated, more interesting, and richer story than the one we think we know.
It would be easy for a book on textiles to focus exclusively on the pleasures of home crafting, small producers, and vintage, even antique, technologies. But Postrel, a dynamist since before she coined the term, is as fascinated by the engineer and the chemistry lab as she is by the dye pot and the loom. Her discussion of the Swisstex company’s work on “creating colorful textile with minimal side effects” is a fitting close to her chapter on dying. Their chemistry experiments and engineering innovations lead the way to a modern dye process that allows us to leave behind the stench and the dangerous by-products of ancient methods and early industrial improvements to them. You don’t get those, notes Postrel, “by thinking like a nature child. You get it by thinking like a Swiss engineer.”
Her final chapter, “Innovation” explores the already existing improvements in textiles made by companies like Under Armour, and the technologies that soon might overturn everything we think we know about fabric. Smart fabric that charges your phone when you put it in your pocket? Fabric that only needs to be brushed clean, not washed? Clothes that make us cooler instead of warmer? Friends of the future may want to start the book here, and then travel backward to see how far we have come.
There are plenty of books about textiles for those of us who are interested in them. But there is only one by Virginia Postrel. You should read it.