Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links meaning if you purchase the book through these links, I receive a small commission that contributes to the running costs of the blog. However, any recommendations and opinions in this review are my own. For more information, please click here.
It was always going to be a challenge to dislike to a book that starts with the sentence ‘I am assuming here, Dear Reader, that you are not naked’. It was also always going to be a challenge to dislike any book that promised an adventure through our textile past, present and future.
The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History is the second offering from Kassia St Clair. You might remember me waxing lyrical about her first book, The Secret Lives of Colour, and its artful blend of clever design, fun facts and a topic of great personal interest.
Wonderful though The Secret Lives of Colour is, The Golden Thread is an altogether different beast. While I undoubtedly enjoyed The Secret Lives of Colour, and it’s a charming easy read, there were a few parts where it felt a little light on content and veering dangerously close to being fluff. However, The Golden Thread is an altogether more grown-up affair with all of Kassia St Clair’s sumptuous writing in some much more substantial prose.
It would be a little simplistic to say The Golden Thread is a light history book looking at the evolution of textiles through the ages. Rather, Kassia St Clair’s mission seems to be to remind us just how interwoven textiles are with our daily life and their incredible significance as a driving force in shaping many historical periods.
The Golden Thread covers an incredible amount of temporal ground in its 292 pages. Starting with the archaeological remains of the weaving in caves and the linens that the Egyptian mummies were so lovingly swallowed in, St Clair leads on a tale that finishes with the way textiles took over the Olympic games and the scientists seeking to understand the secrets of the spider’s spinnerets.
Along the way we visit the materials that made the moon walk possible and step aboard the Viking longboats and join them on the wool-fuelled journey across the globe. With each chapter, we see a brief glimpse how a particular fibre imbued certain civilisations with political power and wealth or played its role in wars.
With plenty of references and research, The Golden Thread is a beautiful slice of world history. Each chapter is a stand alone topic but, regardless of the subject matter, they are all equally delightful to read with St Clair’s magical ability to bring these periods to life with her writing. I’m pretty sure Kassia St Clair could write a book on doorstops and I’d buy it and find it the most fascinating of reads.
Textiles and Perspectives
Some of the topics covered, such as the role of textiles in the Industrial Revolution and the way the demand for cotton shaped the global slave trade, feel like standard fare for any book discussing the historical roles of textiles. However, I think one of the most surprising chapters in the book for me was the one on space travel.
I supposed I’ve never really dwelled on the intricacies and difficulties of creating materials for a space suit but Kassia St Clair’s lovely prose and interviews with some of the people involved in the project of the first human spacewalk really bring a sense of awe and tension as we follow the progress of the teams through different phases of design and testing. It’s a story that we know the ending of, but from a perspective that I suspect most of us have never considered.
I really enjoyed the amount of technical detail of the pattern cutting and challenges the team developing the space suits faced and also some of the cultural differences between the NASA engineers and the sub-contracted seamstresses who were actually stitching the garments that had to hold together in some of the most extreme conditions humanity will ever know. Do you know how to construct a seam to hold together outside the Earth’s atmosphere? I certainly didn’t before!
Although the seamstresses played a vital role in the success of success of the moonwalk – there’s a few gnarly stories of garment construction that didn’t quite past the testing phase – the concept of the undervaluing the skills required to shape and make cloth or garments, or even the economic, cultural and historical significance of textiles, comes up many times in the book.
We see this again in the discussion of the ancient Egyptian mummies and the actions of the archaeologists who largely sliced and discarded through their linen wrappings, despite the 400 meters or so of bandaging turning out to have a spiritual significance of is own. We see this in the dreadful working conditions of many lacemakers, highly skilled fingers producing the ‘white gold’ sought after by kings and queens, but floundering in poverty themselves.
While I suspect I, and many readers of this blog, have our own inherent bias on just how magnificent the world of cloth is, I think this is one of the most important points the book makes. Textiles are such a huge and relevant part of everybody’s life, even those that consider knitting and spinning the eccentric frippery of old women. Polar expeditions and mountaineers literally lived and died by the material properties and construction of their garments and our developments in our understanding of these things have made new parts of the globe accessible.
I don’t think this comes across as sanctimonious at all in the text and is rather conveyed through the sense of wonder at the people who had the patience to shear, prep and prepare the wool of the hundreds of sheep it would take to kit out one Viking longboat. I think it is good food for thought as well how we respect, perceive and treat those that clothe us, particularly with so much public discussion about ‘fast fashion’ and its environmental and humanitarian impacts.
While not as elaborate as The Secret Lives of Colour, The Golden Thread does have a few cute little design features. The cover of the hardback version, although annoyingly easily damaged as you can probably see from the photos of my edition, has a little bit of glittery metal through the thread and each chapter has a symbolic picture associated with it. It’s a small thing but I liked the line divisions between the chapter titles too and the layout of the contents is awesome. There is a glossary of terms if you’re not familiar with bombazine or scutching at the back as well as some extended footnotes organised by chapter. The references are organised alphabetically (something I personally hate but seems to be the norm outside of science) and there is an index, alphabetically sorted, with page references
The light prose and these few little design features do make it easy to forget this is a serious non-fiction book. While I strongly suspect it is not intended as a weighty academic tome, I think it strikes a nice balance between being a genuinely informative, helpful resource while being fun enough to read to pique your interest in the subject. Not being a historian or textile expert I can’t comment on the accuracy or quality of the research but it seems like an excellent introduction where you can learn in an engaging way.
Audience and Verdict
I think anyone with a general interest in textiles of any kind will devour this. From the title, The Golden Thread does not disappoint, spinning an alluring thread on all things fibery through historical and technological periods. The reflection on the social ‘worth’ of textiles in comparison to their economic significance will probably be a lot of interest too and I think is very relevant to a lot of the discussion and debate around fair pricing for both small-scale indie outfits and the large industrial production that often claims the lives of so many in places like Indonesia.
I think even for non-textile-fascinated people, it’s a very interesting history lesson and not so overly technical that it would be inaccessible to read. I expect perhaps for people with very limited awareness of the whole fibre to clothes process may even find some parts of the book more interesting. Again, I think because of some of the importance of the aforementioned reflections, and the compelling way Kassia St Clair weaves these issues into the book, then it’s something that I’d love to see as many people encouraged to read as possible. Maybe parts of the book will be a little simplistic and shallow for people with real expertise or knowledge in the specific areas, but this is very much a broad-brush approach to textile history, plenty of breadth without incredible levels of detail.
While I suspect the prose might be a little florid for some, but I loved it and if you enjoyed The Secret Lives of Colour, you’ll love this. It’s a bit more heavyweight without being stodgy and captures some of the joy that many of us feel at the remarkable bit of creation that makes up even the simplest of fabrics.
Author: Kassia St Clair
Publisher: John Murray
Dimensions: 24.5 x 14.2 x 2.5 cm