Review: The Fabric of Civilization – How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel

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Some books manage to demand you read every page of them and this week’s review is for one such text. Fancy figuring out the secrets of Machiavelli’s childhood and how textiles shaped his plays and thinking? Eager to find out just how hard it is to knit a 3D bunny on a machine? Read on – this is the text for you!

The Fabric of Civilization – How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel is a beautiful text that doesn’t just touch on the history of textiles but how textiles have influenced mathematics, politics and social norms, throughout history and all around the world? What is the connection between Merrill Lynch, modern banking and the cotton crop? Credit notes and bolts of cloth? Why did Switzerland become the home of illegal textiles, and what even do illegal textiles look like? The Fabric of Civilization has answers to all of these.

The chapters of the books are split into the following sections: fiber, thread, cloth, dye, taders, consumers and innovators. The chapters are substantial which gives Postrel’s outstanding attention to detail room to flourish. This is a much more ‘academic’ text than This Golden Fleece, Threads of Life or The Golden Thread. Whereas the others make use of ‘narrative non-fiction’ as a way of sharing information, The Fabric of Civilization, apart from a lone anecdote or two, is relatively detached.

However, that isn’t to the book’s detriment. I can’t stress enough how exciting and readable a text Postrel has penned here. I love ‘readable’ non-fiction (and you can see some of my textile-related reading list here) but it’s a challenging genre to get a good balance between making an ‘original’ text that doesn’t just trot out the usual few examples, something accessible and engaging. I think narrative non-fiction can be a clever way of creating a human hook in a story but Postrel proves here that even a relatively dense academic text can be utterly gripping. Her editor deserves a congratulations too – I am not sure there is a single redundant word in the entire book, with every sentence packed with relevance and facts.

Craft enthusiasts will cherish the attention to technical details, particularly in the sections on dyeing and weaving. The chapter on Cloth, if you aren’t too offended by the phrase ‘spinning trains the hands, but weaving challenges the mind’ has some glorious discussion on textile and fabric construction. From the creation of topological shapes to how you design and decode weave structures, there are even diagrams of how a Jacquard loom works. For those not so acquainted for the miracles that come from balancing warp and weft then there’s a lot to learn here, but no assumed knowledge required!

Content and Topics

If you’re a fan of textile history books and relatively knowledgeable about fibre processing, the first three chapters on Fiber, Thread and Cloth, may feel like relatively familiar territory. There is still a joyous amount of detail on sericulture and all things silk, as well as the portable and tradable nature to feel fresh. I enjoyed examples like the use of rope memory by NASA for their space flight – perhaps an unusual use of the know-how that comes from weaving! I also liked the discussion of knitting styles and their evolution through history, including medieval artworks depicting the Virgin Mary choosing to knit-in-the-round for the baby Jesus.

The book does seem to kick up the quality a notch from the chapter on Dyes, which I completely loved for its detailing of the development of modern chemistry. Postrel gives a nice, even-handed treatment of the environmental challenges that come with dyeing (and how natural dyes aren’t always as benign as they seen) and there’s an oddly compelling discussion with textile company, Swisstex, and how they have been able to use efficiency savings in industrial processing to make dyeing feasible in drought-prone California.

Can I just praise the chemistry in the dyes section as well? I’m a scientist and get a bit grumpy with publishers that still don’t appreciate to that the distinction between normal and subscripts is an important one for chemists indeed. There are no glaring errors to be found here! I love how Postrel focuses on the terrible stenches of ancient dyeing methods, and researchers mad enough to try and recreate them. She captures brilliantly how labour-heavy it must have been to create just a metre of coloured cloth and the sheer amount of human ingenuity such a feat required.

The chapter where the book really excels in its unique content is in the discussion of Traders and Consumers. It’s a fresh look on how the financial wealth tied up in textiles drove the need for a lot of modern financial innovation and the shift from an individual producers to a chain process with middlemen and markets and the invention of jobs like drapers.

Perhaps even the title of the Consumers chapter inspires some immediate, and not entirely positive reaction in you. Postrel captures this feeling well, stating that “Consumers are denigrated or forgotten. Yes they are at least as important” – and argues the case well that it is really what is considered desirable or sells that drives textile innovation and invention, even more so than just clever and talented individuals.

Highlights for me were discussions of historical Mongolian textiles and how French sumptuary laws rendered certain fabric-covered chairs scandalous. There is some wonderful discussion of the subtleties in batik tastes in different countries and African fabrics and weaving styles more generally. I think the book could be 300 pages longer and it still wouldn’t be quite enough wonderful descriptions of some of the beautiful fabrics and workmanship around the world. It’s definitely some good inspiration if you fancy learning something a little new.

The final section is a look forward at ‘technical textiles’, which is a look at the current state-of-the-art in textile technology. This is mostly told through interviews with the scientists working on various aspects of the creation of new fibres, giving old compounds new leases life and there’s an absolutely brilliant piece on the challenges of molecular design for creating compounds with the desired final properties. It’s fascinating how textile design has moved from focusing on the macroscale properties with different weave designs, to the microscale, with tweaking chemical structures to achieve similar things.

Added Extras

At the back of the book there’s a glossary for a lot of the technical terms in the book and a good contents page in case you get lost. The bibliography is expansive and a reassuring sign of a well-researched text. It’s a really nice resource as well because if you’re anything like me, some of the descriptions and information will just make you want to read and find out more.

There are some black and white pictures in the book, from a portrait of ‘Jakub the Rich’ – textile trader turned banker, to photographs of the loom with the heddles from hell and weaving patterns. There are also some tables of information, including a list of common dyeing compounds and where they are found. These are glossy high-resolution shots but do add another little extra to the book to support the text.

Recommended?

Yes, yes, yes and yes! It is a book that demands a little concentration but everything about it is thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to cover a big expanse of world textiles and history without feeling shallow or regurgitating the ‘traditional’ topics. Crafters will enjoy all the fibre-nerdery in the book and non-crafters will undoubtedly be drawn into the richness of the tales of world history, economics and the threads that draw it all together. A very unique, sumptuously readable book that I would highly recommend to anyone with a curiosity about the world.

Details

Author: Virginia Postrel

Publisher: Basic Books

Edition: 2020

Pages: 320

RRP: $30.00

Also available as an e-book.

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