“The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World” by Virginia Postrel

Woman Weaving Cotton, Guangzhou ca 1790 (Victoria and Albert Museum) Woman Weaving Cotton, Guangzhou ca 1790 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Imagine if a cloth merchant from Hangzhou or Florence could visit the Uniqlo store in Tokyo’s Ginza. There, over 12 floors our visitors from the past would wonder at fabrics in colors they had never experienced: Blue Iris, Mimosa, Honeysuckle, Fuchsia Rose. They  would marvel at the 88 colors just for the knitted shirts, 50 for the socks. Here are fabrics that mimic silk but are cool. Others offer the warmth of wool but are light to wear. Others are waterproof or shrink proof. All this display would also strike the visitors as miraculous. Yet we are still stupefied by the beauty and ingenuity displayed by 15th-century Italian or Chinese silks. This is the story of continuous innovation, and it is the story told by Virginia Postrel’s new book The Fabric of Civilization.

Each of the book’s chapters is strung on the warp fabric production. Chapter One treats fibers, like cotton, silk and wool; chapter two, thread, chapter three, cloth; wrapping up with the market and the consumer. Sometimes the author loses the thread, so to speak, as when she details the emergence of bills of discount and the origins of Lehman Brothers as underpinning the market for fabrics. Since fabrics were the biggest commercial items of trade and industry for centuries, it is not surprising to see the association with modern credit and money, but it doesn’t tell us anything new. Postrel is best at teasing out the whimsy of an archaeologist who decides to make her own Tyrian purple dye from the murex mollusk or the mathematician who reads Euclid’s Mathematica as a guide to weaving.

Postrel is also strong on metrics, such as how long did it take to spin the wool for toga; she is strong on smells. Indigo and murex come in for some disagreeable descriptions. She stretches English prose to its limits in trying to describe the manipulations her craftsmen practice spinning, knitting or weaving. A YouTube video is worth a lot of words.

 

 The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, Virginia Postrel (Basic Books, November 2020)
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, Virginia Postrel (Basic Books, November 2020)

Cumulatively these stories convey important messages. For all the Jacquards and Pasteurs, we need to acknowledge obscure tinkerers whose efforts underpinned the breakthroughs of History’s “Great Men”. Many breakthroughs in fabric technology are owed not to men at all, but to anonymous women experimenting with humble plants, minerals and kitchen implements. The book’s explanation of indigo dye is a good example of this.

Another important message is to warn us from focusing on hardware as technology, since many key technical advances lie in process change, not in new tooling. Advances in spinning and weaving, the real bottlenecks of cloth production, proved to be prerequisites for the spinning jenny and the Jacquard loom. If the pre-industrial processes had not been highly optimized and specialized, they could not have been translated into a mechanical environment. This suggests that the industrial revolution was the culmination of a very long process of incremental progress.

Postrel also reminds us that technology advances in Asia were as significant as in Europe. She cites the example of the highly sophisticated preparation of silk worm cocoons in Japan, where some workshops specialized only in feeding worms, and others only in incubating them, and still others in spinning their thread. It reminds one of the specialization existing today in the semiconductor industry.

In fact she makes clear the direct connection between fabric making and modern technology, as she recounts the evolution of the Jacquard punch-card-driven loom to IBM’s computer punch cards, and the origin of the modern chemical industry in Lavossier’s experiments with dyeing.

Asian-based readers will not be surprised to learn that fabric often knitted together the destinies of East and West. Well-known is the story about how monks smuggled silk cocoons out of China for eager buyers in Iran and Rome. Less well-known is the roaring trade carried on in the 1930s between Japanese silk worm breeders and New Jersey silk mills. The Mongols, after they united west and east Asia for the first time, transported skilled weavers from Iran to China and fostered a fusion style between the two ancient traditions of brocaded cloth.

 

Postrel, who has written a number of books on innovation and its enemies, relishes in the evidence for the invisible hand in the story of invention and determination illustrated by many protagonists, and rails against monopolies, guilds and misguided government regulation. Her political philosophy is clear. The size and importance of textiles in our history explains why they have been a huge source of innovation and prosperity for human societies. From high-tech creators of artificial threads to Maya villagers inventing new patterns for their traditional skirts, she sees in textiles the human genius for bettering themselves. She treasures, but does not regret, traditional batik and kente cloth that have been abandoned in favor of cheaper, faster ways of making a living.

Fabric is full of good yarns, I can’t resist adding, and highlights an important part of our lives that we take for granted, when we are not weavers or knitters ourselves. She chronicles the changes in technology that influence the way we dress. Silk ties perhaps will not survive the lockdown, and  wool lounge suits may go the way of the morning suit, but Postrel will rejoice at the plethora of colors and capabilities that go into our athleisure knitwear. But will the Lululemon knitwear hide our holiday-induced calories? This writer will continue to sport his Hong-Kong tailored suits in Armani wool.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)