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The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

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From Neanderthal string to 3D knitting, an “expansive” global history that highlights “how textiles truly changed the world” (Wall Street Journal)The story of humanity is the story of textiles—as old as civilization itself. Since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture.

In The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel synthesizes groundbreaking research from archaeology, economics, and science to reveal a surprising history. From Minoans exporting wool colored with precious purple dye to Egypt, to Romans arrayed in costly Chinese silk, the cloth trade paved the crossroads of the ancient world. Textiles funded the Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; they gave us banks and bookkeeping, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. The cloth business spread the alphabet and arithmetic, propelled chemical research, and taught people to think in binary code.
Assiduously researched and deftly narrated, The Fabric of Civilization tells the story of the world’s most influential commodity.

“We are taken on a journey as epic, and varying, as the Silk Road itself.… [The Fabric of Civilization is] like a swatch of a Florentine Renaissance brocade: carefully woven, the technique precise, the colors a mix of shade and shine and an accurate representation of the whole cloth."

New York Times

“Textile-making hasn’t gotten enough credit for its own sophistication, and for all the ways it undergirds human technological innovation—an error Virginia Postrel’s erudite and complete book goes a long way toward correcting at last.”


320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2020

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Virginia Postrel

8 books86 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 277 reviews
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,733 reviews648 followers
April 26, 2022
This may, for me, be the most surprising and delightful non-fiction book I have read in 2021!

“We hairless apes coevolved with our cloth. From the moment we’re wrapped in a blanket at birth, we are surrounded by textiles. They cover our bodies, bedeck our beds, and carpet our floors. Textiles give us seat belts and sofa cushions, tents and bath towels, medical masks and duct tape. They are everywhere.
“But, to reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage about magic, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious—so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted. We no more imagine a world without cloth than one without sunlight or rain.
“We drag out heirloom metaphors—“on tenterhooks,” “towheaded,” “frazzled”—with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibers. 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. Surrounded by textiles, we’re largely oblivious to their existence and to the knowledge and efforts embodied in every scrap of fabric.”

Postrel has written a comprehensive book that knits (yes, pun intended) various threads of history, culture and technology together. It is a tour de force, and one that I am indebted to Geoff for calling to my attention. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


This is an up-to-date evaluation that ranks the invention of string along side that of the steam engine and the semiconductor.

I understand that this book is great because it is more than a collection of facts but some of the facts are fascinating:
The need for spinning thread is one of these that captures the term “spinster” into why this was a “bottle-neck” in the production of thread, or as the author puts it, “…a problem waiting to be solved.”
The word “fustian” refers to fabric, “which used linen warp threads and cotton weft.”

It is delightful to see how much Postrel attempts to gather together in this book and how well she succeeds!

I found that there are others interested in this book at my local library and that I was going back to it often enough that it made sense to purchase a copy. Now to see if I can weave this into my concerns about current fashion and clothing practices.
Profile Image for Mara.
1,556 reviews3,762 followers
April 20, 2023
4.5 stars - This is EXACTLY my kind of history, synthesizing science, arts, business, and archaeology in a way that made my brain happy. I love leaving this kind of non-fiction feeling a greater awe of the struggles of the human family to forge a better existence on this planet
Profile Image for Geoff.
963 reviews92 followers
August 13, 2021
One of the best books I've read this year. Postrel does a great job writing an engaging story that not only walks through all of the steps of textile making but also shows the technological advances that helps boost them and the impacts (cultural, economic, and technological) that the mass availability of different kids of textiles facilitated and caused. The section on how the many European textile import/export firms became some of the first banks is just one of the many interesting nuggets. And I really liked her descriptions of anthropologists' efforts to recreate ancient textile technologies (the section of Phoenician dye techniques was particularly interesting and pungent). This was a fun, engaging, and erudite book; highly recommended!
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,180 followers
August 23, 2022
If you're interested in textiles, or simply love books full of cool facts, this is a wonderful book. It encompasses the history of textiles and textile production from ancient times all the way up to current research into making smart fibers/fabrics/clothing.

I enjoyed the entire book but the last chapter on the future of textiles was my favorite.
Profile Image for Adam Gurri.
51 reviews37 followers
November 10, 2020
This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. It combines the analytical mindset of the economic historian with the humanist sensibilities of the art historian, and the social sensitivity of the sociologist. There is not one corner of the human experience left untouched by Virginia Postrel's tour of the fibers, threads, cloth, and dye that go into making textiles, and the complex patterns of global trade that have sprung up to meet the demand for them. Above all, Postrel puts on display our creative impulses, our ceaseless quest to refine and innovate, and the universal human desire, even in the depths of historic poverty, for more than mere survival.

From craftmanship to mathematics to computation, Postrel's prose makes difficult topics accessible and accessible topics extra enjoyable. This book will challenge you but it will also provide a short, fun read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Leo.
4,300 reviews385 followers
November 5, 2022
I did pick the audiobook because it sounded very interesting but was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Very well written non fiction
Profile Image for Jeanne.
517 reviews299 followers
October 19, 2021
Whitewashed history that glosses over chattel slavery in the cotton and indigo industry. Misrepresents the exploitation and colonization of South Asia as a gift of weaving. And is anti-indigenous.

Super yikes.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,948 reviews38 followers
July 25, 2022
This is a well researched, often engaging book on the evolution of textiles throughout the world. I was surprised and delighted to tell my husband that one of his ancestors is included in this book. "In 1788, Samuel Crompton developed the spinning mule, so called because it combined aspects of Arkwright's design with the bobbins of the spinning jenny."

In fact, "the mule for the first time allowed British manufacturers to produce thread as consistently fine and strong as hand-spun Indian cotton." However, Crompton lacked the means to patent his design. He chose to make it public after receiving promises from manufacturers to pay for use of the mule.

Because it was unpatented others were able to copy it and Crompton received no royalties or compensation. Eventually, the British government acknowledged Crompton's invention and there is a statue of him in Nelson Square, Bradshawgate, Bolton, England.

Another factoid that made me happy as a knitter: "After more than ten thousand years of dominance, weaving no longer rules the textile world. Knitting has staged a coup."

Then there is cloth. I love to explore the infinite patterns and textures of all kinds of cloth. "The cultural authenticity of cloth arises not from the purity of its origin but from the ways in which individuals and groups turn textiles to their own purposes." We tell others about our values and personalities by what we wear. The patterns, colors, and prints of the fabric may even provide clues to our cultural identity.

Finally, "Sustainability has become a watchword among textile scientists." Hubby and I were at a warehouse store just yesterday. They had bed sheet sets at various price points. The prettiest, most colorful ones had the cheapest price tag.

However, we stopped and questioned which were from the most sustainable fiber, was it 100% polyester set, the Optimal Blend of Tencel™ & Cotton, or the pure earth organic cotton? We vowed to go home and do our homework before buying.
Profile Image for Fran Hawthorne.
Author 13 books49 followers
April 9, 2023
If we stop to think, we know that the clothes we take for granted don't just fall onto our bodies from cotton bolls. silkworms, or the bodies of sheep. There are machines and technologies that we've vaguely heard of, like cotton gins, spinning wheels, and leather tanning.

What makes this book so fascinating is that it goes beyond the story of just making textiles and clothing -- which is already more complicated than most readers probably realize -- to show how these processes and products influenced almost every aspect of human life over centuries, from the earliest forms of trade and currency, to arithmetic, computers, language -- and, of course, slavery. To give one example: A "spinster" working at her loom, weaving intricate variations on the binary system of warp and weft, was in some ways a precursor of Bill Gates.

The book's flaws are typical of this type of nonfiction, with its focus on one basic aspect of modern life. I have no way of knowing whether the author exaggerates the importance of her chosen topic or what role was played by other areas of human culture. (For instance, medieval people traded many goods. Didn't those other goods have just as much influence on the creation of trading routes and the concept of interchangeable currency?) And there are far too many details and examples of each step in the route from raw material to designer dress. Those two --perhaps unavoidable -- flaws are what pulled down my review.

Overall, this is an important and eye-opening book, and I'm glad I read it. But I think it could have achieved its purpose as a series of magazine articles, or at any rate, in fewer pages.

Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 167 books37.5k followers
March 13, 2021
Thoroughly enjoyable overview of the evolution of textiles, from the bits of twisted matter found in Stone Age tools, binding them together (which is a huge leap) to more modern synthetics.

My main interest is in silk production, and to a lesser extent cotton and linen, and while a book this short covering millennia of human endeavor must necessarily skip and skim, the notes and bibliography are formidable, pinpointing exactly what I'm after.

Also, interesting ideas about math minds and the patterns in weaving.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
651 reviews86 followers
September 14, 2022
3.5 star

The Fabric of Civilization is a history book about textiles. According to the author, history often takes for granted fiber and textiles, their importance overlooked. The Stone Age might as well be called The Age of Fabric, if soft materials like fabrics were better preserved. It is literally true that fabrics and textiles are woven into our civilization. The author says: “We no more imagine a world without cloth than one without sunlight or rain…We drag out heirloom metaphors—“on tenterhooks,” “towheaded,” “frazzled”—with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibers. We repeat threadbare clichés: “whole cloth,” “hanging by a thread,” “dyed in the wool.”...”

The book is organized by topics: Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers, and Innovators, within each topic, loosely in chronicle order. It is mostly social history and some scientific history. A large part of the book is the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution. I especially enjoyed the reading following:
– How ancient Chinese perfected the art of silkworm raising and silk making
– How the pursuit of fabric dye played an important role in innovation in chemistry and chemical industry
– Modern day innovations of smart fabric. (It is not wearable tech. It’s just clothes.)

The book also left me with many questions:
– How raising silkworms and making silk spread to the rest of the world?
– What made Indian cotton so superior that it took a revolution for Europo to catch up?
– The author briefly mentioned the evolution of the cotton plant, but it was very unclear

Part of the book is whitewashed. It's not because of what she has included in the book, but of those she hasn't. For example, the relationship between cotton plantations in American South and slavery is glossed over, and the dark history of indigo trade is never mentioned.
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,147 reviews267 followers
November 30, 2020
What a fabulous book, one that delves into fabric in all its manifestations and into its integral place in all societies, everywhere and throughout time. Fabric is something so “ordinary” and everyday that it’s all too easy to overlook it and take it for granted, but that would be a mistake, as I now realise. This thoroughly enjoyable and meticulously researched book takes the reader on an epic journey form the Bronze Age to today encompassing the place of fabric in culture, history, trade, law, technology, sociology, economics – well, everything really. Wide-ranging and always intriguing, there’s so much to learn here, so much to ponder on. A great read.
Profile Image for Suzannah.
Author 27 books472 followers
July 25, 2021
This book was a fascinating, if brief and far from exhaustive, survey of the history of textiles. This is the third book I've read from Virginia Postrel and perhaps the most fascinating yet, pulling back the curtain on an aspect of life every bit as fundamental as food and just as closely tied into cultural history. Chapters on fibres, spinning, weaving, dyeing, trading, consumption, and innovation of textiles give snapshots of how humanity's need for clothing has sparked developments in chemistry, mathematics, banking, and more. After reading the book I almost have more questions than when I started out, but this was the perfect aperitif to further study.
Author 5 books102 followers
May 12, 2021
Because this book was a selection by my non-fiction book group, I felt compelled to read it in its entirety and frankly had been looking forward to it. However, I found the title to be very misleading and reading some other reviews, suspect other readers might feel the same way. I expected a much deeper story of the role textiles have played in world history but what the author has done (albeit very skilfully at times, I agree) is to examine various elements of the textile world--how thread is made, how looms work, the processes of dyeing, etc....). And although it was the pages that explained spindle whorls and how to break down indigo for its use as a dye, etc. (and the author's telling of her own experiences when she tried her hand at them) that made the best reading, there seemed to be so much missing from the title's promise. (I admit that the latter chapters on technology and industrial research into 'new' textiles were just not up my alley.) I had anticipated the story behind the textiles that gave the Silk Road its name, and how it was Indian textiles that opened the doors of the spice Islands to early European adventurers, the strict dress and textile codes that societies often forced upon their citizens to preserve class distinctions, etc. (for an excellent recommendation on this topic, see The Right to Dress: Sumptuary Laws in a Global Perspective, c.1200-1800). I'm glad I read it as it had many interesting sections, but it should have had a more appropriate title.
Profile Image for Selkis.
61 reviews25 followers
January 11, 2021
I received a free copy of The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you so much!

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textile changed the World. When I saw the title of the book on the Netgalley site I was intrigued. The premise sounds so fascinating, right? The book tells the story of textiles through the centuries of human civilization - From the first Mesopotamian city-states to the Industrial Revolution. The author talks about archaeology, economics, and the trading business. If you're interested in the production of various textiles and dyes, it's the book for you.

It's an interesting overview of the history of textiles. The discovery of new technologies, changing public opinions, trade routes and how everything is connected.

Overall, a highly enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Debbie.
3,210 reviews60 followers
October 20, 2020
"The Fabric of Civilization" is a history about the far-reaching influence that textiles have had on the world. The author looked into aspects of fabric production, selling, and use that I have not seen covered in other histories about textiles. Overall, this was an interesting read, and I'd recommend it to those interested in this topic.

The author talked about how cotton, silk, wool, and flax were used to make fabrics very early on and how people improved the plants' and animals' production and quality of fiber through selective breeding and other practices. The first person to come up with the germ theory did so because he was working on curing a disease affecting silkworms. The next chapter covered spinning technologies, starting with the drop spindle and moving on to the spindle wheel, spinning jenny, and other factory machines. The third chapter covered weaving and how advanced math may have been developed by weavers creating complicated patterns, how physical codes for patterns were created in different cultures, the history of weaving patterns like brocade, and information about knitting machines.

The fourth chapter covered dying fabric and the developments in chemistry created by the demand for certain colors, from the original plant- and animal-based dyes to the synthetic dye development. The fifth chapter covered fabric merchants and how they developed things like accounting, using cloth as money, bills of exchange, and more. The sixth chapter covered how the demand for various fabrics influenced what was made and how some countries forbade certain fabrics or fashions. The last chapter covered modern innovations, from new types of synthetic thread to coatings that can be put on cloth to prevent stains and such.

I received an ebook review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Shruthi.
290 reviews19 followers
January 21, 2023
This was very easy to listen to and I really enjoyed learning a lot of things about the history of textiles across human civilizations. However, there is a white-centric and libertarian bias to Postrel’s writing that results in some dismissive, truly single-braincell takes on the impact of textile production on the history of labor, gender roles, slavery, and European/American imperialism.
Profile Image for Riley Haas.
473 reviews9 followers
February 15, 2022
I have read way too many history books in my life. (Or not enough, if this book is any indication.) Few of them mentioned clothing (or any form of textiles) for any reason other than to paint a scene. The ones that did dwell on textiles at all, did so as part of bigger economic analyses and were almost always intended as textbooks or economic history. I've heard the Silk Road mentioned a thousand times but how many history books dwelled on why the Silk Road existed and how it impacted societies? If my experience is anything to go by, this fantastic book makes it clear that a major portion of human history has been ignored by most historians (and, therefore, most of us).
There are good reasons for this, some of which Postrel deals with and at least one she sort of dances around. (One very good reason: the archaeological record was not super helpful because textiles degrade faster than coins, pottery, etc.) But despite, these good reasons for historians to mostly ignore the role of textiles, it's clear that ignoring textile production and trade as part of history has been a major error. (And just a note: I do know that Postrel's book isn't the first history of textiles.) Clothing is one of those things that we just assume - we take it for granted - yet Postrel's book makes it clear that so many of our choices are informed by clothing (and other textile products). Not only did a massive chunk of humanity spend much of their lives making clothes, but textiles have been used for money and the textile industry has led to all sorts of innovations you'd never think were related.
My only criticism of the book is that it's too short. I could have used more of this entire subject and the book does make me think I should read a drier, more in-depth history at some point, one that deals with a more complete history, rather than with symbolic anecdotes.
Still, this is very worth your time.
Profile Image for A.L. Sowards.
Author 16 books1,074 followers
November 17, 2021
This book was so interesting! I wouldn’t have picked it up for a listen if I didn’t think I would enjoy it (despite many childhood memories of boring-for-me trips to the fabric store with my mother), but it was even better than expected. The book was arranged by topic, so one chapter was on weaving and another on dyeing and another on trade. In our day and age, it’s easy to forget how much work used to go into each piece of clothing, bedding, or sail. But having adequate textiles was once something that required enormous amounts of time. The quest for textiles has sparked wars, forged new trade routes, pushed new forms of accounting, and maybe even inspired some early mathematics (weavers needed to identify prime numbers because those warp threads wouldn’t be lifted when working on patterns). If you like nonfiction history or love fabric, I recommend this one.

Rounding up a bit to 5 stars.
Profile Image for Irene.
949 reviews60 followers
October 8, 2022
Fabric is so ubiquitous that nowadays we take it for granted. Fast fashion has distorted its value and turned it into something cheap and disposable, instead of a labour intensive product that should be cared for and repaired whenever possible, instead of discarded.

This book goes into the origins of fabric, from the production of raw materials like cotton and silk, and the societal context surrounding it, how fabric has been used as money, weaving as a form of art around the world, the development of dyes in antiquity and synthetic ones later on, and the creation of synthetic materials that lead to most of our clothes being made out of polyester. Fabric production was and continues to be a driving force behind the development of new technologies, first with the machines used for weaving, and now by incorporating sensors that can read data from our skin and send it to our phones, or modifying materials to make them hydrophobic.

The role of fabric as a way to express ourselves individually, as a show of belonging to a group, and evidently to keep ourselves protected from the elements has been crucial in our lives from the beginning of our history, and this book details a lot of it. A tremendously engaging read.
Profile Image for Steve.
530 reviews25 followers
September 26, 2020
Interesting look at broader issues surrounding fabrics

I enjoyed this book. The subject material was much broader than I expected. There was a discussion of international trade, history, and chemistry. And it was all discussed with a conversational tone. I did think that there was sometimes too much discussion of actual weaving and heddles and the like. I didn’t really start to love the book until Chapter Four on dyes, but from this chapter on, the book was excellent. Overall this book is well worth reading.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book via Netgalley for review purposes.
Profile Image for David.
153 reviews
March 15, 2021
I'm intrigued by the things societies take for granted and, at least in the developed world, agriculture is often one of those things. We regularly wear cotton, wool, leather, feathers, flax, silk etc. without giving a thought to their origins. Yet, as this book explains, textiles have been central to human development for centuries. Even today, while the textile industry is often maligned for its perpetual pursuit of cheap labor and the supply chain's tolerance of questionable working conditions, it delivers investment, training, business practices, and jobs in areas where there often were none. This book is a great overview of the modern and ancient science and business practices behind products that are often a significant part of our identities, but whose origins are obscured by our estrangement from supply chains, science, research, and understanding of economics.
Profile Image for T P.
50 reviews
June 28, 2021
Now I want to work with textiles!

Had never considered how fundamental textiles are to life and civilisation.

Postrel beautifully demonstrates two things. One - that textiles, in themselves as central components of our lives, are fascinating, at every level of production from fibre to finished product, and through the sweep of history from ancient past to near future. Two - that textiles have contributed so much to the making of our modern world, including computing, mathematics, banking, chemistry, the mail, and more.

Went in with little knowledge and no expectations. Come out keen on textiles, past and future.
Profile Image for Roz.
343 reviews8 followers
April 4, 2021
As a fiber artist and history buff, I couldn't help but be sucked in by this book. I may have an appreciation for the time and effort that goes into handmade textiles, but I was still oblivious to the significance of textiles as a whole; they're ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, especially in our post-industrial world where textiles are widely and cheaply available. This millenia spanning history reminds us of just how recent mass-produced textiles truly are and how much of an overriding force they were in the past.

The image of the spinner is the one that sticks with me the most: in order to produce enough yarn to make enough cloth to satisfy demands, women had to spin every spare moment. It wasn't a matter of keeping women in their place or encouraging domesticity, it was simple practicality. Any conception of women's role in society that doesn't acknowledge this is fundamentally flawed. As with so many other subjects, examining the past through a narrow lens such as textiles illuminates the ways that our modern preconceptions can influence what we're seeing in the past. If spinning is no longer a ubiquitous activity and instead the realm of hobbyists and industrial machines, it's easy to see the spinner as just a domestic figure tied to the home. But when you consider the practicalities of textile manufacturing and the economic opportunities it provided, the spinner takes on a very different role. She's no longer an idle domestic, but rather an active breadwinner.

I greatly appreciated the organization of this book into the stages of textile production: first is the fiber, then the yarn, then weaving/knitting, then dying, and then buying and selling of the finished product. It emphasized that while the ways each step comes together is important, the individual steps are striking in their own as well. Tracking what innovations were happening at the same time but in different stages was a little difficult because we were going back and forth in time from chapter to chapter, but there was so much to gain from organizing thematically that I didn't mind too much. I sometimes felt there was more focus on Europe than anywhere else and I couldn't help but notice there was nothing from Australia at all (were there really no textile innovations at any point in history Down Under?) but at this point I almost expect a predominance of Europe in world histories so I almost wasn't surprised. Overall, though, this was a well-researched, engaging, and thought-provoking history that I would highly recommend.
51 reviews
March 13, 2022
Maybe this deserves 4 stars. I do recommend it to anyone interested in textiles or the history of technology. But it was just SO uneven. The introduction is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read so I had high expectations - but the MANY descriptions of highly technical processes were just unnecessary for a book aimed (presumably) at people who are not already textile experts.

Profile Image for Pete.
804 reviews52 followers
May 6, 2022
The Fabric of Civilization : How Textiles Made the World (2020) by Virginia Postrel is a gem of a book that examines how growing, weaving, dyeing and trading fabric is a key part of civilization.

The book have seven chapters that cover Fibre, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers and Innovators. Each chapter covers the subject from prehistory to the modern day. There is a lot of fascinating detail. Some of it is partially generally known, such as the staggering increase in productivity of weaving around the Industrial Revolution but even there very few people wouldn’t learn a lot. Even before powered looms the Jacquard Loom enabled and enormous boost in productivity.

“The result was an enormous boost in productivity, especially for fancy patterns. A single master weaver could now turn out two feet of brocade a day compared to a mere inch working with an assistant on the old drawloom.”

The book’s chapter on dye shows just how much people valued colored fabric and the enormous resources that went into various colors. Learning that the country of Brazil got its name from a wood used for dye was surprising. The way that the modern chemical industry owes a lot of dye is also really interesting.

Postrel also writes very well about how fabric trade has been important throughout history and how some of the earliest known cuneiform writing in existence is about trading fabric. Fabric has a high value to weight ratio and doesn’t spoil quickly making it ideal for trade. The way that European fabric traders became financiers is also fascinating.

The chapter on Innovation further highlights how the modern plastics industry was also involved in fabric production with polyester and rayon. The modern world of 3D knitting and the development of new fabric for athletic wear shows how the innovation in fabric continues and highlights how it’s improved our lives.

The Fabric of Civlization is really an excellent, digestible, targeted read. Postrel writes clearly and well and the book is very interesting and memorable.
Profile Image for Blair.
314 reviews18 followers
February 22, 2022
This book was an attempt to explain how textiles were responsible for making the modern world.

While there were some interesting ideas about yarn and cloth being used as currency, for paying taxes, encouraging courier and mail delivery services, and being fundamental to the growth of complex societies and trade (clothes, sails, tents etc. ) the book fell far short of its mission.

I liked some of the “sound-bytes” in the book, and some of the interesting facts – including the fact that it took 6 miles of thread to make a pair of jeans and 25 miles of thread to make a Roman toga. The chart of page 49 summarising the amount of time that it takes to spin a certain length of yarn was simply excellent!

I also didn’t know that the water-powered silk industry in Italy preceded the Industrial Revolution around cotton in Britain by over 200 years. The reason why silk did not spark the Industrial Revolution itself was that it was a luxury good! It did however, set up Northern Italy to be a fashion hub that exists today!

Despite these cool facts, I felt the book lacked the intellectual curiosity and deep probing into the causes and effects of textile usage, to do justice to this fascinating subject.

For example, the book did not cover the reasons specific textiles are valued or garments and made. Why do certain professions wear what they wear? What are the roles of function and fashion in the world of textiles and how does this change? I think it's a mistake to talk of textiles and not discuss fashion as a key driver of usage.

For example, why did women wear hats for a time to Church, and then stop? Did it have anything do with the ruling of the Catholic Church in the 1960s? What did that do to the milliner business?

Why do policemen wear hats? Does it make them look taller and more intimidating?

It also did not talk of urbanisation, and the roles that the garment business played in this development. American cities saw an influx of Jewish business people who became garment makers in the Schmatte trade (Yiddish for "Rag trade") at the turn of the 20th Century. Why did this happen, and what was their impact on society?

And it didn’t cover the rise of why more women sew but men are better known as tailors. I've always been puzzled by this.

Textiles are fascinating. While this book had glimmers of hope, I felt it did not dig deep enough to do justice to this incredible subject.

I was disappointed.
1,091 reviews10 followers
September 15, 2020
This wonderfully informative book practically sings! My eyes have really been opened to a subject I've been interested in but up until now had not explored in detail. To me it's a Wow! book.

From prehistory to the current day this book goes into sumptuous detail about fabric from flax and cotton seeds to religious ceremonies to government control to nylon stockings...it's all here! Copious research obviously went into this, yet it was written in an easily accessible way, with helpful charts, glossary, photographs and illustrations.

Since the beginning of time fabric has been crucial, something we take for granted. The intelligence and chemistry involved is breathtaking. The descriptions of silk, weaving and dyes arrested my attention in particular. No wonder the colour purple was so challenging to create! Details such as ship sails and Roman garments are memorable.

Clothes send a message. They always have. Reading about various countries prohibiting different fabrics and styles is telling about attempted government control throughout history.

Also intriguing is the information above each chapter heading.

All that's required for this book is curiosity. You needn't be into textiles or fashion, just a thirst for knowledge.

Well, well worth a read. I believe this will be one of my most memorable Nonfiction reads this year...and I've read over 200 books thus far in 2020. Loved it and have already recommended to reader friends and family.

My sincere thank you to Perseus Books, Basic Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this remarkable book. Much appreciated.
Profile Image for Lydia.
490 reviews17 followers
April 14, 2021
This is not a book with much visibility, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as someone who makes textiles and is always on the lookout to understand more about textiles. More than anything, I just love the feel of textiles, the potential of textiles and the ability to put together textiles to wear and to live around. I think they are essential for maintaining our mental health, and for improving our world. So Postrel has created a book I have been waiting for. It could have more depth (books on textiles could always have more history and depth), but I think she does a pretty good job. Postrel focuses on the history of fiber (flax, cotton, wool, linen, silk), and devotes a chapter each to Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers and Innovators. Postrel digs deep into the history of the Mongols' tent textiles, how silk was worn by top society in China, how purple dye was extracted from snails, how traders used fabric as money along the routes from Italy to Belgium in the 13th century. How trading with notes for fabric was really the first commodities market and how different looms have changed over the centuries. This book is a keeper.
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