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The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

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4.17  ·  Rating details ·  330 ratings  ·  74 reviews
From Paleolithic flax to 3D knitting, a global history of textiles and the world they made
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 archa
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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 10th 2020 by Basic Books
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Adam Gurri
Nov 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 creat ...more
Mandy
Nov 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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, ...more
Selkis
Oct 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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
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Debbie
Oct 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"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
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Steve
Sep 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 wo
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Brenda
Sep 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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, glos
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Lydia
Jan 31, 2021 rated it it was amazing
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 textile ...more
Arevik  Heboyan
Jul 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Breathtaking work of non-fiction!!! I didn't have such a thrill reading a research for a very long time. Both extensive historical research and master storytelling makes this book a hidden art.
Taking into consideration all parts involved, their resources and interests, the author masterfully presents the importance of textile industry un human development and successfuly vice-versa. This is the non-fiction done right and perfect anc can possibly convert more people to research this topic and ap
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Roslyn K
Mar 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Patricia
May 11, 2021 rated it liked it
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 m ...more
su
Nov 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel is a very engrossing read, assuming the viewpoint that fabric production and consumption shaped the civilization at every stage and sphere.

Split into different chapters, each dealing with different stages of production from the most essential ones of fiber and thread to producers and consumers, it covers all the bases.

As someone primarily interested in historical fashion and knows almost nothing about cloth production, the second half of the book
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Jeff Greason
Dec 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I've enjoyed this author back as far as "The Future And Its Enemies" which I happened across when I was just at the right moment in my intellectual development to appreciate it. "The Fabric Of Civilization" delves in to themes I am developing in my own work -- the amazing sweep of human technology, which starts long before the Industrial Revolution; the connections between apparently disparate technologies, the interplay of technology and civilization. I especially like how Postrel picks out and ...more
Katie Booth
Feb 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book was fascinating!! It doesn't seem like a book about textiles would hold one's attention but, as with many topics, when insanely in depth research is combined with clear and compelling prose, the results can be magic. Thus, this book is really about human ingenuity and incentives. The author uses textiles as a window into history and the psychology; it serves as a way to examine the past and future drive of humans to make our lives better. As Postrel says, "Throughout history the desire ...more
Brian
Jan 07, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
History, Economics, Culture and science woven together

This book weaves together science, economics, culture and history all with the common thread of fabric. Each chapter examines the history and the current cutting edge of an aspect of textiles (e.g. dye, thread, etc.).

Some parts were slow but mostly very interesting. This book sheds light on a topic that affects everyone yet few think about in our daily lives.
Kevin Y
Jan 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fabric is all around us and woven into history

As an avid reader of history, this book adds value to something and some people that we take for granted in how they helped to knit together certain moments in history. A beautiful book written in an approachable manner for the layman. As someone trained in political economy, this book opens another dimension in how economic history was shaped.
Emily
Jan 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
Very interesting and informative treatment of the history of textiles, including their impact on history in general. I am especially appreciative of the recognition of the interconnectedness of various topics, such as the development of currency related to trade in textiles.
Converse
Dec 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The author covers the production of fabrics from the raw materials (vegetable, silkworms, or coal or petroleum based), dye production (both those derived from plants and insects or coal or petroleum based), spinning, weaving, and a bit on knitting. She also includes a chapter on possible future developments, such as incorporating electronics and using new materials or using existing materials that haven’t been used for fabrics. She also examines secondary and tertiary effects of fabric making, s ...more
Dree
Nov 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In this book Postrel argues that so much of what we see as “civilization” came to be because of the need and desire for textiles. She includes selective breeding of plants and animals; loom and dye technologies; bills of exchange and double-entry bookkeeping; the study of silkworm diseases; and world trade itself. We know the Industrial Revolution was based on looms for textiles production—but Postrel argues that textile technological development were in full swing centuries earlier and all arou ...more
Diane
Jun 09, 2021 rated it liked it
Engaging writing about the intersection of art and technology in one of our oldest and most basic creations. I just wish there were color photos (damn the expense!) and maybe even related videos.
Tabseattle
Oct 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World would be an excellent addition to a high school curriculum, it has something for everyone: mathematicians, inventors, scientists, botanists, historians, artists, designers, and fashion. As an educator and knitting/sewing enthusiast, I appreciated the glossary, index, and the extensive notes as well as the story-telling approach to each chapter. The book is dense with information and it is fun to discover and explore the history of civilizat ...more
Jeff
Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating History. Postrel does a remarkable job of looking at the various people and technologies of making (primarily clothing) textiles throughout history and even into the future. She largely centers around the various types of entities involved in the work, from the source materials to the weavers to the sellers and a few other types, and shows how each contributed in some way to the overall history and to where we are now. Several tidbits I didn't know, including just how much cotton yar ...more
Rowena Andrews
Aug 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a fantastic work of non-fiction. The cover is also incredibly striking and is what first caught my attention. This book is well-researched and goes into a lot of detail about the processes, technology and people, involved in the production of textiles (primarily clothing) throughout history. The writing style was easy to read, and I found that it was well-balanced between the details and readability, and it never felt dry or too academic. I learnt a lot from reading this one, not just a ...more
Katrina Sark
May 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
Preface: The Fabric of Civilization

p.1 – “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable form it.” (Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American, Sept. 1991)

p.11 – Technology means much more than electronics or machines. The ancient Greeks worshiped Athen as the goddess of techne: craft and productive knowledge, the artifice of civilization.
To weave is to devise, to invent
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Kim
Nov 03, 2020 added it
Shelves: netgalley
If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Virginia Postrel reasons in her new book, The Fabric of Civilization, then a sufficiently ubiquitous technology is indistinguishable from nature. Though fabric suffuses our lives, most of us hardly give it a second thought. Why would be think about fabric as we go about our day when we have much more important things to think about than our poly-cotton blend t-shirts? And yet nations have risen and fallen because of fabric ...more
Bill
Nov 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
In The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, Virginia Postrel takes the reader on a far-flung journey through time and geography as she offers up an often fascinating history of the element of the textile technology (and make no mistake, it’s as much a technology as cars and computers are, with even, as she details, a claim to helping jumpstart the latter).

The book is divided into the various threads that make up the whole cloth (see what I did there?): Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye,
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Elizabeth
May 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book - and I give it 4.5 stars rather than 5 stars due to a few tedious, technical passages I found tiresome for the layman.

Brilliantly organized into chapters by topic, this books crescendos from the single natural fiber to the emerging world of smart (digital) textile. (We learn there is no such thing as a natural fiber. Who knew?!) On its own merit, each chapter can stand alone, however, the sum total of the chapters transforms the reader’s perceptions of (almost) everything the
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Marks54
Dec 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is an interesting and well done book. It combines two genres. The first is a broad historical industry study and the second is what might be called the history of “stuff” - take something that is common that everybody “knows” about and then look into the history of it to show how little people actually know about it. The focus here is on fabric/textiles. Everybody wears clothes, right? There is much more to it than that, however. Who figured out how to make clothes? How to mass produce them ...more
Sad_angel
Apr 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
I learned a lot about the origins and evolution of fibers, thread/yarn spinning, weaving, knitting, and dyes! These first four chapters were <3_<3 !

I do agree with other reviews that the information is very technical if you don't have any background with the topic. This came into play in a negative way for me in the second half of the book. While the chapters on trade and consumers reinforce Postrel's thesis that textiles had a hugely important and overlooked role in the development of many thin
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Cat
Nov 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Thanks to NetGalley and Basic Books for the chance to read an advance copy of this book!

I really enjoyed this adventure through time and space to explore the ways that fabric and textiles shaped our history. While I sometimes had some trouble following the structure of the narrative, I learned so much and appreciated the illustrations and photographs scattered throughout the chapters.

This book is structured on seven wide-ranging chapters. The first four focus on aspects of textiles--fiber, threa
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Daniel
Nov 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This was not the book I expected, but I loved it all the same. I had wondered how it was that textiles evolved--how we went from creatures covering--and adorning--our bodies with animal skins to beings who wove our garments from growing things.

Instead, I was treated to a carefully-constructed argument, meticulously researched across human history and with references to a great variety of cultures, about how our ancestors--and even now our peers--attempts to improve those fabrics that adorn us in
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