Mark has given his gracious permission for me to repost his book reviews here, and this week we begin the process with a review of one that covers a topic close to my heart–Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. And so, without further ado, my first guest post, the original of which can be viewed on Ricochet here:
Technology Knit into the Fabric of Society
The story of textiles proves to be the story of human ingenuity. The history of fiber and cloth is also the history of civilization. Fabric is so interwoven with our history, our culture and our civilization we often overlook its importance.
These claims form the thesis of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” by Virginia Postrel. It examines the significance fiber products in the emergence of civilization, and their importance today.
Postrel begins examining the building blocks of textiles. She spends a chapter each on fiber, thread, cloth, and dye. This follows the progression from raw material to finished cloth. Thread is formed from fiber and cloth from thread. Dyes (coloring) applied to either thread or cloth decorate the result.
Each chapter is a fascinating examination of its aspect of textile production. The fiber chapter reveals the importance of simple fiber in creating a civilization. Stone Age tools required fiber to bind stone tools to handles. The fiber used defines the thread that can be created from it. Thread, which we take for granted today, was long the choke point in cloth production. To create enough thread to make a single ship’s sail required thousands of hours of labor.
Postrel makes a convincing argument that cloth making was a driver of civilization. The coordination required to simply collect sufficient fiber, spin it into thread, and weave it into enough cloth for a single bolt of cloth was tremendous when everything done by hand. A single set of clothing could cost the equivalent of a year’s wages. The poor could rarely afford extra clothing. Items such as togas were displays of wealth as much as functional garments.
Finding ways to reduce and organize this labor propelled technological advancement. Mathematics grew in part due to cloth making. Organized society emerged to coordinate the specialized effort to create cloth. In turn, new technology fed cloth making.
The book’s next chapters, on cloth trading, consumers, and innovators show how cloth gets distributed and used. Postrel reveals that a surprising amount of modern society emerged through trading cloth. Writing, modern banking, and paper money developed from trading cloth. Consumer consumption drove markets.
“The Fabric of Civilization” is a fascinating book. It reveals unsuspected connections between cloth and civilization. Postrel’s story weaves a complex tale, one which keeps you reading for your next discovery. Read it and you may never again take cloth for granted.
“The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020, 321 pages, $30.00 (hardcover), $17.99 (Kindle)
This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.