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How Textiles Made the World

With the pandemic weighing so heavily on our industry, I got to thinking if there were lessons from the past that could help illuminate possibilities for the future. Indeed there are. After all, our industry has endured plagues, world wars, economic calamities, and much more -- only to recover each time, changed perhaps, but intact and thriving.

Technology plays a role in the success of our industry, as has the resiliency and creativity of industry leaders, engineers, and factory workers throughout time. I don't wish to suggest that it has been easy. Far from it, the industry has endured its fair share of setbacks. Even so, our industry has demonstrated time and again an ability to bounce back from adversity.

Benign innocence

I'm often struck by how few people know (or care) about the history of our industry, let alone history in general. For sure, a lot of books have been written about the industry, but your average consumer doesn't seem to know much about how textiles are made, let alone how technological breakthroughs were made centuries ago.

Perhaps this benign innocence is a byproduct of the throwaway nature of fashion these days, among other things. In any case, consumers often take clothing and the textiles from which they are made for granted. And when we consider the rise of unstructured products, like athleisurewear, maybe it's not hard to understand why many consumers see their wardrobes as disposable.

But how would people behave if they had a greater appreciation for the history of how their products were made? Would they have a different perception of what's desirable and what's not? Indeed, how would consumers perceive the value of their clothing if structured products, such as business suits, were ever to return to consumer vogue?

It's hard to know. But we do know that our industry excels at making what its customers want while creating new imaginative fashion designs to entice consumers to search for new products. Sometimes, however, today's fashion is really a recycling of old styles, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself. The cycles of fashion often rhyme much like the cycles of history.

A history of textiles

This brings me to consider the history of our industry. How was ancient cotton grown, or how was yarn first made? How were warp and weft first created to make fabrics centuries ago? Today's industry is built on old technologies, but these technologies are so often taken for granted and, in some ways, take away from the beauty of textiles that are in turn made into clothes and other sewn products.

A new book entitled "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made The World" by acclaimed journalist Virginia Postrel goes a long way to explore the history of textiles -- from fibers through to made-up goods. It's well-written, carefully researched, and constructed—a good read.

“My textile exploration originated in wonder,” Postrel wrote in her book. She continued, “as I heard from scholars, scientists and businesspeople – at first coincidentally and later as I began researching the subject -- I was repeatedly struck by what a fundamental technology textiles represent, what world-shaking consequences they've had, and how remarkable much of their history is."

In clear prose, Postrel describes the history of textiles from ancient times to today. This is a book for a general audience. Postrel does an exceptional job of wading through the manufacturing technicalities of fibers, yarns, textiles, and dyes while interspersing those topics with fascinating histories of how, why, and when such technologies were developed.

Even more, Postrel includes contemporary stories of how these technologies have evolved over the centuries to be included in today's state-of-the-art textile production. She helps structure the history and technical aspects of textiles into a contemporary, relatable framework. For instance, when she focused on the latest technologies for 3-D printed garments, she does so by harkening back to the basics of textiles.

In this sense, new technologies such as 3-D printing are something to behold. However, despite the technical advancements, such tech is still based on the fundamentals of fiber formation, extrusion, knitting, and weaving. Indeed, the warp and weft of such technologies are never far away -- nor are the original founders of such older technologies.

Dry history?

But as a loom meticulously goes through its paces of weaving yarn into fabric, so does the tone of Postrel's writing. Although clearly written, it is oddly devoid of perspective. In fact, it seems like she went to great pains to keep opinion at a minimum, focusing instead on ensuring the technical points are clearly elucidated. Moreover, she does an admirable job of wading through some highly technical topics without ever getting lost in the weeds.

According to Postrel, "exploring textiles introduced me to amazing natural phenomena like the weird chemistry of indigo and the improbable genetics of cotton. It showed me the ingenuity and care behind both handcrafts and industry."

Although the history as portrayed by Postrel describes the influences of textiles on the history of civilization's various cultures, it curiously leaves out mention of social strife that so typifies the history of textiles. For instance, she references the industry's tendency to use female labor in its production but fails to examine the factual exploitation of these workers over the centuries.

After all, culture is comprised of people. And any cultural history should explore the good and bad to portray a balanced portrait. What about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the collapse of Rana Plaza? There's no mention of these.

It's alright to stress technological innovation, but to discuss the cultural impact of new technologies without exploring the effects those innovations had on labor throughout the world over the millennia is a missed opportunity. In fact, the people behind the technologies -- particularly the practitioners of these technologies, the floor workers -- receive short shrift, which is a shame.

An important message

Reading "The Fabric of Civilization" is a little like comparing a well-written, thoroughly researched, detailed compendium to a novel with complex characters, intriguing backstories, and fleshed-out storylines. Perspective and subplot are subjugated for the sake of analytical precision.

To be fair, though, the main focus of "The Fabric of Civilization" is the history of the technology behind textile-making. From this perspective, Postrel indeed hits the mark. She tackles highly technical topics with grace, a deft intellect, and an admirable ability to explain complex terminology without belittling the reader.

More importantly, however, this is a worthwhile read for one simple reason: it's a history of how our industry — from its ancient, hand-loomed roots to contemporary industrial-scale production — rose up time and again to overcome hardships, created better products, and met the needs of a changing world, no matter how bad the times were. And in today's pandemic-ridden world, this is a much-needed message. Ingenuity and creativity can overcome adversity — and for that message, I can only thank the author.

Originally published in on May 18, 2021.

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