Sunday, October 2, 2022

Weekend Review: The Fabric Of Civilization


The Fabric of Civilization / Virginia Postrel
NY: Basic Books, c2020
320 p.

This book is an overview of fabric and the ways in which it has shaped the development of civilization, whether that's related to trade, economics, social classes, gender relations, arts, history or another facet of life.

It reminds me of both Kassia St. Clair's The Golden Thread and Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. She is taking a look at textiles across history, as the original tech, and notes that because textiles are so abundant we have "textile amnesia", forgetting their vital role in so many areas of life. She aims to change that. 

The book is broken up into thematic sections: Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers & Innovators. It's mostly told in a conversational tone, with lots of illustrative anecdotes that make it a fun read. Some of the sections are a little technical/dry (especially the weaving ones) but overall it's informative and engaging reading. 

She illustrates how textiles, and the artisans who made and worked with textiles, shaped the world in many ways. I knew about binary code's source in weaving, but didn't know about the other elements of arcane mathematics that were created by weavers designing patterns. It was fascinating! There was discussion of the cloth trade across Europe and how those traders developed into some of the first banks and introduced techniques of book-keeping, also something new for me to learn. And the discussion of Italian silk manufacture and all the people involved in it -- including women as masters -- was really memorable.

I enjoyed the stories, and the commentary on textile words that are a part of our languages now. There are a few caveats about the book; it is really Europe focused, and some of the more distasteful aspects of textile history are skimmed over without much commentary -- ie: the use of slavery in the textile world, or aspects of cultural theft when looking at silk and weaving. However, it does give a wide view across many centuries of many other elements of textile history, manufacture, and its potential for the future. Recommended for anyone interested in how textiles have a core role in world history and in the tech world in many ways. It's a readable look at this topic, a great starter for further deep dives into any of the specific chapters or subjects that really speak to you. 

The author has even made a playlist to go along with this book on youtube, featuring 12 short videos on various themes from the book. Some are very short, so it's easy to view a few! 


  1. Along the same lines you might better enjoy Worn by Sofi Thanhauser. I think it addresses your frustrations better, not being so geographically limited and including a good overview of colonialism along with the textiles. A pleasant read as well

    1. Thanks for the rec! Luckily my library has a copy and I am now on hold :)

  2. I watched a few of her videos; what a treat! Thanks for introducing this material to your readers.

    1. They are a nice addition to the book! Glad you enjoyed.


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