A Well-Woven Tale

The fabric of the modern world.

Court ladies preparing newly woven silk. Illustration attributed to Emperor Hui-Tsung, Chinese, c.12th century © Corbis/Getty Images.

Textile terminology proliferates throughout the English language. Words related to cloth and its manufacture are woven into the fabric of our lives. In her ambitious and fascinating history of the world through textiles, Virginia Postrel reminds us just how deeply invested we are in the language it has spun. We ‘hang by a thread’ or are ‘dyed in the wool’. We might be ‘on tenterhooks’ or ‘frazzled’. We ‘weave yarns’ and follow comment ‘threads’. Our vocabularies surround us with textile terminology that was once familiar jargon to the spinners, dyers, weavers, millworkers and drapers whose industrial efforts shaped English history. 

This parallel between language and industry may at first appear to be quintessentially English. Textile terms are scattered through the language just as former factories, now converted into luxury apartments, pepper the landscape. Both are a product of the 19th-century manufacturing heritage of English mill towns and cities. Postrel, however, deepens the synergy between communication and textiles and reminds us that this phenomenon is far from unique to English. Chinese has the word zuzchi, meaning ‘organisation’ as well as ‘weave’, and chengji, meaning ‘achievement’, which originates from the act of twisting fibres together. In French, ordinateur, the word for computer, also means the setting up of warp threads, while métier, meaning ‘trade’ or ‘craft’, also refers to a ‘loom’. 

Even the structure of The Fabric of Civilization, Postrel outlines, is woven. If the book itself is the end product, she conceives of each chapter as a warp thread, running across and delineating the volume into the individual stages of a textile’s journey, from raw material to consumed object. The reader follows from fibre, to thread, to cloth, to dye, before being passed over to traders, consumers and innovators. Yet through these chapters, Postrel weaves a connecting series of wefts, linking these methodical production processes to broader questions around economics, technology and civilisation. 

Postrel’s book is among a flurry of recent volumes that use textiles to tell a global tale. Trade routes, a colonial web of tendrils across the globe, an almost universal need to clothe the human body and the emotive power of textiles have inspired Kassia St Clair’s The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History (2018) and Claire Hunter’s The Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle (2019). Where St Clair focused on the global stories behind textiles and Hunter fixed upon needlework and embroideries, Postrel chronicles how the innovations and technologies behind textiles helped to build civilisation. It is a grand and ambitious undertaking. While the book does not grapple with the more philosophical angle of what civilisation is and how textiles construct it, it does deftly craft a global tale of how innovation, technology and economies have been built upon an innate human need and desire for textiles.

There are occasional loose threads. Postrel remarks upon the enslaved peoples, from the American South to the Akkadian Empire, who contributed to the global growth of textiles, yet these occasional references fail to acknowledge fully the fundamental role that the labour of enslaved people and the atrocities of this practice played in shaping global textile histories. Postrel recognises the ‘human …ramifications’ of enslavement, but the tensions between notions of civilisation and enslavement are never fully explored. 

One of the most intriguing and successful elements of the book is its engagement with the practical making of textiles. It is one thing for a writer to traverse the whys and wherefores of history, quite another to understand the manual labour behind how things were made. Postrel learnt to spin and weave while writing the book and she distils this technical knowledge with alacrity. She even includes a detailed, extensive glossary of technical textile terminology. A practical explanation of the inner workings of the Jacquard loom is dexterously merged with an accessible and engaging exploration of the invention’s significance. Even Marx Ziegler’s complex and impenetrable weaving notations, which resemble sheet music to a modern eye, are made lucid. This volume is a testament to the value of practical, hands-on knowledge in historical writing. Knowing how something was done, this book shows, has immense power to expose why that thing is important. 

Postrel applies this same illuminating approach to the often impenetrable complexities of economic and trade relationships. Bills of exchange, currency conversions and systems of international financial transactions are neatly translated into comprehensible flow diagrams and easily digestible summaries. This is one of the primary qualities of this book, which should be highly valued. Textiles are not only expansive, but complex in their histories. The broad significance, which Postrel rightly assigns this commodity, also makes textiles tricky to write about comprehensively. Often such histories are successful only in certain areas. Economic, cultural, technical and political histories are not easily synthesised. Perhaps it is Postrel’s conceptualisation of the book as a piece of fabric, with those integrated warps and wefts, which enables such an inclusive bringing together of these disparate aspects. 

The Fabric of Civilization sets out to make the case that textiles are the world’s defining commodity. Postrel nimbly combines the web of textile production and consumption’s global legacies. From microbiology to computing, and across a vast expanse of space and time, textiles have always and will continue to shape innovation and industry. Life is, as Postrel states, ‘a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads’. Yet this book’s protagonist is not textiles, but the humans who made, innovated and traded them. The story of textiles is the story of human ingenuity and invention.

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World
Virginia Postrel
Basic Books 320pp £22.99 

Serena Dyer is Lecturer in History of Design and Material Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester and author of Material Lives: Women Makers and Consumer Culture in the 18th Century (Bloomsbury, 2021).