In a recent feature for the online magazine Aeon, I laid out the theme of my latest ongoing research (which may eventually result in a book but is currently in the just-writing-articles stage):
textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.
We drag out heirloom metaphors – ‘on tenterhooks’, ‘tow-headed’, ‘frazzled’ – with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibres. We repeat threadbare clichés: ‘whole cloth’, ‘hanging by a thread’, ‘dyed in the wool’. We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We talk of lifespans and spin‑offs and never wonder why drawing out fibres and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language.
The story of technology is in fact the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo's David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.
Delving into this theme has sent me to a fascinating conference on ancient textiles, a trade show on technical textiles—think temperature-adjusting or able to withstand explosions—and a too-brief visit to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, while in the area giving a corporate talk on glamour.
Along with the Aeon feature, my textile research so far has led to articles on contemporary subjects ranging from Google's Project Jacquard, which is producing conductive yarn designed to brings the idea of "wearables" into cloth, to how stuffed Easter bunnies got so soft. And in a mash-up of ancient and contemporary, I used 3D printing to test the theory that Venus de Milo might originally have been a spinner. There's more to come, and I welcome any ideas and leads from readers.