On Sunday, September 29, I turned in the manuscript for my next book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, which will be published in fall 2020 (exact date TBD) by Basic Books. It will also come out in the U.K. from Hachette, but I'm not sure whether that will be simultaneous or later.
I made a couple of collages for my Instagram feed, with pictures hinting at some of the stories I'm eager to share. Here, I'll give a bit more abou them.
The top left image, which appears at the beginning of chapter two (Thread), is from a portrait Maerten van Heemskerck painted in 1529 that is now in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It shows a woman named Anna Codde spinning, an absolutely essential form of labor before the Industrial Revolution. To give you some idea of how essential, consider that the cloth for a single pair of jeans requires about six miles of thread, which could take weeks to spin by hand.
The top right image is an example of a cotton print from India--known as a calico, chintz, or indienne. With their bright, washable colors, these light-weight fabrics were a revelation to Europeans and hugely popular. They also threatened established wool and silk industries, and many countries banned their importation. France was the most extreme, treating printed fabrics the way the U.S. today (or perhaps in the 1980s) treats cocaine. For more on this bizarre story, and a flavor of the book, you can read this article I wrote for Reason. I tell this story in chapter six (Consumers) and discuss the impact of Indian cottons in chapter two (Thread) and dyes in chapter four (Dye).
The bottom left shows the back of a traditional Lao loom, with strings that hold the code for the brocade pattern the weaver is making. (For more on how the pattern is "programmed," see this site.) Contrary to what you may think from reading tech stories about the Jacquard loom, it was not the first technology to record and store weaving codes. By the time Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented his card-driven loom attachment, human
weavers had been imagining, remembering, and recording complex either-or patterns for
thousands of years. His innovation was a mechanical leap forward, automating the process. I delve into the relations between weaving, code, and mathematics ("the science of patterns") in chapter three (Cloth).
Finally, on the bottom right, is a detail from a huipil I bought in Guatemala. The huipil is the traditional blouse worn by Maya women and woven on a backstrap loom. As you can guess from the helicopters incorporated along with traditional patterns, such as scorpions, huipile may be traditional but they are not static. Living traditions never are. I discuss their evolution in chapter six (Consumers). For a thematically related story, which isn't in the book, you can read this Reason column on Chiapas.
The top left photo is a detail from a Stella McCartney dress made for this exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The material is bioengineered silk, a "protein polymer" made by Bolt Threads. The raw material is silk protein excreted by bioengineered yeast and fermented like beer. I discuss bioengineered silk, as well as the old-fashioned kind, in chapter one (Fiber).
The top right photo is a 60X magnification of magnetic core memory, the dominant computer storage medium for two decades, until the emergence of silicon memory chips in the early 1970s. The form of the memory devices arose from the fundamental mathematics of weaving. I discuss core memory and visit textile artist Robin Kang, whose work evokes it, in chapter three (Cloth).
The bottom right is a detail of Mongol cloth of gold now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Combining Iranian motifs of griffins and winged lions with Chinese cloud patterns on the lions’ wings, it illustrates the hybrid motifs and techniques that emerged from the Mongols' imperial workshops. A nomadic culture of felt and fur, the Mongols loved woven textiles, especially those incorporating gold threads, and the desire for such treasures motivated many of their conquests. I discuss the Mongols inn chapter six (Consumers).
The bottom left is a detail from the most amazing thing I saw, among many amazing things, during my textile research: a two-story hydraulic machine, built almost entirely of wood, for twisting ("throwing") silk filaments. These are not, as you might imagine, 18th- or 19th-century inventions. They date back to the 15th century and had their heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries (although this particular one operated up until the 1930s). Flavio Crippa, a physicist who spent his career developing machines for the modern silk industry, has for the past couple of decades worked to recover, restore, and re-create them for museums throughout Italy. I was lucky enough to have him as a host on a tour of several museums, including this one in Garlate and the one in Caraglio that I visit in chapter two (Thread). Here's a video to go with the photo:
Posted by Virginia Postrel on October 05, 2019 • Comments
Charlie Euchner asked me to do an email interview for his Elements of Writing site. Along with Charlie's introduction, it's the best introduction to who I am and how I work that you'll find online (infinitely better than my Wikipedia entry!). Read it here.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on July 13, 2019 • Comments
I'm taking a year off from regular Bloomberg Opinion contributions to concentrate on finishing my next book by the hard deadline of September 30, 2019. In response to a Facebook post to this effect, several people asked what the book is about.
The short answer is that it's called The Fabric of Civilization and is about the history of textiles, technology, and trade or, as I sometimes put it, the history of textiles as the history of technology and trade.
Here's a longer answer:
The story of technology is the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global exchange. The origins of chemistry lie in the coloring and finishing of cloth, the beginning of binary code—and perhaps mathematics itself—in weaving. The belt drive came from silk production. So did microbiology.
In ways both subtle and obvious, beautiful and terrible, ancient and modern, textiles made our world. But, to reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous 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.
“The spindle was the first wheel,” Elizabeth Wayland Barber tells me, gesturing to demonstrate. “It wasn’t yet load-bearing, but the principle of rotation is there.” A linguist by training and weaver by avocation, in the 1970s Barber started noticing footnotes about textiles scattered through the archaeological literature. She thought she’d spend nine months pulling together what was known. Her little project turned into a decades-long exploration that helped to turn textile archaeology into a full-blown field. Textile production, Barber writes, “is older than pottery or metallurgy and perhaps even than agriculture and stock-breeding.”
The ancient Greeks worshiped Athena as the goddess of technē, the artifice of civilization. The word derives from the Indo-European word teks, meaning “to weave.” The Greeks used the same word for two of their most important technologies, calling both the loom and the ship’s mast histós. From the same root, they dubbed sails histía, literally the product of the loom. Athena was the giver and protector of both ships and weaving.
To weave is to devise, to invent—to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements. In The Odyssey, when Athena and Odysseus scheme, they “weave a plan.” Fabric and fabricate share a common Latin root, fabrica: “something skillfully produced.” Text and textile are similarly related, from the verb texere, to weave. Order comes from the Latin word for setting warp threads, ordior, as does the French word for computer, ordinateur. The French word métier, meaning a trade or craft, is also the word for loom.The Chinese word jī, which now means “machine,” was the ancient word for loom; the word zuzhi, meaning “organization” or “arrange,” is the word for weave, while chengji, meaning “achievement” or “result,” originally meant twisting fibers together.
Cloth-making is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. It is a sign of mastery and refinement, a mark of civilization. “Can we expect, that a government will be well modelled by a people, who know not how to make a spinning-wheel, or to employ a loom to advantage?” wrote the philosopher David Hume in 1742.
To Hume, the connection was obvious. The same creative ferment stimulating the period’s great works of politics, philosophy, and literature was advancing textile technology. The year Hume’s essay appeared, the first water-powered cotton-spinning mill opened in Northampton, its roller technology anticipating the refinements that would soon launch the Industrial Revolution. Before railroads or steel mills or automobiles, fortunes were made in textile technology.
In today’s popular imagination, however, fabric belongs to the frivolous world of fashion, when it merits any attention at all. Even in the pages of Vogue, “wearable technology” means electronic gadgets awkwardly tricked out as accessories, not the soft stuff you wear against your skin—no matter how much brainpower went into producing it. When we imagine economic or technological progress we no longer think about cloth or the machines that make it.
Our textile amnesia is a side effect of abundance and industrial success. The more advanced a field is, the more blasé we are about its latest upgrades. A state-of-the-art raincoat, dress shirt, or pair of tights would amaze someone transported from the 1960s, but nowadays we just expect it to work. The incremental innovations that make hoodies breathable or extend the life of upholstery cushions are invisible. They don’t grab public attention the way nylon stockings, aniline dyes, or Indian calicoes once did.
The Fabric of Civilization restores textiles to their central place in the human story. In so doing bridges the three cultures of science, the arts, and commerce. Among humanity’s oldest and most important practical inventions as well as the spur to major technological developments, cloth is also one of our earliest and most ubiquitous expressions of aesthetic creativity and cultural and personal identity. It simultaneously embodies function, beauty, and meaning.
Under contract with Basic Books in North America and Hachette in the U.K., The Fabric of Civilization has several interrelated goals:
1) To inspire wonder at the know-how and ingenuity embedded in everyday artifacts.
2) To heighten the appreciation for the central role textiles have played in human history, particularly the development of technology and commerce.
3) To use the history of textiles as a lens through which to examine significant developments in technology and commerce.
4) To bridge stereotypically masculine and feminine interests, making them accessible and interesting to male and female audiences alike.
5) To use the history of textiles to illustrate the connections between the solution of specific problems and far-reaching scientific, technological, economic, and social developments.
6) To highlight the work of contemporary researchers in a variety of disciplines, including archaeology, economic and social history, anthropology, evolutionary biology and plant genetics, and materials science.
7) To explore big themes such as relation between nature and artifice, trade and trust, or cultural exchange and innovation.
The Fabric of Civilization ranges throughout time and space, spanning the globe and going from prehistory to the near future. It gives readers a picture of textile production and exchange as a human, rather than female or western, endeavor. My on-site reporting has taken me to places ranging from Cusco, Peru, to Caraglio, Italy; Jefferson, Georgia, to Hangzhou, China; Manchester, England, to Emeryville, California
Chapters are organized thematically, with chronological organization within each rather than from chapter to chapter. Along with the chapter’s overarching theme, in the first section of the book, on industry, each chapter focuses on a stage of production. The first chapter is on fiber and nature, the second on thread and work, and so forth. The second section of the book, on commerce, uses a similar structure, with groups of actors—traders, rulers, and buyers—instead of stages of production. The result is an ambitious yet entertaining work that, like the loom’s warp and weft, weaves together many contrasting strands of human life: masculine and feminine, abstract and material, nature and artifice, culture and commerce, practicality and pleasure, continuity and change.
Introduction: Overview of the book’s argument about the centrality of textiles in human history and our abundance-induced textile amnesia
Chapter One: Fiber/Nature
How humans have altered nature in pursuit of thread-making materials, from the String Age (aka Stone Age) to bioengineered silk.
Chapter Two: Thread/Work
Textiles take an enormous amount of thread to produce, which in turn requires extraordinary amounts of work. This chapter traces the evolution of technology and organization from ancient drop spinning to a contemporary textile mill.
Chapter Three: Cloth/Code
Many people know about the connections between modern computers and the Jacquard loom, with its punchcard patterns. But the connections between cloth-making, mathematics, and code go much further and deeper.
Chapter Four: Dye/Chemistry
How the quest for colored cloth has shaped the history of chemistry and trade, including the question of how to balance the beauty of dyes with their sometimes-noxious side effects.
Chapter Five: Traders
How textiles, with their long-distance markets and long supply chain, led to institutions to enhance trust, manage risk, and maintain records.
Chapter Six: Rulers
Whether through military procurement, taxation, or trade protectionism, state power—and its limits—has shaped the history of textile production and exchange.
Chapter Seven: Buyers
Textiles as expressions of personal and cultural identity. This chapter uses textiles as a lens through which to examine questions of authenticity, appropriation, distinctiveness, and hybridization.
Chapter Eight: Innovators
A look at the next wave of textile innovation.
Update, 5/31/19: Chapters Six and Seven are merging under the title "Consumers."
Posted by Virginia Postrel on October 15, 2018 • Comments
My current book project, working title: The Fabric of Civilization, combines my interests in economic history, technology, culture, and aesthetics. (For something of the book's flavor, you can read my 2015 Aeon article, which eventually led to a proposal.) It's an ambitious undertaking and great fun, because it lets me learn about everything from cuneiform tablets to woven electric circuits. The book is heavy on history, which limits the potential for related articles along the way, but the research has inspired several columns on the always-popular question, Will the robots take all our jobs?
Combining history and reporting from the cotton fields of West Texas, where nowadays it takes just two people to harvest thousands of acres, I looked back at the mechanization of cotton picking. How did machines transform a task once so labor-intensive and unpleasant that planters assumed it could only be done with slaves? What might that experience tell us about future automation?
We tend to equate textiles with apparel but, throughout history, fabric has been equally essential to furnishings, from blankets and wall hangings to upholstery and rugs. So it shouldn't be surprising, but inevitably is, to find that the interiors market is quick to adopt the latest in textile technology. As I reported in a pair of trade magazine articles, that can mean digital manufacturing or incorporating electronics into fabric. The early markets may not be in clothes.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on April 17, 2018 • Comments
Although I still use Amazon mostly for books, over the past year I've discovered some cool other products that might make excellent gifts (plus orthodontic silicone, which is great but not something to give as a holiday present). Here are some ideas, all of which I've bought and used.
Black & Decker cordless screwdriver, $39.99: Lighter and easier to use than a drill and small enough to fit in tight spaces, this gadget has a lithium ion battery that charges with a USB cord. Everyone should have one.
Biaggi Zipsak Boost! $89.99: You won't find a lighter carryon roller bag, because the Zipsak has no frame to add weight. For storage, it folds into a 14" x 9.5" x 5" square and—the reason I got it—if you need added space on your return trip, it expands to 28" high. One bonus I discovered after packing for the first time is that when you turn it from horizontal to vertical, allowing the contents to settle, you discover extra space at the top, perfect for inserting your plastic bag of liquids (and anything you need once you're on the plane) for easy removal. Comes in four colors.
GooDee Mini Portable Projector, $89.99: I remember when these cost upwards of $1,000 and didn't work nearly as well. Now they're cheap enough to buy just to practice speeches.
Mixfeer packable rain jacket with hood, $27.99: As you may guessed from the Zipsak, I like items that shrink for packing. I don't especially like rain coats, but this one came in handy on my Cusco trip. I also like that it has a waist so you don't look like a big blob.
Nylon handbag with lots of pockets $30.99: Not a style statement, but eminently practical for travel. Big enough to hold my laptop and lots of other stuff. Comes in 10 colors.
An Anker dual wall charger: Two models, depending on how impatient (or frugal) you are. Quick Charge 39W for $23.99 and Elite 24W for $10.59. Plus an Amazon Basics cord if you need one. ALWAYS BE CHARGING.
Portable power bank $17.89: A life saver. Could be lighter, but this is the one I use. Holds a ton and shows you how much is left.
Neoprene sleep masks, $9.99 for pack of three: Forget dignity. My Granny was right. Unless you have blackout shades, you sleep better when you wear a mask. She wore glamorous satin, but these neoprene numbers don't mash your eyes. They do fray eventually and tickle your nose, however, so I buy them in quantity. I keep one at home and one with my travel stuff.
The rise of Donald Trump and of populism more generally, has made my 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies especially relevant. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise, who calls The Future and Its Enemies his "book of the year" for 2016, interviewed me for his Richochet podcast. You can read a transcript here. Here's an excerpt:
It’s difficult to say to people the better world lies in leaving things alone, in saying let people conduct experiments, let them try things, let other people, the market critics, respond to those experiments and we’ll see what shakes out. And this is how we learn and this is how we go forward, whether you’re talking about science or whether you’re talking about markets or talking about living arrangements, all of this sort of thing.
That’s a hard message because people like a sense of stability in their lives. Now, they don’t really want some of the things that come along with a lot of stability. They don’t want the lack of progress, lack of growth. In fact, that makes for a lot of unhappiness. And they also don’t want the sort of brittleness that is created when you try to hold everything still.
And then, just to bring up something that has to do with the Trump administration, we’re going to see this more and more. There are inherent contradictions. So let’s take Donald Trump. Donald Trump loves the auto industry. He wants lots of auto jobs in the U.S. Michigan is a big part of his base. He really cares about the auto industry.
But he also likes the steel industry. He wants steel to be expensive and made in the U.S. Well, wait a minute. Who buys steel? Automobile companies buy steel. What happens if the price of steel goes up? Oh, it becomes harder to make it in the automobile industry.
When we talk about picking winners, that’s what we’re talking about. If you don’t let the marketplace, the decentralized deciders, set prices, if you’re going to have Donald Trump deciding who the winner is, he’s going to have to decide even between the automobile industry and the steel industry, never mind any newfangled things like Google or Amazon. So there’s that issue.
And then, of course, as much as he wants to do everything himself, ultimately you’re going to have some 35-year-old lawyer in the anti-trust division or the commerce department or somebody who went to some Ivy League school who’s going to be deciding these things actually. So the whole populist, anti-elitist thing goes away because inherently you end up with technocrats running things. You get France in the best case scenario.
In honor of Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday at 80, here's an excerpt from The Power of Glamour:
Taken as a guide rather than the literal truth, however, glamour need not entail disappointment. By pointing toward real avenues of escape and transformation, even its most improbable sources can channel inchoate desire into personal fulfillment. Growing up impoverished and abused in the largely segregated South, Oprah Winfrey glimpsed a distant, more perfect world on TV: a beautifully gowned Diana Ross singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sidney Poitier arriving at the Academy Awards, and, oddly but most influentially, the TV newsroom of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A series whose comedy was largely based on embarrassing situations, the show wasn’t intended to be glamorous. But the right audience can always edit away the flaws. For Winfrey, the sitcom provided an intensely alluring portrait of friendship, collegiality, meaningful work, personal safety, and economic independence. Its protagonist was smart, pretty, stylish, and respected by her colleagues. For all their quirks, the characters lived interesting, fun-filled lives without significant hardship. The setting—the idea and ideal of the characters’ lives—was far more important than the details of any particular plot.
“I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore,” Winfrey recalls, equating the actress with her character. “I wanted to be Mary. I wanted to live where Mary lived. I wanted Mr. Grant in my life. I wanted my boss to be like that.” Following Mary’s example, she pursued a career in television news, eventually finding her niche as a talk show host. One of the highlights of Winfrey’s triumph as a TV star in her own right was recreating The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s opening credit sequence, with herself in the leading role. Instead of showing the character Mary Richards driving into Minneapolis to find a new life, this version showed Winfrey coming to Chicago and, like Mary, ending a sequence of joyful scenes by exuberantly tossing her hat in the air. “Whenever I’m having a down day,” she told her audience in 1997. “I just pop that [recording] in. I love that!” She had projected herself into a glamorous fiction and, with a few adjustments, made it come true.
For more on glamour and career choices, read my Libertine article here.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on January 26, 2017 • Comments
Next summer, July 23-August 5, 2017, I'll be teaching a course on Culture and Consumption in an exciting new program called Unbound Prometheus, which offers summer courses in Kavala, Greece. Course topics range from nonlinear waves to paper-cutting, forensic anthropology to "Scepticism 101" (with Michael Shermer). Undergraduates can earn college credits, but all ages are welcome. The offerings are great for adults who want intellectual or artistic stimulation along with their vacation. In addition to a class, the $2,700 tuition includes 13 days of hotel (double occupancy), breakfasts and dinners, and a day trip to the island of Thassos. Read about the hotel on TripAdvisor here.
Check out all the course offerings here. Go here for full information on tuition and registration. I hope to see you in Greece!
Update: My syllabus is now up, as are most of the others. Check them out here. (If you register, whether for my course or another one, please tell them I sent you.)
Posted by Virginia Postrel on December 05, 2016 • Comments
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.