Dynamist Blog


I'm thrilled to see how enthusiastic early readers are about The Fabric of Civilization. Check out the early praise on the book's Amazon page and pre-order to get your copy on publication day!

The blurbs on the Amazon page were solicited from well-known experts in history, technology, and innovation. Fiber artists have also been praising the book. One of my favorite reviews comes from the supersmart weaver and color expert Tien Chiu, writing on her blog

I’ve also finished reading a fabulous soon-to-be-released book by Virginia Postrel. It’s The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, available for pre-order from Amazon. I got my hands on a review copy from Virginia, and I have to tell you, it’s one of the most fascinating and compelling books I’ve ever read on the history of textiles. If you thought Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years was interesting, you’re gonna swoon over this one. I think it’s actually even more interesting than Barber’s book. Run out and preorder your copy now. (I’ll write a more detailed review later, once it gets a bit closer to release.)

Thanks to NetGalley and Goodreads, the book has also gotten a couple of five-star early reviews from grassroots readers who read and review a lot of books. (In other words, my publisher and I don't know these people.) Here's an author's dream (if not a copy-editor's) from :

Breathtaking work of non-fiction!!! I didn't have such a thrill reading a research for a very long time. Both extensive historical research and master storytelling makes this book a hidden art.
Taking into consideration all parts involved, their resources and interests, the author masterfully presents the importance of textile industry un human development and successfuly vice-versa. This is the non-fiction done right and perfect anc can possibly convert more people to research this topic and appreciate textile and clothing more than we do nowadays.
As printed, please, please share a copy with me. This book will have its special place in my brain and bookshelf forever. Thank you! 

Pre-order your copy today from any of the links on the right of this page. (Click on the thumbnails below to see some of the early praise. And follow me on Instagram.

Pre-Order THE FABRIC OF CIVILIZATION and Get a Handwoven Bookmark

I've recently started weaving on a small inkle loom, used for making straps and bands —or in this case bookmarks to go with The Fabric of Civilization.

Here's how to get your own bookmark:

1) Pre-order the book at any of the links to the right, or from your local bookseller.

2) Email a copy of your receipt and the mailing address for the bookmark to me at vp at vpostrel.com. Please note that Amazon receipts cut off the address partway through, so you'll need to type the whole thing.

Pre-orders help draw attention to new books by boosting their first-week sales. And while you wait, you can put your bookmark to good use.

Thanks to Patricia Isenberg and Jason Woertink for sharing photos of their bookmarks. When yours arrives, please email me a picture!

Update: At the request of my Princeton classmate (and informal publicist) David Bernstein*, I have black-and-orange bookmarks available as well as those coordinating with the book's cover. If you want one of those, please let me know. (*Not to be confused with the two other David Bernsteins I know.)

A Closer Look at Ties: An Microscopic Introduction to Woven and Printed Textiles

Inspired by a friend's question, I raid my husband's long-neglected tie wardrobe, grab my trusty smartphone microscope attachment, and examine just how men's ties get their patterns. (Buy your own microscope attachment here for about $10. Full disclosure: I get a small cut of Amazon sales.)

For more on my book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, coming in late 2020, visit my main blog page.


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 about 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 calicochintz, 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 the one in Caraglio that I visit in chapter two (Thread). Here's a video to go with the photo:


How I Think and How I Write

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.

So What Is Your Next Book About?

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.

Photo is a re-creation by the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen of archaeological fabric using ancient dyeing, spinning, and weaving techniques.

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 , 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.

Chapter Outline

Introduction: Overview of the book’s argument about the centrality of textiles in human history and our abundance-induced textile amnesia

I. Industry

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.

II. Commerce

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."

The Fabric of Civilization: A Robot Roundup

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?

I've written for Bloomberg View on about how robots are replacing seamstresses  and, more recently, on what laser-distressed jeans tell us about the future of computer-driven apparel manufacturing. The laser story prompted this online conversation with my colleague and friend Adam Minter, where we batted around thoughts on the future of apparel. (The author of the fantastic book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, Adam is working on a new book about the global trade in secondhand clothing and electronics.)

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.

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