Cover Image: The Fabric of Civilization

The Fabric of Civilization

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Member Reviews

When I picked this up, I did not realize how much I will take away from it. The innocuous fabric is actually shown to hold large swatches of history together!
The author's attachment to the topic and the level of enthusiasm comes through the pages. The book can get a little heavy from time to time but is divided in a way that taking breaks helps return to the content. As the cover promises, historical and archaeological findings regarding the concept of fabric is traced all the way down to our current 3D printing reality. 
The unexpected part in it all was the well-researched connections to politics and the economic implications of manufacturing/processing fabrics for public and personal use. I would not have otherwise observed so many tangible and intangible connections when it comes to the concept of fabric and what it means in the larger picture. It was fascinating, to say the least.
As I mentioned earlier, the book is a little heavy on the facts, which is to be expected given the topic being discussed. Despite that, it is an exciting read, even if I did do it in parts spread out over a couple of days.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in non-fiction which tackles a unique topic while providing historical/political information.
I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, but the review is entirely based on my own reading experience.
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Thank you so much to NetGalley and Perseus Books for my copy of The Fabric of Civilization How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel in exchange for an honest review. It published November 10, 2020.
This was such an informational book that I didn't know I needed in my life. I have been ruminating on this and the concepts and bringing it up in various conversations. I had no clue just how prevalent and important fabric has been.
I really enjoyed the chemistry, the history, and the social implications. I had no clue there were laws, and trade problems and so much drama involved!
If you're interested in world history, you would definitely enjoy this one!
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One of the best books I've read this year. Postrel does a great job writing an engaging story that not only walks through all of the steps of textile making but also shows the technological advances that helps boost them and the impacts (cultural, economic, and technological) that the mass availability of different kids of textiles facilitated and caused. The section on how the many European textile import/export firms became some of the first banks is just one of the many interesting nuggets. And I really liked her descriptions of anthropologists' efforts to recreate ancient textile technologies (the section of Phoenician dye techniques was particularly interesting and pungent). This was a fun, engaging, and erudite book; highly recommended!
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As a fiber artist and history buff, I couldn't help but be sucked in by this book. I may have an appreciation for the time and effort that goes into handmade textiles, but I was still oblivious to the significance of textiles as a whole; they're ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, especially in our post-industrial world where textiles are widely and cheaply available. This millenia spanning history reminds us of just how recent mass-produced textiles truly are and how much of an overriding force they were in the past. 

The image of the spinner is the one that sticks with me the most: in order to produce enough yarn to make enough cloth to satisfy demands, women had to spin every spare moment. It wasn't a matter of keeping women in their place or encouraging domesticity, it was simple practicality. Any conception of women's role in society that doesn't acknowledge this is fundamentally flawed. As with so many other subjects, examining the past through a narrow lens such as textiles illuminates the ways that our modern preconceptions can influence what we're seeing in the past. If spinning is no longer a ubiquitous activity and instead the realm of hobbyists and industrial machines, it's easy to see the spinner as just a domestic figure tied to the home. But when you consider the practicalities of textile manufacturing and the economic opportunities it provided, the spinner takes on a very different role. She's no longer an idle domestic, but rather an active breadwinner. 

I greatly appreciated the organization of this book into the stages of textile production: first is the fiber, then the yarn, then weaving/knitting, then dying, and then buying and selling of the finished product. It emphasized that while the ways each step comes together is important, the individual steps are striking in their own as well. Tracking what innovations were happening at the same time but in different stages was a little difficult because we were going back and forth in time from chapter to chapter, but there was so much to gain from organizing thematically that I didn't mind too much. I sometimes felt there was more focus on Europe than anywhere else and I couldn't help but notice there was nothing from Australia at all (were there really no textile innovations at any point in history Down Under?) but at this point I almost expect a predominance of Europe in world histories so I almost wasn't surprised. Overall, though, this was a well-researched, engaging, and thought-provoking history that I would highly recommend.
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Any lover of textiles or history will find this book interesting. Well researched and informative, the power and influence of the textile trade throughout civilization gets its proper due here. Textiles are revealed to be a driving force for entire ancient economies, as well as the source of conflict and the root of greed. Used as currency and to show status, textiles have been credited with giving birth to civilization before all other technologies, and are still a major influence in society and economies today.
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I received a free copy of The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you so much!

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textile changed the World. When I saw the title of the book on the Netgalley site I was intrigued. The premise sounds so fascinating, right? The book tells the story of textiles through the centuries of human civilization - From the first Mesopotamian city-states to the Industrial Revolution. The author talks about archaeology, economics, and the trading business. If you're interested in the production of various textiles and dyes, it's the book for you. 

It's an interesting overview of the history of textiles. The discovery of new technologies, changing public opinions, trade routes and how everything is connected. 

Overall, a highly enjoyable read.
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I received this book free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel. I guess I thought it would be a history of fabric—who was wearing what, when.  And this book does deal with fabric and, to some extent, fashion, over the course of history, but it is so much more.

The premise is, as stated in the title, that textiles are responsible for the development of world civilization. Is that an overstatement? After reading this book, I’m convinced it’s not. From the very first fibers twisted together to make thread/rope, allowing for our ancient ancestors to begin using tools, up to the creation of textiles made out of microchips, allowing people in the not too distant future to wear their technologic devices, it is textiles that drive advance rather than technological advances improving textiles. Chemistry, arithmetic, banking, transportation, genetics, and pretty much anything you can think of: the desire for new fibers and fabrics have inspired the innovations driving progress.

I requested this book because I am an amateur crafter and have the historical novelist’s interest in fabric. But this well-researched book, with its convincing argument, written in absorbing prose, deserves a wider audience than people (like me) with a passing interest in the development of cloth. It’s a fascinating look at the progress of civilization.
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The back cover copy of The Fabric of Civilization, by Virginia Postel, does it’s best to summarise the extent of the amazing and diverse journey the reader goes on when picking it up but still, I was astonished by just how much is packed succinctly into this book! The 320 pages are intense but I loved it!

Broken into seven chapters, it begins with “Fiber”, next is “Thread”, this goes onto “Cloth”, through “Dye” before arriving at “Traders” and “Consumers”. The final chapter digs into “Innovators”. Every chapter has subsections which unpack the history of the world through textiles. From ancient civilizations through to 3D printing and beyond, it’s easy to understand and yet, surprising and fascinating to see this thread which weaves through history.

My family has heritage in textiles both in the weaving and trading which goes back generations so I found this connection interesting especially as myself and my cousins are into computers and programming “…the connection between weaving a textile fabric and designing a computer system is a close one”.

Amongst the facts are stories of current and past textile creators and innovators, what drove their discoveries and how they overcame challenges. From creating the perfect dye to improving silk production, adopting better manufacturing process and transferring skills, textiles have faced and tackled all the major business barriers and, for the most part, been improved by the challenge.

“Suffering from a chronic shortage of coin, especially in the rural areas, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) encouraged textiles as an alternative. In 732, the government declared bolts of hemp and silk to be legal tender…Coins served as accounting units but bolts of cloth were the everyday medium of exchange.” This tidbit captivated me, imagine going shopping with your fabric! The banking industry has it’s roots in textiles…my Mum used to work for a bank, now we can call it the family trade! The entire trading process explains a lot of the new world expansion as well as the drive to find new materials and dyes. Cross-pollination of plants, processes and dyes came at a cost and there was huge money (or bolts) to be made by those in the know.

As always, the customer dictates what is made, what is valued and what is developed. “The cultural authenticity of cloth arises not from the purity of its origins but from the ways which individuals and groups turn textiles into their own purposes. Consumers, not producers, determine the meaning and value of textiles. Cloth is ubiquitous and adaptable, forever evolving in for and meaning. Trying to impose an external standard, heedless of consumers’ beliefs and desires, is not merely futile but disrespectful and absurd.” Such wisdom, beyond textiles, for marketing of products and services!

Now “customers still want clothes to be attractive, comfortable, and reasonably priced. But ecofriendliness has become fashionable.” The sections on development to make this happen are intriguing and exciting! I look forward to seeing what becomes viable for mass production!

In a book that continually reminded me of my family, these lines made me giggle because my Nan loved her synthetics and drip-dry and now I know why! “They liberated women from household drudgery. Curtains that could be drip dried, uniforms that never needed ironing, and sweaters that be washed without shrinking reduced domestic burdens”

If you love history, interesting facts, engineering or product development, this is a fabulous book! Of course, if you’re into textiles, this is one you can’t miss out on! I highly recommend it, five out of five on the enJOYment scale!
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Thank you to the publisher and #NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  The premise of this text, to explore the history of civilization through fabric, was unique and successful.  By the end of the book Postrel presents a thorough and well researched attestation as to the importance of textiles.  I appreciated the author’s approach to the layout of the information, and found the explorations of string, thread, yarn, fabric, knitting, looms, and dye to be the most interesting.  That being said, the scientific look at cotton (not just as a textile but as the plant itself) was probably one of the key take-aways from the book.  The various pictures throughout the text were enlightening and added true value to the work, especially the spindle whorls section.  Postrel very deftly touches on how fabric and textiles, and the actions taken in their creation, weave together a beautiful patchwork which is an important pattern to our written and spoken language (all puns intended).
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What a fabulous book, one that delves into fabric in all its manifestations and into its integral place in all societies, everywhere and throughout time. Fabric is something so “ordinary” and everyday that it’s all too easy to overlook it and take it for granted, but that would be a mistake, as I now realise. This thoroughly enjoyable and meticulously researched book takes the reader on an epic journey form the Bronze Age to today encompassing the place of fabric in culture, history, trade, law, technology, sociology, economics – well, everything really.  Wide-ranging and always intriguing, there’s so much to learn here, so much to ponder on. A great read.
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The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel is a very engrossing read, assuming the viewpoint that fabric production and consumption shaped the civilization at every stage and sphere. 

Split into different chapters, each dealing with different stages of production from the most essential ones of fiber and thread to producers and consumers, it covers all the bases. 

As someone primarily interested in historical fashion and knows almost nothing about cloth production, the second half of the book was much more engrossing and easier to follow for me! But I have learned so much, I don't consider rather technical parts a disadvantage. 

I appreciated the attempt to encompass different practices across the globe as well, but I wish this was done to a larger extent, especially regarding dyeing practices and consumer trends. Other than that, I think it gives a layman like me the necessary and interesting information on the long, arduous and exciting journey of fabric production.
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Very interesting read on how major civilizations really depended on the textile business right from the ancient days - wool, cotton, hemp, and especially silk, have had a major impact on how people lived and worked. As a person who loves to knit, I found this a great book to learn more about where and how fabrics are made and their histories.
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In The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, Virginia Postrel takes the reader on a far-flung journey through time and geography as she offers up an often fascinating history of the element of the textile technology (and make no mistake, it’s as much a technology as cars and computers are, with even, as she details, a claim to helping jumpstart the latter).  

The book is divided into the various threads that make up the whole cloth (see what I did there?):  Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers, Innovators.  In those chapters we zip back and forth in time and place, beginning in paleolithic times with the simple concept of “string,”  Before you can roll your eyes, though, Postrel informs you that the “Stone Age” could just as easily be called the “String Age,” given that:

string is a general-purpose technology with countless applications. With it, early humans could create fishing lines and nets, bows for hunting or starting fires, set traps for small game, strap babies to their chests . . . sew together hides.  It gave early hunter-gatherers more control over their environment. Its invention was a fundamental step toward civilization.

Take that, all you flint knappers and stone lovers!

After this basic move, we drop in on the domestication of sheep for wool, the cultivation and selective breeding of plants such as flax and cotton (the latter’s spread greatly aided by Muslim conquest) and of worms for silk.  We see the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, the power loom and Jacquard’s punch card loom that famously inspired Babbage’s Analytical Engine, often cited as a precursor to the computer and algorithms, We learn how much yarn and time it took to outfit a Roman in a toga or a Viking fleet in sail and how all that fabric was dyed by boiling plants, mashing up insects, or mixing chemicals. In more contemporary times, we see how knitwear took over from woven wear and how synthetic fibers were discovered, proliferated, and then explore where they might go into the future (think super breathable, super-wicking, and able to channel power). We travel through most of the continents (not a lot of fabric-work being done in Antarctica), stopping in for some extended visits in China, Italy, Germany, the American South, the Mongolian Steppe, Ghana, and other locales. 

Some readers might know some parts of this story — the synthesis of mauve as a dye, the creation of nylon, how nails were used to create Tyrian purple, but it gives you a greater sense of context and unity to see it all in one place. As well, one gets a greater sense of human ingenuity in how we’ve manipulated first natural sources (sheep, wild cotton, etc.) and then basic elements and molecules to clothes ourselves, express ourselves, and then perform feats that go way beyond what we usually consider the realm of “fabric.”  Postrel does a nice job of finding the human center in many of these stories, and my favorite parts were often where she herself was involved or did the interviewing of those who were.  It’s times like those one gets great lines like this, about a dye: “It’s got a lot of rotten, some fecal notes, a lot of urine in there. It’s got it all.”

I wouldn’t have minded a bit more here and there on some topics, maybe some more of the personal, a bit more on the jealous guarding of secrets (the Chinese and how to make silk for instance), and something on the admittedly more negative areas of sweatshops and the destruction of industries. But those were minor quibbles. All in all this is always informative and most of the time fascinating. A good combination for any non-fiction work.
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In this book Postrel argues that so much of what we see as “civilization” came to be because of the need and desire for textiles. She includes selective breeding of plants and animals; loom and dye technologies; bills of exchange and double-entry bookkeeping; the study of silkworm diseases; and world trade itself. We know the Industrial Revolution was based on looms for textiles production—but Postrel argues that textile technological development were in full swing centuries earlier and all around the world.

I have read other works on textile history. Usually they are written chronologically, which can get dry. The chapters of this book are organized by phase of production/sale: fiber, thread, cloth, dye, traders, consumers, innovators. This allows for the simultaneous discussion of similar technologies developed on different continents, and Postrel does a great job of moving through time and space, right up to modern research is smart fabrics. This book is very readable and I definitely learned a lot, though I still don’t fully understand bills of exchange.
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The Fabric of Civilization is an absolutely fascinating deep dive in just how interwoven the history of textiles is with the History of Humanity.. From our language to our culture, this books weaves together several threads to show just how entwined everything is. 

I mean, look at the previous paragraph. Look at the words that have relationships to textiles. There's a lot. The book covers a wide range of things and doesn't shy away from the ugly side of history. The fact that people were enslaved and killed for things like cotton, silk, and dyes. I also appreciated that cultures outside of Europe were featured and their contributions recognized. It's nice to see something that isn't fully Eurocentric when discussing something that really is quite global.

There's lots of interesting tidbits in this. Like the fact that a lot of modern germ theory came out of trying to save silkworms from disease. 

Frankly this was a fascinating read and one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year.

Five stars.
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Thanks to NetGalley and Basic Books for the chance to read an advance copy of this book!

I really enjoyed this adventure through time and space to explore the ways that fabric and textiles shaped our history. While I sometimes had some trouble following the structure of the narrative, I learned so much and appreciated the illustrations and photographs scattered throughout the chapters.

This book is structured on seven wide-ranging chapters. The first four focus on aspects of textiles--fiber, thread, cloth, and dye--while the last three focus on the people interacting with them--traders, consumers, and innovators. This thematic approach helps tie together examples from across the globe and the centuries, though I sometimes got lost within the chapters as the section breaks were not labeled.

Throughout this book you'll meet all kinds of colorful characters, from the Assyrian woman who wrote her husband a sarcastic cuneiform note about textile orders 4000 years ago, to  the man who stole a cotton plant from Mexico and changed US history, to the startups innovating fabric technology today. 

My favorite chapters were Cloth, a process-oriented discussion of weaving and knitting which really engaged me since I crochet, and Dye, a smelly adventure from ancient Rome to modern-day California exploring just how hard (and odorous) it is to get color onto fabric. But every chapter has fascinating tidbits. You'll learn what fabric has to do with: ancient Greek arithmetic, Machiavelli's math lessons, and the origins of computers, just to note a few.

This is actually the second history of fabric I have read this year, not something necessarily I expected to happen but I'm delighted that I ran across both books. THE FABRIC OF CIVILIZATION is jam-packed with information and research but you can tell there's so much more to learn.
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An excellent book for anyone new to the history of textiles and its influence on trade, politics, daily life, economics, and general consumption. I especially appreciated how approachable Postrel made the subject without sacrificing its breadth or detail. The author covers tent-pole developments in textiles across multiple centuries and cultures (north, south, east, west). I'm not well versed in the history of every single country mentioned, but Postrel provides just enough context to help her readers appreciate the weight and practical aspects of the textile industry. She even covers how and why some cultures didn't rely on fabric and preferred to use furs, felt, and leather, and the reasons for their later transition to weaving.

Strongly recommended for anyone looking to learn about how fabric affected and informed history at micro and macro levels. I hope to read more about the subject soon!

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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The Fabric of Civilization is an enlightening history book about the impact that textiles have had on the whole world throughout history. It talks about how the advancements in technology when it comes to textiles, while giving a constant reminder of the ingenuity of those that came before us. In the third chapter, it discusses the impact mathematics may have had on weavers creating new patterns. In the next chapter, it discusses the brilliant ways in which those from the past found ways to dye their textiles. Let's not forget how it explores accounting and modern technological advancements. It's a thorough exploration of the subject! I do sort of wish it were even more detailed as I was fascinated by every chapter and appreciate how much it offered to the reader. Well worth the time!
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If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Virginia Postrel reasons in her new book, The Fabric of Civilization, then a sufficiently ubiquitous technology is indistinguishable from nature. Though fabric suffuses our lives, most of us hardly give it a second thought. Why would be think about fabric as we go about our day when we have much more important things to think about than our poly-cotton blend t-shirts? And yet nations have risen and fallen because of fabrics. Fortunes have been made and lost across the centuries, and the future of the planet could depend upon whether or not the modern clothing industry shifts away from its destructive practices.

Postrel’s journey through the fabric industry begins simply enough– thousands of years ago, some clever ancestor of ours saw fibers in a tree and had the idea of twining them together into thread. Then, another clever ancestor figured out how to weave those threads together to form cloth. The rest, as they say, is history. From rough tree-based fabrics, humanity began exploring (and exploiting) the natural world to develop cloth made from different fibers, often altering the growth of plants and animals in order to increase the yields from natural sources. Genetically modified organisms aren’t just a twenty-first century invention. Postrel shows how cotton plants, silkworms, and even sheep have been carefully cultivated and bred in order to provide just a little more fiber with each generation, radically altering them from their original and more natural forms.

From thread, Postrel moves on to weaving and then to dyes, devoting significant attention to the technology– new and old– of the trades, for once upon a time, fabric itself was a technological innovation. In many languages from around the world, the word for ‘technology’ comes from the word for ‘thread’. Advances in looms made it possible for one country to export more fabric to its neighbors, and thus become wealthier and more powerful. The Industrial Revolution in England was spurred on by the mechanization of weaving, while the introduction of the spinning wheel in Renaissance Italy changed the nature of social interaction for young Italian women. The Viking Age, with its sailing ships (and thus sails made from sailcloth) would have been impossible without the staggering amount of fabric the ships needed for their sails.

In other words, the course of history runs parallel to the history of fabrics. Four-thousand year-old cuneiform tablets from Turkey detail financial transactions revolving around textiles, and show us a thriving culture dedicated to regional trade, with fabric being one of its most important goods.

But fabric is not without its dark side, and Postrel does not flinch away from it. From the slave trade in the American south that was driven in part by the demand for cotton to water-hungry and polluting dyeing techniques (to say nothing of the destructive effects of fast fashion and masses of clothes made from plastic fibers), our desire for more and better fabric has its costs.

The news is not always bad. As more consumers demand ethically sourced and environmentally-friendly products, manufacturers have developed techniques that require less water and fewer materials to make the same, high quality garments. Scientists are developing methods to spin all new fabrics from simple proteins, a development that could upend the notion of cloth as we know it. And in one overly long chapter from the end, Postrel allows an overeager scientist to rattle on a little too long about a new method of making cloth from recycled plastic– a method that is promising, assuming that you’re fine with having clothes in any color you like, as long as its white.

For all that it is an overview of the subject of fabric (the millenia-old evolution of sericulture, for example, could have its own thousand page history), Postrel’s narrative does justice to the topics she discusses, diving right to the heart of the matter and rarely straying from the book’s overarching purpose: to provide the average consumer with a better understanding of fabric and how completely it is intertwined with both the history of the world and with our individual lives. You may never have thought that the history of your t-shirt would be interesting, but after reading The Fabric of Civilization, you might never look at your closet the same way again.

Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.
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