History of Cloth

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Virginia Postrel, author and scholar. Her two previous books are The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamour. Her research is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In her new book “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” Virginia Postrel highlights how textiles shape our existence. Each chapter in her book represents a stage in the textile journey and outlines ways in which fabric drives technology, business, culture and politics. Consider, for instance, the important connection between cloth and chemistry that continues to play a critical role in advancing modern day performance textiles. Or, the fact that while fabric functionality has long been paramount, style, too, mattered throughout the ages, evidenced by a piece of garment cloth found in northern Peru that has blue stripes dating back 6000 years.

I caught up with Virginia Postrel recently on the phone to talk about textiles past and present. She immediately hit on why the story of textiles is so compelling.“The great thing about textiles is that they can combine all different purposes! They can be functional, can be beautiful, can be symbolic, convey status and identity and can do all of these things at the same time. That makes them really powerful artifacts,” said Postrel, an award winning journalist and independent scholar, currently living in LA working as a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

On Technology

“Textiles made a big leap when humans came to understand molecular chemistry. First with dyes. And then with the fundamental understanding of polymers and what a polymer is. The idea that you could shape chemicals and from the chemicals produce something that could be a fiber by using the characteristics of polymers, that was a huge breakthrough and that really changed the world.”

(Postrel’s chapter on Innovators includes Wallace Carothers’ time at DuPont and the birth of synthetic fibers. His work, as head of the organic chemistry in DuPont’s new research lab, established the field of polymer science, which led to the creation of nylon.)  

On Climate Change

“Creating cloth seems to date back to the waning of the Ice Age; people used skins, hides and fur to protect from the cold. As the climate warmed, people, who had then gotten accustomed to wearing clothing, for modesty, or for prestige, now needed to deal with sweat. And textiles came out of that need. Textiles appeared to emerge roughly 10,000 years ago! We don’t know exactly. Earliest garments seem to have been modeled on animal skins if not made out of them.”

The story of textiles is not a male story or a female store, not a European, African, Asian or American story. It is all of these, cumulative and shared — a human story, a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World tells the story of the world’s most influential commodity.

On Natural Fibers

“There are no natural fibers, all have human involvement to make a usable fiber. What we think of as natural fibers, like cotton and wool, have all been altered by human actions; there are certainly fibers whose roots lie in the natural world, but getting to the stage they are today, or even to the stage they were 500 years ago, took enormous amounts of human effort. And since then, of course, there has been even more.”

On Politics

The color white is often associated as a fashion statement first showcased by the Suffragists. Why white? “In that era wearing white meant that you had access to good regular laundry. It was a powerful symbol of respectability, middle class aspiration. White was harder to keep clean back then. Suffragists were doing something radical, but also wanted to be respectable in recognizing that giving women the vote was about the importance of mothers and homemakers as well as equality. It was simultaneously radical and respectable. Wearing white conveys that.”  

On the Future

“Bioengineering, like earlier periods (in history) has the promise, or vision, that protein polymers have potential to offer possibilities enormously larger than what we have with oil based fibers. But, again like earlier innovations, it takes a lot of investment. Nylon developed relatively quickly, but war came and nylon went to the military and then stockings. Polyester took a long time to develop and required lots of capital before it became ‘the stuff of everyday life.’ The thing about textiles is that they are so old, and so refined, that it’s very hard to come up with something that is actually better. Especially better in a really significant way, not incrementally. There’s a reason we don’t have milkweed and fish skin fibers.”

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