The Fabric of Civilization

How Textiles Made the World

[Amazon Link]

Virginia Postrel spent the last few years immersing herself in All Things Fabric, and this book is the result: stuff she found out along the way. It's organized into components, chapter by chapter: Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye, Traders, Consumers, Innovators. Each explores history, technology, innovation, stories about those involved. (And in the last chapter, a look at the possible future.) It's very readable and interesting.

Interesting?, you ask. Yup. Ms. Postrel notes we're biased by today's easy availability of a wide variety of easily-affordable fabric, put to a dizzying array of uses. She inverts Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”): for fabrics, it's "Any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature." We take fabrics for granted. She does her best to undo that complacency. (If you were dumped naked into… let's say a cotton field, to give you every advantage … could you come close to clothing yourself? Didn't think so.)

I found myself reading passages out loud to Mrs. Salad. The book is full of grabby anecdotes. Example: back in the fourteenth century or so, the fabric trade was so complex (prices, interest, profits), it became necessary to (more or less) invent mathematical techniques to handle the commercial transactions. There are some cute examples of the "word problems" students were expected to handle in order to consider themselves educated. They look a lot like the word problems students moan over even today.

Basically, it's a story of how innovation, trade, and consumerism interact in a specific market; Adam Smith's good old Invisible Hand, bringing us cheap and high-quality stuff, unappreciated.

I recommend this book, if only to break yourself out of your fabric complacency. (If only for a bit. I went back to taking t-shirts for granted pretty quickly.)