cover image The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

Virginia Postrel. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5416-1760-5

Journalist Postrel (The Power of Glamour) delivers a fascinating and wide-ranging survey of the links between fabric production and human civilization. She chronicles the histories of fiber, thread, cloth, and dye, as well as the “social technologies” (trade agreements, laws, standards, etc.) that allowed merchants, consumers, and innovators to pursue their commercial and scientific goals with fabric. She notes the massive amounts of cloth required to outfit Viking ships and Roman soldiers, documents the building of a cotton empire on the backs of enslaved people in the American South, and details how financial innovations that emerged from the textile trade helped to lay the foundation of the modern banking industry. Postrel also probes the history of textile technologies, including the selective breeding of plants and insects that yield natural fiber, and the invention of synthetic polymer fabrics like nylon. Discussions of traditional Laotian silk brocades and the chemistry behind the microfibers in an Under Armour garment, among other innovations, demystify these processes and highlight human ingenuity and artistry. There are some noteworthy gaps, however, particularly when it comes to the textile industry and labor issues. Still, this is an engrossing and illuminating portrait of the essential role fabric has played in human history. (Nov.)