2020, Books

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (2020) by Virginia Postrel

I have read way too many history books in my life. (Or not enough, if this book is any indication.) Few of them mentioned clothing (or any form of textiles) for any reason other than to paint a scene. The ones that did dwell on textiles at all, did so as part of bigger economic analyses and were almost always intended as textbooks or¬†economic¬†history. I’ve heard the Silk Road mentioned a thousand times but how many history books dwelled on why the Silk Road existed and how it impacted societies? If my experience is anything to go by, this fantastic book makes it clear that a major portion of human history has been ignored by most historians (and, therefore, most of us).

There are good reasons for this, some of which Postrel deals with and at least one she sort of dances around. (One very good reason: the archaeological record was not super helpful because textiles degrade faster than coins, pottery, etc.) But despite, these good reasons for historians to mostly ignore the role of textiles, it’s clear that ignoring textile production and trade as part of history has been a major error. (And just a note: I do know that Postrel’s book isn’t the first history of textiles.) Clothing is one of those things that we just assume – we take it for granted – yet Postrel’s book makes it clear that so many of our choices are informed by clothing (and other textile products). Not only did a massive chunk of humanity spend much of their lives making clothes, but textiles have been used for money and the textile industry has led to all sorts of innovations you’d never think were related.

My only criticism of the book is that it’s too short. I could have used more of this entire subject and the book does make me think I should read a drier, more in-depth history at some point, one that deals with a more complete history, rather than with symbolic anecdotes.

Still, this is very worth your time.


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