The Avid Reader: Pulling the thread on rich history of textiles

Published: 8/26/2021 12:34:33 PM

This whole thing started with a string. I was reading up on ancient weapons and hunting tools – specifically spears. The author discussed the search for straight trees to make the shafts, selection of stones to shape into points for these spears, and whether the early artisan was left-handed or right-handed.

Very scholarly I assure you. Yet, not one thing was mentioned about how the rock got attached to the wood to make this piece of early technology really work. The author of that book never asked that question, so I did a little more hunting. I am glad I did, because it appears that the attachment was a string, and this string was the first step to what has become a driving force in the world’s economy.

‘The Fabric of Civilization’

My string question and answer was found in “The Fabric of Civilization” by Virginia Postrel. I have been a fan of Postrel for some time, so I knew this new book would be good. She begins with the newest archaeological research on the Paleolithic harvesting and treatment of flax. This final fiber product was the string that held the spear tip to the wooden shaft. From that very humble beginning, Postrel takes us on the journey of weaving those fibers into textiles and how those fabrics and the commerce they produced eventually expanded across the globe. She went back to the Egyptians who used cotton and linen for clothing – and myriad other purposes, on to rich and influential Romans who wore fabulously expensive silk (remember my column on the Silk Road and how those Asian commodities got to Europe?), and even covered the Minoans who wove and exported wool, boosting their revenues to an amazing degree.

Textiles really drove all the ancient economies of civilizations around the world, and continues to be the most influential commodity today. Postrel’s research also shows how the international business of cloth pushed the use of arithmetic and the alphabet, along with expanding chemical research in the form of finding new dyes. There was, in fact, such a great need for moving cloth from one country to another that banking was developed. Fabric merchants were loathed to carry large amounts of money needed to purchase fabric, and those that were selling their cloth products didn’t want to have to carry around all that money from their sales. The solution was the development of credit negotiated through emerging banking institutions that were developed to handle the burgeoning international fabric trade.

Postrel ends with some exciting reports on 3D knitting, fabric made from organic materials (think Merlin Sheldrake’s research in “Entangled Life”), and coatings research that is being developed to make fabrics such as cotton used to administer medicine, repel insects, and kill bacteria. This particular technology may be on the shelves sooner than we think.

Postrel also referenced the colors found in ancient fabrics and the efforts early fiber workers had to engage in to create color. For example, she noted that the ancient Egyptians dyed their fabrics with a wildly expensive natural dye to make the color purple. However, while purple certainly was prized, by the beginning of the Renaissance the color red had the highest value. This was because it was so rare, being the most difficult color to produce and only through extensive, and exceptionally odiferous processes could it be created. Yes, I did want to know more.

‘A Perfect Red’

Of course, all good books have bibliographies, and Postrel’s was no exception. One of my favorite activities when reading is to take note of the most intriguing references an author uses and then find those references and read them in their entirety. It’s going down the rabbit hole of research and book geeks such as I, love this sort of thing.

I found Postrel’s reference “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” by Amy Butler Greenfield to be an amazing history of the dye desired by kings, princes, and merchants (when they were allowed!). The restrictive laws in many European countries governed exactly who could wear the color red, and often under what circumstances!

It turns out that one of the most precious commodities of the sixteenth century was cochineal. Up until the nineteenth century, the prized color red used for dyes came from little insects, called cochineal, that thrived only in hot, dry climates – while living on a certain type of cactus.

Enter the Aztec Empire in Mexico, the only known source of the dye. After the Spanish conquest, cochineal became the subject of numerous laws governing production and sales in an effort to control the Spanish monopoly on this fortune. Of course, personal greed among Spanish merchants who gouged prices, patriotic pirating on the part of the English nobility – specifically Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the little darling of Queen Elizabeth I, and French theft and smuggling of the insects gives this book both the drama and entertainment worthy of a novel!

Synthetic dyes eventually took over and now when we want to dye something red it can be accomplished quite easily. But, the story of how we got to the current use of such stable chemicals that produce the color red is an amazing rollercoaster ride through several centuries.

‘Threads of Life’

Following the thread of fiber history, the next step is about the needlework that utilizes the fibers. Many books have covered this topic and my first encounter with this concept was “The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine” by Rozsika Parker. Although now out of print, this book has served as a catalyst for newer books discussing how people have used fiber to make their voices heard.

Clare Hunter, author of “Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” is my current favorite. Parker’s research has clearly influenced Hunter and the result is a globe-spanning chronicle of people who spoke through their needles – the only vehicle they were able to employ.

Many years ago, when Joseph’s Coat was on Main Street here in Peterborough, Linda Blair enticed some lovely Hmong ladies to join our sewing group and teach us how to make story clothes. It was there that I learned of the way a story can be told without traditional words, and how people can preserve their history and culture even in very desperate circumstances.

The Hmong were also mentioned in Hunter’s book, along with stories of World War I soldiers trying to deal with PTSD, the propaganda of the Bayeux Tapestry, the AIDS quilt, and inconsolable voices from POW camps around the world. There is power in the needle and while personal stories in this book are incredibly moving, the overall strength of this book is right in the title of each chapter. Titles such as power, captivity, identity, connection, protest, loss, community, and voice are just some of the topics that are addressed through those unpretentious threads, first used to hold together some of the simplest of tools.

If you are looking for compelling books on history, economy, rising femininity, and subversion, look no further – these books have it all. Enjoy!


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