The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2021, 320 pages.
Virginia Postrel’s Fabric of Civilization is a fascinating, deeply researched tale of the development of fabric. Starting with fiber to make string, it takes us through the development of thread, to natural fabric, and finally to synthetics. It tells of the ever-improving machinery for spinning thread and weaving cloth, and the science, history, and politics woven into the quest for fabric. Before reading this book, I had no idea of how this quest led to life-changing discoveries, inventions, and innovations in areas far afield from fabric.
The first surprise is that “natural” fibers like silk, cotton, wool, and linen, are not entirely natural. Rather, they are “the products of artifice so ancient and familiar that we forget it’s there.” All come from “genetically modified organisms” — the dreaded GMOs! — which Postrel describes as “technological achievements every bit as ingenious as the machines we honor as the Industrial Revolution.” The second surprise is that these genetic modifications started 12,000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution: 8,500 years ago, the Chinese were making silk, and over 2,520 years ago, Indians in the Indus Valley were making cotton.
Textiles spawned many innovations
Postrel relates stories of heroic individuals who worked for years to manufacture silk or other fibers in Europe. In 1807, Agostino Bassi embarked on a long journey to find out why silkworms were dying in droves. After eight years of experiments, he found the cause: fungus. He also found that sanitation was key to stopping the spread of the fungus. Before hospitals started using modern sanitary measures, Bassi prescribed them for saving the silkworms: boiling instruments, disinfecting the silkworm eggs, tables, trays, and workers’ clothing, and washing hands frequently. Bassi also discovered that parasites were the cause of many diseases, thus anticipating Louis Pasteur’s and Robert Koch’s germ theory of disease.
Hired by the French government to find the cause of, and prevent, pébrine, another silkworm disease, Pasteur succeeded after five years of experiments, discovering in the process how to prevent flacherie. This work led him to medicine and eventually to the vaccines against anthrax and rabies.
The quest for fabric also gave rise to labor-saving machines and was partly responsible for agriculture. Weaving led to the creation of the binary code, the development of math, and the spread of literacy. The desire for colorful fabrics gave rise to chemistry. Scientists are trying to create chemical finishes that will make wash-and-wear clothes seem “so yesterday.” They are trying to create a universal finish, literally, a finish that protects the wearer against all unwelcome things: bacteria, stains, wrinkles, smells, shrinkage, oil, water, mosquitos, bedbugs. If they succeed, it will become unnecessary to ever wash clothes — a college student’s dream!
Most of us learned in school that the desire for spices and gold led to trade across the oceans. What we did not learn is that the desire for textiles and dyes did the same. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal empire in India. It gave birth to double-entry bookkeeping and financial institutions that eventually led to banks. Alas, it also nurtured the slave trade, demonstrating once again that our intellectual and craft abilities and achievements are entirely compatible with immorality. However, contrary to some historians, slavery in the United States was not and could not have been responsible for the Industrial Revolution, because the Industrial Revolution is much older than U.S. slavery.
The Industrial Revolution was the beginning of the process that, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, led to “a Great Enrichment of three thousand percent” in most of the world. And what started it was the spinning machine, which finally made thread cheap and plentiful enough for clothes that even the poor could afford. It also freed women from the laborious task of making thread with a spinning wheel.
The origin of chemistry lies in the dyeing of cloth. Indeed, in Postrel’s words, “[t]he history of dyes is the history of chemistry, revealing the power, and the limits, of trial-and-error experimentation without fundamental understanding.” Several geographically separated civilizations made indigo from plants and acquired the skill of dyeing with it in pre-historic times. But 16th-century European merchants had to get it from India. In spite of its popularity, however, indigo dyeing had a serious problem: It stank! Queen Elizabeth I banned it within an eight-mile radius of her palace.
The economic lessons of textiles
In addition to educating the reader about the many scientific and medical advances that resulted from the quest for textiles, Postrel dots her book with humorous stories about human folly. One such story concerns Tyrian purple, a stinking purple dye that came from snails. (Experimenters have verified that it stank by dyeing clothes with it, and finding that they smelled two decades later, even after being laundered with Tide!)
But Tyrian purple was also very expensive, so purple clothes became a status symbol. To the detriment of others, rich people cared more about status than smelling sweet!
Another story, both amusing and depressing, concerns the behavior of various governments that tried to control people’s clothing out of a desire to control society and protect status. In 14th-century China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, decreed that only the nobility could wear silk, satin, or brocade, or the colors scarlet and dark blue. The regulations stayed in place for three centuries — as did disobedience to them, in spite of the threat of penal servitude, confiscation of goods, or corporal punishment. Similarly, Japan’s sumptuary laws stayed in force from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries and were flouted for as long by commoners who would wear the forbidden fabrics and colors as lining inside their clothes.
From 1300 to 1500, Italian city-states passed more than 300 sumptuary laws, including one that limited the number of silk dresses for women to two. But in the city-states run by merchants, the chief aim was to control extravagance, especially that of the merchants’ own wives and daughters. However, no amount of tweaking of the laws could get Italians to obey them, and eventually, city-states started granting exemptions for a fee. In the end, there were nearly as many exemptions as prohibitions.
Several European countries, including England and France, banned cotton imports in order to protect the domestic wool, silk, and hemp industries from competition. France banned both printed and plain cottons from India, the most popular of cottons (1686). It also forbade the printing of domestic cotton. In a desperate attempt to get people to obey, the government increased the penalties for breaking the laws: sentencing “traffickers” in cotton to years in the galleys, and “serious traffickers” to death. French policy was “not just anti-foreign; it was anti-cotton and anti-print.”
Of course, the guilty parties were not just governments but also the established industries that clamored for protection from competition. French Enlightenment economists pointed out that the ban on imported cotton was not only bad for the French economy, it was also unjust, as were the punishments. The Abbé André Morellet wrote: “Is it not strange that an otherwise respectable order of citizens solicits terrible punishments such as death and the galleys against Frenchmen, & does so for reasons of commercial interest?”
Here we see a parallel with the actions of our own government and fellow citizens. Although the U.S. government doesn’t execute anyone for trafficking in drugs, or violating its protectionist laws, it does impose penalties on them: in the case of the former, draconian ones. Well might we ask those who wish to continue the War on Drugs, especially those in the police-prosecutor-prison complex: “Is it not strange that an otherwise respectable order of citizens solicits terrible punishments such as long sentences in dangerous prisons against Americans, and does so for financial reasons?”
Postrel’s book holds several economic lessons. For example, it provides a fascinating example of differential wages for males and females that clearly shows that wages are set (largely) by the market, not by sexism. Starting in the late 17th century, silk factories in Italy employed women — maestres — in the task of reeling, that is, “winding silk filaments off cocoons submerged in warm water” to make silk thread. The work required a rare expertise, acquired through years of low-paid apprenticeship. Maestres worked seven days a week but made 50 percent more than their husbands employed in other tasks six days a week. By contrast, in England in the late 18th century, female spinners made only 1 shilling a week for full-time work, compared to 9 shillings for a male weaver.
Some take this last fact as an obvious example of sexism. But why didn’t sexism lower the wages of maestres? The explanation for the low wages of female spinners in England is that they were not very productive, thanks to the primitive technology: the spinning wheel. If they had been paid more, the resulting cloth would have been unaffordable. Spinners had to wait for the spinning jenny to produce more yarn per hour and earn more money.
With the help of this and other examples, Postrel also explodes the economic fallacy that labor-saving technologies immiserate workers, noting that “despite immediate dislocations … [such] technologies can create abundance and free people’s time for more economically valuable and personally satisfying purposes.”
The reader will notice that many of the advances in fabrics were the result of government intervention: funding researchers, subsidizing silk factories and new machines, and so on. But only libertarian and classical liberal readers will notice that the same government interventions stifled or harmed other research and enterprise. This is easily observable in the case of bans or tariffs on imported cotton in order to protect the wool and silk industries. With the help of some economic theory we can also see that subsidizing some business activities has to come at the cost of preventing or reducing other business activities. The taxes that enabled silk to flourish were taken from individuals who could have invested in other businesses, and from businesses that could have invested more in their own businesses.
Nevertheless, some of the most exciting research even now is being done with the help of government investment, whether necessary or not. Advanced Functional Fibers of America, or AFFOA, is a nonprofit consortium founded by Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science at MIT. AFFOA’s 137 members include “federal defense and space agencies.” Fink wants to make clothes that can “sense, communicate, measure, record, and respond” by embedding “chips, lithium batteries, and other electronic essentials into fibers.” A hat could serve as a GPS device and underwear as a health monitor. Embedding LEDs in trousers would make walking after dark safer.
At the same time, there was and is much privately funded research into preventing disease, inventing machines, discovering dyes, and so on. The polymer revolution, which Postrel calls “the greatest materials revolution since the development of ceramics and metallurgy,” was due to a Dupont scientist, Wallace Carothers, who also established polymer science as a new field of science. Carothers and Julian Hill created the world’s first synthetic fiber: polyester. But polyester melted at too low a temperature to be useful for clothing, so Dupont urged Carothers to come up with a fabric that could be used for clothes. The result was nylon.
The scientists at Bolt Threads bioengineer yeast to excrete silk proteins and make silk and use mycelium, mushroom cells, to make leather. Just as John D. Rockefeller saved the whale by refining and selling petroleum, Bolt Threads might save the silkworm and animals valued for their leather. The quest for fabric has led not only to smarter and smarter fabrics but also to a move away from the killing of animals.
Postrel’s book displays the wealth of her knowledge of the history, science, chemistry, and economics of fabric. She even learned to weave in order to write authentically about weaving. Some readers may find it hard to get through her detailed descriptions of various thread-making and weaving machines, as well as of various chemical processes. But they can always skip such passages without losing anything essential to the story of fabric.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.