Technology Knit into the Fabric of Society

 

The story of textiles proves to be the story of human ingenuity. The history of fiber and cloth is also the history of civilization. Fabric is so interwoven with our history, our culture and our civilization we often overlook its importance.

These claims form the thesis of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” by Virginia Postrel. It examines the significance fiber products in the emergence of civilization, and their importance today.

Postrel begins examining the building blocks of textiles. She spends a chapter each on fiber, thread, cloth, and dye. This follows the progression from raw material to finished cloth. Thread is formed from fiber and cloth from thread. Dyes (coloring) applied to either thread or cloth decorate the result.

Each chapter is a fascinating examination of its aspect of textile production. The fiber chapter reveals the importance of simple fiber in creating a civilization. Stone Age tools required fiber to bind stone tools to handles. The fiber used defines the thread that can be created from it. Thread, which we take for granted today, was long the choke point in cloth production. To create enough thread to make a single ship’s sail required thousands of hours of labor.

Postrel makes a convincing argument that cloth making was a driver of civilization. The coordination required to simply collect sufficient fiber, spin it into thread, and weave it into enough cloth for a single bolt of cloth was tremendous when everything done by hand. A single set of clothing could cost the equivalent of a year’s wages. The poor could rarely afford extra clothing. Items such as togas were displays of wealth as much as functional garments.

Finding ways to reduce and organize this labor propelled technological advancement. Mathematics grew in part due to cloth making. Organized society emerged to coordinate the specialized effort to create cloth. In turn, new technology fed cloth making.

The book’s next chapters, on cloth trading, consumers, and innovators show how cloth gets distributed and used. Postrell reveals that a surprising amount of modern society emerged through trading cloth. Writing, modern banking, and paper money developed from trading cloth. Consumer consumption drove markets.

“The Fabric of Civilization” is a fascinating book. It reveals unsuspected connections between cloth and civilization. Postrell’s story weaves a complex tale, one which keeps you reading for your next discovery. Read it and you may never again take cloth for granted.

“The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020, 321 pages, $30.00 (hardcover), $17.99 (Kindle)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

Published in History
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  1. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Oh, a treasure. 

    My mom is a quilter, knitter, spinner, and all things cloth. I’m getting this for her, then borrowing it. 

    Interesting, how our “need” for clothes is such a tangled web of humanity’s story. 

    • #1
  2. MeandurΦ Member
    MeandurΦ
    @DeanMurphy

    knitting and crochet patterns are like computer programming.

    • #2
  3. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Haven’t read it yet, but plan to.

    Speaking of knitting…In 1589, an Englishman named William Lee invented a device called the stocking frame, which aimed to greatly improve the productivity of knitting the material for the stockings that were then in vogue. According to a common story, he was motivated to create the machine because when he came to call on a girl he was sweet on, she persisted in paying more attention to her knitting than to him.  So his intent was either (a) free up her time so she would have more (hopefully) for him, or (b) get revenge on her for rejecting him. (I’d rather think he was naive (version A) than vicious (version B))

    Rest of the story here.  

    • #3
  4. Al French of Damascus Moderator
    Al French of Damascus
    @AlFrench

    Russ Roberts did a podcast with the author on EconTalk a few weeks ago. Highly recommended.

    @she – right up your alley.

     

    • #4
  5. Allan Rutter Member
    Allan Rutter
    @AllanRutter

    Al French of Damascus (View Comment):

    Russ Roberts did a podcast with the author on EconTalk a few weeks ago. Highly recommended.

    @she – right up your alley.

     

    She was also on The Remnant, which is complimentary rather than duplicative. 

    • #5
  6. MichaelKennedy Member
    MichaelKennedy
    @MichaelKennedy

    I have ordered the book, which seems to be slow in arriving.

    I spent some time a few years ago reading about the history of paper. Someone suggested that the Arab conquest of Egypt cut Europe off from Papyrus, an interesting theory.  Certainly parchment was a common writing surface in the Middle Ages.

    On textiles, there is a nice series of novels about England and the Industrial Revolution, written by an Economic Historian who taught for years before deciding to write.  The theme is two men who are crew members of a privateer and who end up with a lot of money go to England about 1800.  They decide to invest the money they got from privateering in industry.  One choose cotton as he is a mulatto from a west indies island and knows about cotton. The other invests in iron.  There are like 12 novels in the series but the first four or five are the best. The first is called “The Privateersman.”

    https://www.amazon.com/Privateersman-Poor-Man-Gate-Book-ebook/dp/B00H86S2ZE

     

    • #6
  7. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Jonah had a great interview with the author about her book on December 1, 2020 at https://ricochet.com/podcast/remnant-jonah-goldberg/hipster-luddites/

    If memory serves, Trump was not mentioned even once, so that is a “Trump-Safe” podcast. 

    • #7
  8. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Al French of Damascus (View Comment):

    Russ Roberts did a podcast with the author on EconTalk a few weeks ago. Highly recommended.

    @she – right up your alley.

     

    Thanks, @alfrench.

    Just ordered it.  And it may solve the problem of what to get a couple of folks I love as a Christmas gift, so thank you very much!  I’m not familiar with the author, so looked her up on Wikipedia (just as a place to start).  She sounds like someone I’d like to go out for a drink with.  If we were allowed to go out for a drink with people at the moment . . . 

    For anyone who comes to the subject via the Postrel  book and would like to read more, I always recommend Womens’ Work: The First 20,000 years–Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, which is also a fascinating read.

    • #8
  9. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    MeandurΦ (View Comment):
    knitting and crochet patterns are like computer programming

    Probably the first machine to come into general use which could be flexibly programmed was the Jacquard Loom.  Traditionally, the weaving of patterned fabric was a very labor intensive process requiring that for each throw of the shuttle, a number of cords must be pulled or not pulled in order to lift or not lift specific threads…it’s estimated that only 1 inch of fabric per day, for a weaver and his assistant, could be produced–so these fabrics were definitely luxury goods.

    In 1802, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, son of a master weaver in Lyons, perfected a machine which used perforations in paper cards to perform the selection function. An earlier attempt at automation had involved music-box-like rotating cylinders, but with Jacquard’s approach the cards could be chained together without limit–2000-card patterns were fairly common–and were cheap and relatively easy to prepare.

    The loom did a lot for the prosperity of the French textile industry and especially for the city of Lyons; Jacquard was paid substantial money by the government for his patent and was personally recognized by Napoleon.

    Charles Babbage’s never-built Analytic Engine, a programmable computer, was to use Jacquard cards for its programming.  In an elegant simile, Babbage’s collaborator Ada Lovelace wrote: We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

    It’s not totally clear how much the punched card calculating system, developed circa 1880s, was influenced by the Jacquard.  The system was originally intended for tabulating census data, and the inventor (Herman Hollerith) said he got the idea from the punches that were used by train conductors to code demographic information on a ticket–height, sex, hair color, etc–to prevent fraud by the re-use of tickets by multiple people.  But Hollerith apparently *had* been award of Jacquard looms, so it’s hard to believe that these wouldn’t have been an influence as well.

    • #9
  10. MeandurΦ Member
    MeandurΦ
    @DeanMurphy

    David Foster (View Comment):

    MeandurΦ (View Comment):
    knitting and crochet patterns are like computer programming

    Probably the first machine to come into general use which could be flexibly programmed was the Jacquard Loom. Traditionally, the weaving of patterned fabric was a very labor intensive process requiring that for each throw of the shuttle, a number of cords must be pulled or not pulled in order to lift or not lift specific threads…it’s estimated that only 1 inch of fabric per day, for a weaver and his assistant, could be produced–so these fabrics were definitely luxury goods.

    In 1802, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, son of a master weaver in Lyons, perfected a machine which used perforations in paper cards to perform the selection function. An earlier attempt at automation had involved music-box-like rotating cylinders, but with Jacquard’s approach the cards could be chained together without limit–2000-card patterns were fairly common–and were cheap and relatively easy to prepare.

    The loom did a lot for the prosperity of the French textile industry and especially for the city of Lyons; Jacquard was paid substantial money by the government for his patent and was personally recognized by Napoleon.

    Charles Babbage’s never-built Analytic Engine, a programmable computer, was to use Jacquard cards for its programming. In an elegant simile, Babbage’s collaborator Ada Lovelace wrote: We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

    It’s not totally clear how much the punched card calculating system, developed circa 1880s, was influenced by the Jacquard. The system was originally intended for tabulating census data, and the inventor (Herman Hollerith) said he got the idea from the punches that were used by train conductors to code demographic information on a ticket–height, sex, hair color, etc–to prevent fraud by the re-use of tickets by multiple people. But Hollerith apparently *had* been award of Jacquard looms, so it’s hard to believe that these wouldn’t have been an influence as well.

    And even in 1979 and 80 I was saving programs in basic on punched paper tape using the Hollerith code.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    MeandurΦ (View Comment):
    And even in 1979 and 80 I was saving programs in basic on punched paper tape using the Hollerith code.

    The first computer programs I wrote were in BASIC in 1975. I took Hollerith cards and marked the codes one letter at a time with a #2 pencil. The teacher would run the card decks down to the optical reader at the junior college twice per week and bring back the printed output.

    The last one I wrote in this setup computed pi using the Monte Carlo method.

    • #11
  12. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Punched paper tape…the remote-control torpedo system invented by Heddy Lamar and George Antheil used punched paper tape in both the transmitted\r and in the torpedo itself, allowing frequencies to change continually in order to frustrate any jamming attempts.  See my post Do You Have Lamarr in Your Car?

    • #12
  13. MichaelKennedy Member
    MichaelKennedy
    @MichaelKennedy

    David Foster (View Comment):

    MeandurΦ (View Comment):
    knitting and crochet patterns are like computer programming

    Probably the first machine to come into general use which could be flexibly programmed was the Jacquard Loom. Traditionally, the weaving of patterned fabric was a very labor intensive process requiring that for each throw of the shuttle, a number of cords must be pulled or not pulled in order to lift or not lift specific threads…it’s estimated that only 1 inch of fabric per day, for a weaver and his assistant, could be produced–so these fabrics were definitely luxury goods.

    In 1802, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, son of a master weaver in Lyons, perfected a machine which used perforations in paper cards to perform the selection function. An earlier attempt at automation had involved music-box-like rotating cylinders, but with Jacquard’s approach the cards could be chained together without limit–2000-card patterns were fairly common–and were cheap and relatively easy to prepare.

    The loom did a lot for the prosperity of the French textile industry and especially for the city of Lyons; Jacquard was paid substantial money by the government for his patent and was personally recognized by Napoleon.

    Charles Babbage’s never-built Analytic Engine, a programmable computer, was to use Jacquard cards for its programming. In an elegant simile, Babbage’s collaborator Ada Lovelace wrote: We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

    It’s not totally clear how much the punched card calculating system, developed circa 1880s, was influenced by the Jacquard. The system was originally intended for tabulating census data, and the inventor (Herman Hollerith) said he got the idea from the punches that were used by train conductors to code demographic information on a ticket–height, sex, hair color, etc–to prevent fraud by the re-use of tickets by multiple people. But Hollerith apparently *had* been award of Jacquard looms, so it’s hard to believe that these wouldn’t have been an influence as well.

    That reminds me of the story of the discovery of ether for anesthesia.  Lots of claims and some theft of credit involved.  The story is in my medical history book.  I think there is a book about it recently.  This might be it.

    https://www.amazon.com/Ether-Day-Americas-Greatest-Discovery/dp/0060933178/

     

    • #13
  14. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Thank you for the review.  I have ordered this book for my sainted mother who is celebrating her 90th birthday later this week.

    • #14