Civilizing Threads

Finance minister to Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert once said that the dyeing industry “is the soul without which the body would have but little life.” Finance and fabrics are intimately related. “Fabrics occupy potentially the most valuable real estate in the world – the surface of our bodies.” This remark, by Yoel Fink, a fibers innovator at MIT, helps Virginia Postrel make her case for “the central role of textiles in the history of technology, commerce, and civilization itself.” Postrel makes two observations that support the plausibility of the idea that cloth is a driver of the economy and civilization itself: “From the moment we’re wrapped in a blanket at birth, we are surrounded by textiles.” And then she notes the pervasive fabric terms we use in daily speech: frazzled, hanging by a thread, dyed in the wool, catching the shuttle, weaving through traffic, and on and on.

The thesis of The Fabric of Civilization builds on David Hume: “Can we expect, that a government will be well modelled by a people, who know not how to make a spinning-wheel, or to employ a loom to advantage?” Postrel’s allegiance to the Scottish liberal tradition is muted in this book, but elsewhere her loyalties are plainly spoken: “It is the tradition of Smith and Hume, animated by a love not only of liberty but of the learning, prosperity, and cosmopolitan sociability made possible by a society in which ideas and goods can be freely exchanged. It looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.”

The argument develops through vignettes. Formerly editor of Reason magazine and columnist at The Wall Street Journal, Postrel’s writing is excellent, as you would expect. Every three or four pages she offers a fresh historical or international example of the centrality of fabric in our lives. The vignettes are not linear. One moment we read about fiber innovations in the labs of MIT and the next Neanderthals plaiting rope made from strings off the inner bark of conifer trees. Details abound. In Rome, the legions were a major consumer of fabrics and when the Spanish confronted the Aztec army its red cotton tents stretched for three miles. The Judaean Desert provides archeologists with an ancient example of the division of labor. Found in a cave, linen remnants dating to 9000 years ago—prior to the first known examples of pottery— attest to dedicated labor. The remnants are not woven but, more like crochet, they use twining, knotting, and looping techniques. Techniques that require time to perfect, and hint not just at craft but refinement.

The vignettes cohere through the primary theme of the book, the Industrial Enlightenment. Early shoots dating to the seventeenth century, the Industrial Enlightenment explains the “Great Enrichment” (Dierdre McCloskey) of the last three centuries by focusing on the industrial processes that dress us, and the machines that have made fortunes. There are helpful illustrations throughout, and some are arresting, like the picture of rope memory: early computer code woven in wires that look like tweed under magnification. “The software for Apollo was an actual thing. You could hold it in your hand and it weighed a few pounds.”


The Fabric of Civilization delivers a useful corrective. Renaissance paintings often depict a wife seated spinning while the husband stands looking at a book. Art historians have assured us that such art reveals the confinement and marginalization of women, the woman’s posture and task “symbolic of the virtuous housewife.” Postrel counters that these are images of a business. The man reads a ledger and the woman, “diligent, productive, and absolutely essential” spins the threads for market. Such portraits document partnership more than repression. Evidence of the same partnership stretches back millennia. Literacy was high amongst Assyrian trading families. Clay tablets dating to four thousand years ago have been discovered in the tens of thousands. The tablets, with cuneiform letters, document orders for cloth, logistics, taxes paid, and profits made on deals. Sent back and forth by roving traders and their wives, a continuous stream of data etched in clay traversed the ancient Middle East to ensure that wives kept their road warrior husbands supplied with manufactures.   

Down the ages, billions of women’s lives have been spent spinning. Consider the need and numbers. A pair of denims requires more than six miles of cotton yarn: a queen size bedsheet requires 37 miles; that’s the distance from the Washington Monument in DC to Baltimore. At the end of the Viking Age, King Canute’s fleet was powered by a million square meters of sailcloth, for which just the spinning amounted to ten thousand work years. The far more intricate British ships-of-the line that defeated Napoleon, hoisted 37 sails, with 23 extras in the hold. A top sail alone would take Scottish weavers 1200 hours to make. 

Spaceships also need threads. Space exploration initially relied on instruments whose binary code was realized by a wire fed through a magnetic bead representing 1, and wire twisted around a bead, a 0. The threaded software for Apollo was made by the defense contractor Raytheon, from Waltham, MA. Raytheon was chosen because Waltham is an old textile town: “You would have to send the program to a factory, and women in the factory would literally weave the software into this core rope memory.” It took months of work, but the result “was indestructible, literally hard-wired into the ropes”

The quest for thread has prompted some of our most important technical innovations: the spindle was the first wheel. Women’s lives were transformed when machines started to deliver daily cloth by the ton.   


Postrel scotches the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic, arguing that “the Great Enrichment” began in Catholic Italy in the seventeenth century, not in England in the eighteenth.

In Piedmont, the Filatoio Rosso factory used water powered machinery for making silk from 1678 to 1930. Now a museum of industry, its twin circular throwing machines, “whose whirling operations evoke visions of the Copernican cosmos,” demanded standardization and management of work practices to ensure strong enough silk thread able to feed the throwing machines. “Rules, patterns of gestures and all the automatisms that comprised the art of reeling” required long apprenticeship on low wages but, skills learnt, wages improved markedly. These women were “industrial aristocrats” in an otherwise peasant society. When the first English factories began cotton production round 1770, there were four hundred water-powered silk mills in northern Italy.

In 1770, out of an English work force of 4 million, somewhere in the region of 1.5 million married women were spinning (oddly enough, they were known as spinsters). Richard Arkwright, a brilliant inventor from Lancashire, was originally a barber and wig maker. Relying on industrial know-how gleaned by espionage from Italian factories, Arkwright built factories housing his Water-Frame and forever changed the mathematics of cloth production. Today, his Derwent Valley Mills is a World Heritage Site, as are the Vatican and Machu Picchu. “The simple morality tale of oppressed female workers misses the inescapable mathematics of fabric production.” Women working on finicky silks earned high wages, women spinning robust—and run-of-the-mill—cotton did not. The machine age would put those 1.5 married women mostly out of work, but in revolutionizing cloth production people like Arkwright freed women from spinning for the first time since the dawn of civilization. The Water-Frame has been called the “ultimate macro-invention”: an innovation that begets others and has far reaching consequences.

Enlightenment machines changed everything but technological innovation dates to earliest times. About eleven thousand years ago, sheep joined dogs as the first domesticated animals. After two thousand generations—five thousand years—of selective breeding, the unworkable matted wool of sheep changed into that we know today and see first depicted in Mesopotamian art. Even earlier, populations in Africa, India, and Peru started playing intuitively with GMO cotton by nicking seeds to encourage early sprouting and sieving out softer shelled seeds in hopes of a more malleable species of cotton. Postrel points out that the standard American trope of the industrially developed North versus the unscientific South is far too unrefined a characterization. Like the ancient populations of Africa and South America, the South’s focus was on agricultural improvements, especially husbanding new varieties of cotton. “Slavery was inhumane, not incompatible with innovation,” and the new variants made for big increases in production.

This book is not about the ideas of the Industrial Enlightenment but the prowess of chemists and engineers. Postrel does nod towards the suffering wrought by our appetite for fabric. The Mongols force marched silk workers from conquered territories into their heartlands. Postrel might have noted that the South’s cotton increases were not solely on account of innovations in cotton species, but depended on cruel innovations in forms of extractive labor. As Adam Smith himself noted in his description of the consequences of the division of labor, our appetite to be adorned has a grim side.

And Postrel isn’t afraid to address her readers’ nostrils. An indigo dyer explains the pot of dye smells like a backed-up toilet.

Decorative Power

Decorative weft was added to material as early as the Neolithic period. Huaca Prieta, in Peru, was one of the very earliest economically and culturally complex human settlements, dating to 14000 years ago. The site confounds archeology as it has long been assumed that agriculture and pottery went together, but here pottery is absent. The site reveals a “complex way of life where gourds, nets, baskets, and cloth were essential tools,” with cloth remnants including blue strips. Utility cannot explain why the textiles, made from local cotton of brown color, include blue stripes. The human appetite for decoration can. Decoration is not always pretty, however. What is called the Lady of Ampato is an Inca child sacrifice found frozen in the Andes in 1995. The little girl was slain and buried in lustrous robes circa 1460. The Mongols did not weave but used felt—made by friction to mat together animal fibers. They were voracious connoisseurs of silks and brocades, however, and their taste in fine fabrics motivated many of their terrifying invasions. The exteriors of their tents were white felt but the interior walls were lined with silk brocades. The Mongols had a conscious industrial policy of bringing to their conquered textile workers in hopes of a fusionist, Mongol artistic signature. It combined Iranian motifs of griffins and winged lions from China. The effect was felt in Italy, with one art historian arguing that the exotic designs of Mongol cloth generated the most imaginative period of design in European silks. It also proved resilient. 

And it proved controversial. One of the very first acts of Zhu Yuanzhang upon founding the Ming dynasty, which lasted some 300 years, was to promulgate a sumptuary law forbidding Mongol fashions. The dress code covered materials, colors, sleeve lengths, headgear, jewelry, and embroidery motifs. For example, no one involved in commerce could wear silk, though farmers could. The rules were flouted, and Mongol dress continued in the Ming period, as evident from archeological finds. Similar efforts to control dress in Japan through the centuries have been dubbed “three-day laws,” so quickly were they creatively circumvented by Japanese fashionistas.

Postrel also shows how decoration was inseparable from science. “Chemistry displaced colonies as a source of geopolitical power.” Nylons, invented in labs, took the West by storm, just as calicos from India had done in the eighteenth century. On-going experiments with cloth and pigment refine military cloaking and camouflage. The history of chemistry is really the history of dyes. In eighteenth century France, leading chemists were always appointed as the inspectors of dye works. This inspectorate was well paid and supported advanced chemical research; it was, as aspirants to the job said, “the best place for science.” “Dyes bear witness to the universal human quest to imbue artifacts with beauty and meaning,” and this despite the stench.

And Postrel isn’t afraid to address her readers’ nostrils. An indigo dyer explains the pot of dye smells like a backed-up toilet. Queen Elizabeth I banned dye making within an eight-mile radius of any of her palaces. “Not plants but sea creatures furnished the precious purples of Persian royal robes, Hebrew priestly raiment, and imperial Roman togas.” Even the stink of a robe conveyed prestige to the wearer, as it authenticated the material as the real deal and not a fake made of the weaker plant dye. In re-creating by traditional methods, mollusk-based indigo, academics wear masks while cutting out the glands. Not only is the stench nauseating but in using only the glands the rest, left to rot, attracts swarms of flies and wasps. The ancient city of Tyre, in Lebanon today, was a city made rich by its dyeing industry. The Greek geographer Strabo comments, “the great number of dye-works makes the city unpleasant to live in.” Archeology shows the dyeing sites far away from the main settlements and the unpleasant work drove the slave trade in the area.

Despite the human cost, Jean-Baptiste Colbert was not far off in thinking dye the soul of the body. Virginia Postrel marshals the evidence and ably shows that fabrics are basic to our self-conception and civilization. “The origins of chemistry lie in the coloring and finishing of cloth; the beginning of binary code – and aspects of mathematics itself – in weaving.” And not just science, but religion, too. The highest angels are also weavers: “Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them” (Exodus 26: 1).