Book Review: The Fabric of Civilization

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World
by Virginia Postrel
Nonfiction/History
320 pages
Expected publication date: November 10, 2020 by Basic Books

If a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Virginia Postrel reasons in her new book, The Fabric of Civilization, then a sufficiently ubiquitous technology is indistinguishable from nature. Though fabric suffuses our lives, most of us hardly give it a second thought. Why would be think about fabric as we go about our day when we have much more important things to think about than our poly-cotton blend t-shirts? And yet nations have risen and fallen because of fabrics. Fortunes have been made and lost across the centuries, and the future of the planet could depend upon whether or not the modern clothing industry shifts away from its destructive practices.

Postrel’s journey through the fabric industry begins simply enough– thousands of years ago, some clever ancestor of ours saw fibers in a tree and had the idea of twining them together into thread. Then, another clever ancestor figured out how to weave those threads together to form cloth. The rest, as they say, is history. From rough tree-based fabrics, humanity began exploring (and exploiting) the natural world to develop cloth made from different fibers, often altering the growth of plants and animals in order to increase the yields from natural sources. Genetically modified organisms aren’t just a twenty-first century invention. Postrel shows how cotton plants, silkworms, and even sheep have been carefully cultivated and bred in order to provide just a little more fiber with each generation, radically altering them from their original and more natural forms.

From thread, Postrel moves on to weaving and then to dyes, devoting significant attention to the technology– new and old– of the trades, for once upon a time, fabric itself was a technological innovation. In many languages from around the world, the word for ‘technology’ comes from the word for ‘thread’. Advances in looms made it possible for one country to export more fabric to its neighbors, and thus become wealthier and more powerful. The Industrial Revolution in England was spurred on by the mechanization of weaving, while the introduction of the spinning wheel in Renaissance Italy changed the nature of social interaction for young Italian women. The Viking Age, with its sailing ships (and thus sails made from sailcloth) would have been impossible without the staggering amount of fabric the ships needed for their sails.

In other words, the course of history runs parallel to the history of fabrics. Four-thousand year-old cuneiform tablets from Turkey detail financial transactions revolving around textiles, and show us a thriving culture dedicated to regional trade, with fabric being one of its most important goods.

But fabric is not without its dark side, and Postrel does not flinch away from it. From the slave trade in the American south that was driven in part by the demand for cotton to water-hungry and polluting dyeing techniques (to say nothing of the destructive effects of fast fashion and masses of clothes made from plastic fibers), our desire for more and better fabric has its costs.

The news is not always bad. As more consumers demand ethically sourced and environmentally-friendly products, manufacturers have developed techniques that require less water and fewer materials to make the same, high quality garments. Scientists are developing methods to spin all new fabrics from simple proteins, a development that could upend the notion of cloth as we know it. And in one overly long chapter from the end, Postrel allows an overeager scientist to rattle on a little too long about a new method of making cloth from recycled plastic– a method that is promising, assuming that you’re fine with having clothes in any color you like, as long as its white.

For all that it is an overview of the subject of fabric (the millenia-old evolution of sericulture, for example, could have its own thousand page history), Postrel’s narrative does justice to the topics she discusses, diving right to the heart of the matter and rarely straying from the book’s overarching purpose: to provide the average consumer with a better understanding of fabric and how completely it is intertwined with both the history of the world and with our individual lives. You may never have thought that the history of your t-shirt would be interesting, but after reading The Fabric of Civilization, you might never look at your closet the same way again.


Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Fabric of Civilization

  1. Sounds fascinating. I like the idea of exploring topics that initially seem so ordinary and potentially boring, just to discover how big a role they’ve played throughout history. And it’s funny how often it’s these more common place topics that fit that bill.

  2. I’ve read a few other histories of ordinary things, and they’ve all been super interesting. There’s one I’m thinkingof right now that’s a history of the salt trade. I can’t remember if I’ve read it before, but I’ve heard it’s really good.

  3. What a fascinating sounding book! Your comment above reminds me of all the “histories of ordinary things” I want to read. The Salt book I want to read is Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. It’s crazy to think that it’s a rock we eat.

    I wish there was a list of books “histories or ordinary things”. I’d read them all. Well, assuming they were well written. A poorly written non-fiction book is my own personal hell.

    Is this book what inspired your YouTube rabbit hole around fiber arts?

  4. That Salt book is the one I was thinking of! I need to check and see if I’ve read it… There was a book about coffee and another book about tea, both of which were fascinating.

    I wonder if a bit of Google searching would result in a list of books about ordinary things.

    It must have been part of it, but the big thing was Bernadette Banners’s sense of humor and her ability to explain her process, mistakes and all. She’s fantastic at sewing, but she admits that she’s not at all perfect and isn’t afraid to show her mistakes. From there, I found a couple of other fashion history blogs, and I’ve been watching the heck out of them for the past week. It’s been great!

  5. If you can figure out a Google search that comes up with books about ordinary, everyday things, I’d love to know what it is. I tried that and there are a few general histories of ordinary things that dominate the results. I want to dig deep into something like salt, coffee, tea, pottery, etc. The older I get, the less interested I am in general histories for some reason.

  6. I think I found the coffee book I read once upon a time. Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast. There’s one about the history of tea, but I can’t remember if I’ve read it or not: Liquid Jade by Hohenegger. I really enjoyed Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield, and I want to read The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars, who hosts the podcast 99% Invisible, which is about design of all kinds and how it affects our lives in ways most of us never realize or even think about.

  7. Oooh, a book all about fonts! I totally want to read that. I know very little about fonts and whenever I learn something new I find it absolutely fascinating. Who knew fonts had such a complex history?!

    There are tons of books about the history of tea. Eustea has reviewed sooo many of them. She recommended Tales of the Tea Trade to me awhile ago– mostly because it’s a travelogue about tea farmers. I think The Tale of Tea is her go-to definitive history of tea. It’s over 800 pages about tea. Perhaps a little too deep for me. XD

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