The Fabric of Civilization

How Textiles Made the World


By Virginia Postrel

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From Neanderthal string to 3D knitting, an “expansive” global history that highlights “how textiles truly changed the world” (Wall Street Journal)

The story of humanity is the story of textiles—as old as civilization itself. Since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture.

In The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel synthesizes groundbreaking research from archaeology, economics, and science to reveal a surprising history. From Minoans exporting wool colored with precious purple dye to Egypt, to Romans arrayed in costly Chinese silk, the cloth trade paved the crossroads of the ancient world. Textiles funded the Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; they gave us banks and bookkeeping, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. The cloth business spread the alphabet and arithmetic, propelled chemical research, and taught people to think in binary code.
Assiduously researched and deftly narrated, The Fabric of Civilization tells the story of the world’s most influential commodity.

“We are taken on a journey as epic, and varying, as the Silk Road itself.… [The Fabric of Civilization is] like a swatch of a Florentine Renaissance brocade: carefully woven, the technique precise, the colors a mix of shade and shine and an accurate representation of the whole cloth."

New York Times

“Textile-making hasn’t gotten enough credit for its own sophistication, and for all the ways it undergirds human technological innovation—an error Virginia Postrel’s erudite and complete book goes a long way toward correcting at last.”





The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

—Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American, September 1991

IN 1900, A BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGIST made one of the greatest finds of all time. Arthur Evans, later knighted for his discoveries, unearthed the palace complex at Knossos on Crete. With its intricate architecture and gloriously painted frescoes, the site bore witness to a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization, more ancient than anything found on the Greek mainland. A scientist with a classical education and a poetic streak, Evans named the vanished inhabitants Minoans. In Greek legend, Minos, the first king of Crete, demanded that every nine years the Athenians send seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

“Here,” Evans wrote in a newspaper article, “Daedalus constructed the Labyrinth, the den of the Minotaur, and fashioned the wings—perhaps the sails—with which he and Icarus took flight over the Aegean.” At Knossos, too, the Athenian hero Theseus had unwound a ball of thread as he journeyed through the Labyrinth, killed the ferocious man-bull, and followed the thread back to freedom.

Like Troy before it, the city of legends turned out to be real. Excavations revealed a literate and well-organized civilization as old as those of Babylon and Egypt. The find also presented a linguistic mystery. Along with art, pottery, and ritual objects, Evans uncovered thousands of clay tablets inscribed with characters he’d seen in the artifacts that had drawn him to Crete in the first place. He identified two distinct scripts, along with hieroglyphs representing objects such as a bull’s head, a spouted vase, and what Evans took to be a palace or tower: a rectangle bisected on the diagonal, with four spikes on top. But he couldn’t read the tablets.

Although he worked on the problem for decades, Evans never managed to decipher them. Not until 1952, eleven years after his death, was one script finally identified as an early form of Greek. Much of the other script remains unreadable. But we do know that Evans got his “tower” upside down and completely mistook its meaning. The hieroglyph depicted not a crenellated battlement but a fringed piece of fabric or perhaps a warp-weighted loom. It meant not palace, but textile.

The Minoan culture that inspired stories of lifesaving thread kept meticulous accounts of large-scale wool and flax production. Textile records make up more than half of the tablets ultimately uncovered at Knossos. They track “textile crops, the birth of lambs, targets for wool yields per animal, collectors’ work, the assignment of wool to workers, the receipt of finished fabrics, distribution of cloth or clothing to dependent personnel, and the storage of cloth in the palatial magazines,” writes a historian. In a single season, palace workshops processed fleece from seventy to eighty thousand sheep, spinning and weaving an astonishing sixty tons of wool.

Evans had missed the source of the city’s wealth and the primary activity of its residents. Knossos was a textile superpower. Like many people before and since, the pioneering archaeologist had overlooked the central role of textiles in the history of technology, commerce, and civilization itself.1

We hairless apes coevolved with our cloth. From the moment we’re wrapped in a blanket at birth, we are surrounded by textiles. They cover our bodies, bedeck our beds, and carpet our floors. Textiles give us seat belts and sofa cushions, tents and bath towels, medical masks and duct tape. They are everywhere.

But, to reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage about magic, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature.2 It seems intuitive, obvious—so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted. We no more imagine a world without cloth than one without sunlight or rain.

We drag out heirloom metaphors—“on tenterhooks,” “towheaded,” “frazzled”—with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibers. We repeat threadbare clichés: “whole cloth,” “hanging by a thread,” “dyed in the wool.” We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We speak of life spans and spinoffs and never wonder why drawing out fibers and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language. Surrounded by textiles, we’re largely oblivious to their existence and to the knowledge and efforts embodied in every scrap of fabric.

Yet the story of textiles is the story of human ingenuity.

Agriculture developed in pursuit of fiber as well as food. Labor-saving machines, including those of the Industrial Revolution, came out of the need for thread. The origins of chemistry lie in the coloring and finishing of cloth; the beginning of binary code—and aspects of mathematics itself—in weaving. As much as for spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew merchants to cross continents and sailors to explore strange seas.

From the most ancient times to the present, the textile trade has fostered long-distance exchange. The Minoans exported woolen cloth, some of it dyed in precious purple, as far away as Egypt. The ancient Romans wore Chinese silk, worth its weight in gold. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. It spread the alphabet and double-entry bookkeeping, gave rise to financial institutions, and nurtured the slave trade.

In ways both subtle and obvious, beautiful and terrible, textiles made our world.

The global story of textiles illuminates the nature of civilization itself. I use this term not to imply moral superiority or the end state of an inevitable progression but in the more neutral sense suggested by this definition: “the accumulation of knowledge, skills, tools, arts, literatures, laws, religions and philosophies which stands between man and external nature, and which serves as a bulwark again the hostility of forces that would otherwise destroy him.”3 This description captures two critical dimensions that together distinguish civilization from related concepts, such as culture.

First, civilization is cumulative. It exists in time, with today’s version built on previous ones. A civilization ceases to exist when that continuity is broken. Minoan civilization disappeared. Conversely, a civilization may evolve over a long stretch of time while the cultures that make it up pass away or change irrevocably. The western Europe of 1980 was radically different in its social mores, religious practices, material culture, political organization, technological resources, and scientific understanding from the Christendom of 1480, yet we recognize both as Western civilization.

The story of textiles demonstrates this cumulative quality. It lets us trace the progress and interactions of practical techniques and scientific theory: the cultivation of plants and breeding of animals, the spread of mechanical innovations and measurement standards, the recording and replication of patterns, the manipulation of chemicals. We can watch knowledge spread from one place to another, sometimes in written form but more often through human contact or the exchange of goods, and see civilizations become intertwined.

Second, civilization is a survival technology. It comprises the many artifacts—designed or evolved, tangible or intangible—that stand between vulnerable human beings and natural threats, and that invest the world with meaning. Providing protection and adornment, textiles are themselves among such artifacts. So, too, are the innovations they inspire, from better seeds to weaving patterns to new ways of recording information.

Along with the perils and discomforts of indifferent nature, civilization protects us from the dangers posed by other humans. Ideally, it allows us to live in harmony. Eighteenth-century thinkers used the term to refer to the intellectual and artistic refinement, sociability, and peaceful interactions of the commercial city.4 But rare is the civilization that exists without organized violence. At best, civilization encourages cooperation, curbing humanity’s violent urges; at worst, it unleashes them to conquer, pillage, and enslave. The history of textiles reveals both aspects.

It also reminds us that technology means much more than electronics or machines. The ancient Greeks worshiped Athena as the goddess of techne: craft and productive knowledge, the artifice of civilization. She was the giver and protector of olive trees, of ships, and of weaving. The Greeks used the same word for two of their most important technologies, calling both the loom and the ship’s mast histós. From the same root, they dubbed sails histía, literally the product of the loom.5

To weave is to devise, to invent—to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements. In The Odyssey, when Athena and Odysseus scheme, they “weave a plan.” Fabric and fabricate share a common Latin root, fabrica: “something skillfully produced.” Text and textile are similarly related, from the verb texere, “to weave,” which in turn derives—as does techne—from the Indo-European word teks, meaning “to weave.” Order comes from the Latin word for setting warp threads, ordior, as does the French word for computer, ordinateur. The French word métier, meaning a trade or craft, is also the word for loom.

Such associations aren’t uniquely European. In the K’iche’ Maya language, the terms for weaving designs and writing hieroglyphics both use the root -tz’iba-. The Sanskrit word sutra, which now refers to a literary aphorism or religious scripture, originally denoted string or thread; the word tantra, which refers to a Hindu or Buddhist religious text, is from the Sanskrit tantrum, meaning “warp” or “loom.” The Chinese word zuzhi, meaning “organization” or “arrange,” is also the word for weave, while chengji, meaning “achievement” or “result,” originally meant twisting fibers together.6

Cloth making is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. It is a sign of mastery and refinement. “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?” wrote philosopher David Hume in 1742.7 The knowledge is all but universal. Rare is the people that does not spin or weave, and rare, too, the society that does not engage in textile-related trade.

The story of textiles is a story of famous scientists and forgotten peasants, incremental improvements and sudden leaps, repeated inventions and once-ever discoveries. It is a story driven by curiosity, practicality, generosity, and greed. It is a story of art and science, women and men, serendipity and planning, peaceful trade and savage wars. It is, in short, the story of humanity itself—a global story, set in every time and place.

Like the carefully planned strip cloths of West Africa, The Fabric of Civilization is a whole made up of distinct pieces, each interwoven, with its own warp and weft.8 Each chapter’s warp represents a stage in the textile journey. We begin with production—fiber, thread, cloth, dye—and then move, like cloth itself, to merchants and consumers. Finally, we return to a new take on fiber, meeting the innovators who revolutionized textiles in the twentieth century as well as some today who hope to use cloth to change the world. Within each chapter, events take place in roughly chronological order. Think of the warp as the chapter’s what.

The weft constitutes the why—some significant influence of textile materials, makers, or markets on the character and progress of civilization. We explore the artifice behind “natural” fibers and discover why spinning machines set off an economic revolution. We examine the deep relationship between cloth and mathematics and what dye tells us about chemical knowledge. We look at the essential role of “social technologies” in enabling trade, the many ways in which the desire for textiles disrupts the world, and the reasons textile research appeals even to pure scientists. The weft supplies the broader context for the chapter’s history.

Each chapter can be read separately, just as a single strip of kente cloth can form a stole. But the whole reveals the greater pattern. From prehistory to the near future, this is the story of the human beings who wove, and are still weaving, civilization’s tale.

Chapter One


The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

—Psalm 23

IN THESE DAYS OF SPANDEX blends and performance microfibers, Levi’s still sells some old-fashioned 100 percent cotton jeans. Look closely and you can see the structure. Each thread is fine, long, and even, extending the full length or breadth of the garment. The vertical threads are blue with a white core, while the horizontal ones, revealed in the artfully placed rips, are white all the way through. In worn areas and on the inside, you can see the diagonal pattern of the twill weave that gives denim its durability and natural stretch.

We call cotton a “natural fiber,” a value-laden contrast to synthetics like polyester and nylon. But it is nothing of the sort. Thread, dye, cloth, even the plants and animals that supply the raw material, are all the products of millennia of refinements and innovations, large and small. Human action, not nature alone, made cotton what it is today.

Cotton, wool, linen, silk, and their less prominent kin may have biological origins, but these so-called natural fibers are the products of artifice so ancient and familiar that we forget it’s there. The journey to finished cloth begins with plants and animals bred by trial and error to produce unnaturally abundant fiber suitable for making thread. These genetically modified organisms are technological achievements every bit as ingenious as the machines we honor as the Industrial Revolution. And they, too, have far-reaching consequences for economics, politics, and culture.

What we usually call the Stone Age could just as easily be called the String Age. The two prehistoric technologies were literally intertwined. Early humans used string to attach stone blades to handles, creating axes and spears.

The blades survived the millennia, waiting to be excavated by archaeologists. The cords rotted away, their vestiges invisible to the naked eye. Scholars named prehistoric ages after the layers of increasingly sophisticated stone tools they found: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic. Lithic means “of or pertaining to stone.” Nobody thought about the missing threads. But we get a false picture of prehistoric life and of the earliest products of human ingenuity when we imagine only the hard tools that easily endure the passage of time. Today’s researchers can detect the traces of softer stuff.

Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Ohio, specializes in what is known as residue analysis—looking at the microscopic fragments left behind when the earliest stone tools cut through other materials. To build a library of comparison samples, he uses replicas to chop up plants and animals that early people might have used, then examines the tools under a microscope. By learning their microscopic characteristics, he can identify tuber cells and mushroom spores, fish scales and feather fragments. And he can spot fibers.

In 2018, he was working in the Paris lab of Marie-Hélène Moncel, examining tools she’d excavated from a site in southeastern France called Abri du Maras. There, about forty to fifty thousand years ago, Neanderthal people lived under the protection of an overhanging rock shelter. Three meters below today’s surface, they left a layer containing ashes, bones, and stone tools. Hardy had previously found individual twisted plant fibers on some of their tools—tantalizing evidence suggesting that they might have made string. But a single fiber is not a cord.

This time, Hardy spotted a pimple-sized bit of cream on a two-inch stone tool. Easily overlooked on the sand-colored surface of the flint, to his practiced eye it could have been a neon sign blinking THIS IS IT! “As soon as I saw it, I knew there was something else going on there,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is it. I think we got it now.’” Caught in the stone was a bunch of twisted fibers.

As Hardy and his colleagues examined the find with increasingly sensitive microscopes, it got even more exciting. Three distinct bundles of fibers, each twisted in the same direction, had been twisted together in the opposite direction to form a three-ply cord. Using fibers from the inner bark of conifer trees, Neanderthal people had made string.

Like the steam engine or the semiconductor, string is a general-purpose technology with countless applications. With it, early humans could create fishing lines and nets, make bows for hunting or starting fires, set traps for small game, wrap and carry bundles, hang food to dry, strap babies to their chests, fashion belts and necklaces, and sew together hides. String expanded the capabilities of human hands and built the capacity of human minds.

“As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form rope, ropes interlaced to form knots),” Hardy and his coauthors write, “it demonstrates an ‘infinite use of finite means’ and requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.” Whether used to fashion snares or to tie bundles, string made catching, carrying, and storing provisions easier. It gave early hunter-gatherers more flexibility and control over their environment. Its invention was a fundamental step toward civilization.

“So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth,” writes textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber.1 Our distant forebears may have been primitive, but they were also clever and inventive. They left behind striking artworks and world-altering technologies: cave paintings, small sculptures, bone flutes, beads, bone needles, and compound tools, including detachable spearheads and harpoon points. Although string survived the millennia only in trace amounts, it was part of the same creative profusion.

The earliest sources were bast fibers, which grow just inside the bark of trees and the outer stem of such plants as flax, hemp, ramie, nettle, and jute. Tree fibers tend to be coarser and take more effort to extract. Plus, notes Hardy, “it takes a lot less time for flax to grow than it does a tree.”

Discovering how to harvest fiber from wild flax thus represented a significant advance. It’s easy to imagine how it might have happened. When stems fell on the ground, the outer layers rotted away in the dew or rain, exposing the long, stringy strands within. Early humans could strip away the fibers and twist them into string, rolling the flax between their fingers or against their thighs.

Whether from slow-growing trees or fast-growing plants, bast fibers alone didn’t make string abundant. When the only way to create cord is to roll bast fibers on your thigh, making enough to create a looped bag can take the equivalent of two modern workweeks, between 60 and 80 hours, based on traditional practices in Papua New Guinea. Looping the bag into shape can require another 100 to 160 hours—a month’s labor.2

String may be a powerful technology, but it is not cloth. To produce enough thread to make fabric, you need a larger, more predictable supply of raw material. You need fields of flax, flocks of sheep, and the time to transform disordered masses of fiber into many yards of thread. You need agriculture—a technological leap that quickly expanded from food to fibers.

It’s called the Neolithic Revolution. Roughly twelve thousand years ago, humans began to establish permanent settlements and to cultivate plants and domesticate animals. Though they continued to hunt and forage, these people no longer subsisted solely on what they found in their environment. By understanding and controlling reproduction, they began to alter plants and animals to suit their own purposes. Along with new sources of food, they invented “natural” fibers.

Eleven thousand years ago, somewhere in southwest Asia, sheep joined dogs as the earliest domesticated animals. These Neolithic sheep weren’t the woolly white creatures of Nativity scenes, mattress ads, or Australian pastures. Their coats were brown, with coarse hair that molted each spring, falling out in clumps rather than growing continuously. The early herders slaughtered most males and many females while the animals were still young, using them for meat. They allowed only those with the most desirable qualities to mature and breed. Over time—a very, very long time—human choices changed the nature of sheep. The animals got shorter, their horns shrank, their coats grew increasingly woolly, and, although ancient shepherds plucked rather than sheared their animals, domesticated sheep eventually stopped molting.

A primitive Soay sheep, the closest living relative of sheep before human breeding. Note the molting fleece. Compare to the modern Merino sheep. (iStockphoto)

After about two thousand generations—more than five thousand years, or halfway to the present day—selective breeding had transformed sheep into the wool-producing creatures depicted in Mesopotamian and Egyptian art. They had thick fleeces in a range of colors, including white, and thicker bones to support their heavier coats. Over time, the fibers of their fleece became finer and more uniform. Bone excavations show that the mix of flocks also changed. In earlier sites archaeologists find almost exclusively bones from lambs slaughtered for meat, whereas in later ones many bones also come from sheep that had survived to adulthood, including (likely castrated) males. Ancient people had begun producing wool.3

Something similar happened with the grassy wildflower known as flax. In the wild, flax seedpods burst open when ripe and drop their tiny seeds on the ground, where they’re nearly impossible to collect. Early farmers collected the pods from the rare plants on which they remained closed. Like blue eyes, these intact capsules express a recessive genetic trait, so seeds from them produce offspring whose seedpods also stay closed. Most of the harvested seeds were either eaten or pressed for oil, but cultivators held back the largest to plant the next season. Over time, domesticated flax seeds grew bigger than their wild kin, providing more of the oil and nutrients humans valued.4

Agricultural pioneers then created a second kind of domesticated flax. They preserved seeds from taller plants with fewer branches and pods. In these, the plants’ energy went into their stems, yielding more fiber. Fields of this flax could supply enough material to make linen cloth.5

But merely growing flax plants doesn’t produce thread suitable for weaving. First, the fiber has to be harvested and processed—an elaborate business, even today. The first step is to pull up each stalk by the roots, preserving the full length of fiber. You then allow the harvested stalks to dry. Next comes a smelly process called retting, where the stems are kept soaked in water so that bacteria break down the sticky pectin that holds the useful fibers to the inner stem. Unless the water is a free-flowing stream, retting stinks to high heaven. The similarity between ret and rot isn’t a coincidence.

A woman dreams of magical relief from the arduous labor of processing flax in this anonymous Dutch print from around 1673. (Rijksmuseum)

Judging the right time to take the stalks out of the water is tricky. Too soon and the fibers will be hard to remove, not soon enough and they’ll break into tiny pieces. Once out of the water, the stalks have to dry thoroughly before being beaten and scraped to separate the fibers from the straw, a step called scutching. Finally comes hackling, in which the fibers are run through combs to separate the long fibers from the short, fluffy tow. Only then is the flax ready to spin into thread.

Given all this effort, early humans clearly put a high value on linen. We don’t know precisely when people started cultivating flax to produce cloth rather than oil, but we do know that it must have happened in the earliest days of agriculture. In 1983, archaeologists working in the Nahal Hemar Cave, near the Dead Sea in Israel’s Judaean Desert, found scraps of linen yarn and fabric, including the remains of what appears to be some type of headgear. Radiocarbon-dated to nearly nine thousand years ago, these textiles predate pottery and may even predate looms. Rather than woven, the cloth was made with twining, knotting, and looping techniques akin to those used in basketry, macramé, or crochet.

The cave’s textiles weren’t rudimentary experiments but the work of skilled artisans who clearly knew what they were doing. The remains reveal techniques that require time to perfect. An archaeologist analyzing them cites “the fine workmanship, the degree of regularity and delicacy, the sophisticated details and the keen sense for decoration exhibited. Finishing touches included sewing with buttonhole and ‘stroke’ stitches,” evenly spaced, parallel embroidery stitches of the same length. The thread is strong and smoothly spun, not what you would get by stripping fiber from random stalks on the ground and twisting it together with your fingers. In some cases two spun strands have been plied together for strength.6

Nine thousand years ago, in other words, Neolithic farmers had already figured out not only how to breed and grow flax for fiber but also how to process and spin it into high-quality thread and how to turn that thread into decoratively stitched cloth. Textiles date to the earliest days of permanent settlements and agriculture.

Transforming sheep and flax into reliable sources of raw material for thread took careful observation, ingenuity, and patience. But that was nothing compared to the imagination—and genetic good fortune—required to turn cotton into the world’s dominant, and most historically consequential, “natural” fiber.


  • “We are taken on a journey as epic, and varying, as the Silk Road itself… [The Fabric of Civilization is] like a swatch of a Florentine Renaissance brocade: carefully woven, the technique precise, the colors a mix of shade and shine and an accurate representation of the whole cloth.”—New York Times
  • “Expansive… The author is excellent at highlighting how textiles truly changed the world.”—Wall Street Journal
  • "My pick as best nonfiction book of the year....[Virginia Postrel] offers a bold retelling of history through an emphasis on cloth — cloth as decoration, cloth as currency, cloth as ritual and much more. One of the most extraordinary volumes I have read in years."—Stephen Carter, Bloomberg Opinion
  • “Textile-making hasn’t gotten enough credit for its own sophistication, and for all the ways it undergirds human technological innovation—an error Virginia Postrel’s erudite and complete book goes a long way toward correcting at last.”—Wired
  • “The Fabric of Civilization is a fascinating book, and persuasive too: by the end the case is made that ‘textiles made the world.’”—Times (UK)
  • "Fascinating and wide-ranging... This is an engrossing and illuminating portrait of the essential role fabric has played in human history."—Publishers Weekly
  • "From the Stone Age to Silicon Valley, textiles have played a central role in the history of the world. Virginia Postrel has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject but she imparts it with a touch as light as Penelope's at the loom. Ambitious, erudite, and absorbing, The Fabric of Civilization is both an education and a pleasure to read."—Barry Strauss, author of Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine
  • "Virginia Postrel has created a fascinating history of textiles from their Palaeolithic beginnings to the present and future -- from the earliest plant fibers plucked from weeds to synthetic fabrics with computer chips in the threads. And why, you say, should we examine mere cloth? Precisely because it fills more and more roles in our lives, yet we take it for granted.... Well researched and highly readable, the book is a veritable treat."—Elizabeth Wayland Barber, author of Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times and Prehistoric Textiles
  • "A fascinating, surprising and beautifully written history of technology, economics, and culture, told through the thread of textiles, humanity's most indispensable artefacts. I loved it."—Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works
  • "The story of technology is a story of human ingenuity, and nowhere is this more clear than in the story of textiles: the original technology, going beyond what we commonly think of as 'tech.' As with many technologies, we suffer an amnesia about them when we enjoy them in abundance, as Postrel observes; her book gives us back our memories about this technology that we use every day without even knowing it."—Marc Andreessen, co-founder, Netscape
  • "Cleanly written and completely accessible, this book opens up an entirely new world of textiles, explaining the most ancient archeological fabrics and the latest polymer blends that cool the body -- not warm it as textiles have done for thousands of years -- with equal verve."—Valerie Hansen, author of The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World--and Globalization Began
  • "Postrel's brilliant, learned, addictive book tells a story of human ingenuity.... Her deep story is of the liberty that permitted progress. Presently the descendants of slaves and serfs and textile workers got closets full of beauty, and fabric for the cold, a Great Enrichment since 1800 of three thousand percent."—Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, author of the Bourgeois Era trilogy
  • "Virginia Postrel captures the ingenuity with which people around the globe solved the problems of raising fiber, spinning thread, making cloth, and giving it beautiful colors. This book opens the reader's eyes not only to the textiles that daily surround us but also to the remarkable skills of their makers."—Jenny Balfour-Paul, author of Indigo
  • "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World is one of the most compelling books I've ever read on the history of textiles-witty, well-researched, and full of fascinating things I'd never known despite being quite well-read on textile technology. (Did you know that letters of credit from clothiers helped build the early European banking system? Or that aniline dyes were one of the earliest applications of organic chemistry?) If you thought Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years was interesting, you'll swoon over this book. I loved it."—Tien Chiu, weaver, teacher, and author of Master Your Craft
  • "The Fabric of Civilization is more engaging and informative than any textile science or textile history course that I studied in college. Postrel has distilled thousands of years of the making and manipulation of string (thread) into a comprehensible read whether or not you have knowledge of its invention or the current bio-engineering research. She has woven in personal experiences; interviewed historians, computer programmers, scientists, textile archeologists, and contemporary and indigenous artisans; and gone behind the scenes in textile laboratories and manufacturing plants. After reading this book, I felt like I had wandered the world for centuries using fabric for my currency and wealth. I had won political battles in its name. I had been sickened as well as healed by it. And now I am an inventor synthesizing environmentally healthy fabric by means of chemicals. My appreciation and knowledge of how textiles make the world have been greatly enhanced."—Marilyn Murphy, co-founder ClothRoads and former president of Interweave
  • "Fiber artists of any stripe, prepare for a juicy read through a new book on textile history! Virginia Postrel's new book will turn your old ideas about fabric and civilization down unexpected pathways. The Fabric of Civilization is divided into chapters loosely related to individual textile processes, such as spinning, weaving, and dyeing, and the author points out that textiles are the basis of our number systems, our banking, our commerce, and our science. This book is full of stories of individuals who innovated entire systems because of their sensitivity to textile processes. The author actually learned to spin and weave while writing this book, and her explanations and diagrams are spot on. Profusely illustrated with photos and diagrams, and contains a comprehensive bibliography. Highly recommended."—Alice Schlein, weaver, author of Network Drafting and The Woven Pixel
  • The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World chronicles the laborious and cumulative innovations that allow cloth to play an essential role in our comfort, cultural identity, and our dependence on programmable functions. At times, the fabric of society appears threadbare but, based on the global nature of textiles, it is comforting to know that all cultures have a shared experience. Postrel reminds us that we are all woven together with colorful threads."—Susie Taylor, artist

On Sale
Dec 7, 2021
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books