The thread of history: Be thankful that textiles have changed the fabric of living

USA Today , November 26, 2020

To mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ voyage, the Mayflower II at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts has undergone a three-year refurbishment. It’s the first major overhaul since the replica was built in the 1950s. Along with new framing and decks, the ship has a new set of sails, created by a specialty sailmaker called Traditional Rigging.

The sails look and feel authentic. But there’s a big difference between the 21st-century versions and the 17th-century originals. The modern fabric is a synthetic that behaves like traditional canvas but keeps its shape and resists sun damage. It will last significantly longer than the linen and hemp used in the Pilgrims’ day, and it took less time to make. Much, much less time.

“We can’t make cloth,” says sailmaker Dayle Tognoni Ward of Traditional Rigging. “That’s where we hold the line.” Exactly duplicating 17th-century cloth would be prohibitively expensive.

The original Mayflower’s sails were probably woven with around 30 threads to the inch in each direction. If, like the replica, they used 3,800 square feet of fabric, they would have taken nearly a million yards of yarn. Before the Industrial Revolution, just spinning that much yarn required about two years of work. That doesn’t include the laborious process of harvesting and preparing the plant fibers. Nor does it include weaving on looms powered entirely by the weavers’ muscles.

The Mayflower II’s sails remind us of a blessing we rarely acknowledge on Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted to appreciating abundance: all the textiles in our lives.

Our closets and drawers bulge with clothing in every imaginable color. Thanks to incremental improvements over the past few decades, our clothes resist stains and wrinkles in ways that would thrill the past’s laundry-weary housewives. T-shirts wick sweat, and raincoats shed water. Sweaters snap back into shape, and pants stretch with our bellies — a handy feature come Thanksgiving dinner.

Today’s textile cornucopia overflows with more than clothes. It includes the damask tablecloth beneath the Thanksgiving feast, the soft microfiber blanket in front of the fire, the potholders pulling dinner from the oven, the dish towels drying the heirloom china. Textiles upholster the dining room chairs and the football fans’ sofa cushions. They bandage the careless carver’s fingers. They furnish burlap wreaths and felt garlands, and, for those who prefer an autumnal escape to nature, backpacks, sleeping bags, and tents.

If, as Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the reverse is also true. Any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. We no more imagine a world without cloth than one without sunlight or rain. Textiles are just there.

Except, until fairly recently, they weren’t.

“Bring good store of clothes, and bedding with you,” an early Plymouth arrival advised a prospective colonist in 1621. Textiles weren’t easily procured in the wilds of Massachusetts. It is only in the past century, and especially in the past generation, that most Americans could forget where cloth comes from. Once so valuable they were stolen from clothes lines and passed down in wills, textile products now occupy only a tiny fraction of household budgets.

Cloth was precious because it took so much effort to make. Throughout history, and around the globe, women spent their days spinning. Yet yarn was always in short supply. In 1656, Massachusetts even passed a law requiring every family with “idle hands” — women and children who weren’t otherwise employed — to spin a minimum amount of yarn, with fines levied on those who didn’t make their quotas.

“The spinners never stand still for want of work; they always have it if they please; but weavers sometimes are idle for want of yarn,” wrote the 18th-century agronomist and travel author Arthur Young, reporting on a tour of northern England. It took about 20 spinners to keep a single weaver supplied with yarn.

A few decades after Young wrote, spinning machines broke the bottleneck and sparked the Industrial Revolution. Abundant yarn improved nearly every aspect of life. From clothing to sails, bed linens to flour sacks, essential items were suddenly much cheaper, more varied, and more easily obtained. It was the beginning of what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment,” the economic takeoff that over the next two centuries lifted global living standards by 3000%.

Power looms followed, triumphing despite resistance from the displaced Luddites. Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a loom attachment that used punch cards to store and automate weaving patterns. Now often credited as a precursor of digital computers, it put brocades and damasks, formerly reserved for the rich, within reach of the middle class and boosted the production of plain cloth as well.

In the mid-19th-century synthetic dyes gave birth to the chemical industry,followed by synthetic fibers in the 20th. Now researchers are pursuing ways to embed sensors and computing power into thread, to bioengineer protein-based polymers, and to reduce the environmental side effects of textile abundance. So ubiquitous are textiles that if you change cloth, you change the world.

This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for the countless diligent and clever people who gave us textile plenty: the breeders who over millennia turned hairy sheep, flax stalks, caterpillar cocoons, and barely fuzzy cotton seeds into luxuriant sources of fiber; the inventors and engineers who developed machines that spin, weave, and knit at incredible speed; and the dyers who experimented with plants, animals, and waste chemicals to imbue fabric with brilliant colors. Taking textile abundance for granted is a privilege. Appreciating its wonder is a blessing.