The World-Changing Technology of Textiles

The Wall Street Journal , October 23, 2020

In a 1991 Scientific American article, the influential computer scientist Mark Weiser predicted a coming era of “ubiquitous computing,” operating as seamlessly in the background as the electric motors in a modern car. “The most profound technologies are those that disappear,” he wrote. “They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

With his invocation of seamlessness, weaving and fabric, Weiser nodded, probably unconsciously, toward a far older, equally ubiquitous and rarely acknowledged technology: textiles. The word itself comes from the Indo-European root teks, which means to weave—the same root that gives us the word “technology.” From cave-dwellers twisting plant fibers into string to scientists embedding computer chips into threads, the story of textiles is the story of human ingenuity in all its manifestations: technical, artistic, economic and cultural.

The conflict between highly productive new technologies and fears of mass unemployment—“the robots are taking our jobs”—started with textiles. The Luddites, English weavers who smashed mechanical looms in the early 19th century, gave their name to technological resistance. Ironically, however, those weavers owed their own well-paid jobs to an earlier disruptive technology: spinning machines, which produced the yarn that weavers turned into cloth.

Before the Industrial Revolution, spinning wool into yarn was by far Britain’s largest industrial occupation, employing as many as 1.5 million people in a total workforce of about 4 million. Keeping a single weaver supplied with yarn required about 20 spinners. “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,” an observer wrote in 1768.

Spinners were paid miserably, yet their labor constituted a greater proportion of the cost of cloth than anything except the raw material. That’s because cloth consumes staggering amounts of yarn, and hand spinning takes a long time. The denim in a single pair of jeans, for instance, consumes about 6 miles of cotton yarn. The best spinners would have taken about 100 hours to produce that much. That’s nearly 13 eight-hour days.

The invention of spinning machines in the late 18th century broke the bottleneck. Yarn production soared even as quality improved. But the inventions also threw people out of work: A petition to Parliament complained that thousands of families were “pining for want of Employment.” Protesters smashed machinery and demanded government relief. The town of Wigan halted the “use of all Machines and Engines worked by Water or Horse, for carding, roving or spinning of Cotton.”

After commissioning a report, lawmakers decided against action. Despite the upheaval, they judged, spinning mills were creating new kinds of jobs and benefiting the nation in other ways. 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 3,000 percent.

Spinning technology migrated to the U.S. in 1789, when 21-year-old Samuel Slater, who had been an apprentice in an English mill, illicitly exported his knowledge. Industrial espionage is a textile tradition, dating at least as far back as the Nestorian monks who smuggled silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire from China in the 6th century. In the early 1700s, the English brothers John and Thomas Lombe conspired to copy Italian silk-twisting machines, establishing a factory in Derby. In the early 19th century, an adventurer named William Burling smuggled cotton seeds out of Mexico, introducing the variety that made the crop viable throughout the American South.

Textile history also illustrates the tension between codified knowledge and tacit know-how. Slater succeeded because he not only knew how to design a spinning machine, he knew the subtle tricks needed to operate it effectively. The silk thread produced in Derby was never as good as the best Piedmontese product, because English manufacturers lacked the hard-won expertise of the Italian women who reeled silk from cocoons. After the British chemist William Perkin invented the first synthetic dye in the 1850s, he spent much of his time teaching textile makers how to get his neatly formulated chemicals to work with the messier reality of varied fabrics, water sources and desired effects.

Textiles are sources of status and signals of identity, and people will go to great lengths to get the fabrics they want. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans went crazy for printed cottons from India. The colorfast dyes, beautiful patterns and soft, lightweight fabrics surpassed anything Europeans could achieve—threatening silk, linen and wool producers.

In response, some countries, including Britain, banned the imports. In France, where the silk industry was running the show, the government went even further, banning all cotton imports, even plain cloth, and all printed textiles, even if they were made in France. From 1686 to 1759, France treated calico essentially the way the U.S. treats cocaine: Traffickers could be sentenced to years rowing in the navy’s galleys. Major offenders were executed. People caught wearing calico could be arrested and imprisoned without trial.

But prohibition didn’t work. Calico was worn by the country’s most fashionable women within sight of its most powerful men, and its popularity never dimmed. Instead of building the kingdom’s wealth, the ban turned countless citizens into outlaws.

Whether purchasing cloth, making it for themselves or seizing it from others, textile consumers have always been ready to break laws and flout traditions. Sometimes they even start wars. A nomadic people who wore furs and felt, the Mongols of the 12th century didn’t weave. But they treasured woven textiles, and their desire for fine fabrics motivated many of their conquests. “The common thread running through all the inventories of plunder is rare and colorful textiles, tenting and clothing,” writes historian Thomas Allsen. Mongol leaders greeted visitors in enormous white felt tents lined with their favorite cloth, a brocade made with gold threads.

In 1221, the Mongols invaded Afghanistan. One of their prizes was the city of Herat, a weaving center known for its cloth of gold. Capturing as many as a thousand skilled weavers, the Mongols took them 1,500 miles across Central Asia to the Uyghur capital of Beshbalik, where they established a weaving colony. Along with their skills, the captive weavers brought their religion, Islam. Beshbalik had been a town of Christians and Buddhists, but it soon had a thriving Muslim community, seeded by the captive weavers from Herat. Later, Islam spread from the south and west, becoming the region’s dominant faith. But the transformation started with cloth. In this as in so many other instances, textiles changed the world.

—This essay is adapted from Ms. Postrel’s new book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” which will be published by Basic Books on Nov. 10.