The Fabric of Civilization

How Textiles Made the World

The Fabric of Civilization
"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
"Hers is a story of great intricacy. Yet she — and we — never lose its thread. The Fabric of Civilization is a fascinating book, and persuasive too: by the end the case is made that 'textiles made the world'."
—Anna Murphy, The Times (U.K.)
The best history books refocus our gaze on previously invisible threads of causality and consequence. Virginia Postrel’s fascinating The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (Basic Books) recasts fibres and looms as the driving forces of human progress, exposing the impact of weavingwomen’s workacross multiple cultures. Even scratches on Linear A tablets from Knossos turn out to refer to looms, not towers."
—Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, History Today
“Expansive… The author is excellent at highlighting how textiles truly changed the world.”
―Judith Flanders, The Wall Street Journal

From Neanderthal string to 3D knitting, a global history of textiles and the world they made

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.

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. As Postrel writes,“We suffer textile amnesia because we enjoy textile abundance.” 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
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 everyday without even knowing it.”
Marc Andreessen, co-founder, Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz

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The book's references are online here.

For related videos, visit Virginia Postrel's YouTube channel.