Free Markets

The History of Fabric Is the History of Civilization

Virginia Postrel's new book explores economics, politics, and technology through textiles.


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The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, a new book by former Reason editor in chief Virginia Postrel, is a rich, endlessly fascinating history of the remarkable luck, invention, and innovation that made our fabric-rich world possible.

The book aims to make the mundane miraculous. Consider cotton. Most of the cotton we grow today is descended in part from a plant species that evolved in Africa and somehow got over to what is now Peru, where it mixed with New World strains.

"The fact that we have cotton at all, that it exists anywhere, is amazing," says Postrel. "It happened long before there were human beings, but much more recently than when the continents were together. So we don't know. It could have gotten caught up in a hurricane. It could have floated on a piece of pumice. So it's this random, very unlikely happening that had tremendous world-changing consequences."

The story of textiles is rife with attempts at protectionism and prohibition. In 17th and 18th century Europe, countries banned the importation of super-soft, super-colorful cotton prints from India known as calicos because they threatened domestic producers of everything from lower-quality cotton fabric to luxury silks. "For 73 years, France treated calico the way the U.S. treats cocaine," Postrel says. "There was this huge amount of smuggling, and they were constantly ratcheting up the penalties [so] that they got quite grotesque, at least for the major traffic." Some of "the earliest writings of classical liberalism are in this context, people saying not only is this not working, but…it is unjust to be sentencing people to the galleys in order to protect silk makers' profits."

Postrel also documents how the Luddites, the 19th century English textile workers famous for smashing the power looms threatening to put them out of work, owed their jobs to an earlier technological breakthrough: the spinning machines that emerged in the late 1700s.

"If you go back to that earlier period, when spinning machines were introduced, the same thing happened," she says. "They had their own period of rebelling against the new technologies and saying they're putting people out at work."

The book also upends some contemporary myths, such as the claim that commercial production of hemp for clothing was a casualty of the war on drugs. "Hemp historically was a very coarse kind of fabric for poor people who didn't have an alternative," says Postrel. "It was replaced by cotton for good reasons. Cotton was also affordable, but it was soft and washable and just a much better fabric."

"Human beings live in history and we inherit the legacies, positive and negative, of that history," says Postrel, whose previous books include The Power of Glamour, The Substance of Style, and The Future and Its Enemies. Discussing the large themes of her work she says, "All you can do is start from where you are and try to do better from where you are."

Listen to the full podcast interview here.

Narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Isaac Reese.

Music: "Thoughts," by ANBR

Photos: World History Archive/Newscom; The Print Collector Heritage Images/Newsroom; The "Réale" returning to port, Med/CC BY-SA 3.0; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/CC0; Battle of Grand Port, Rama/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 FR; Fine Art Images Heritage Images/Newscom; Seton, M., Müller, R., Zahirovic, S., Gaina, C., Torsvik, T., Shephard, G., Talsma, A., Gurnis, M., Turner, M., Maus, S., and Chandler, M., 2012, Global continental and ocean basin reconstructions since 200 Ma: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 113, no. 3-4, p. 212-270

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    1. You’re in high cotton if you never have to pick cotton-picking cotton…you don’t have to cotton to cotton…

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  1. What is the correct term for the male bra?
    A. the Bro
    B. the Manssière

    1. The bro is for sports, the Manssière is for a romantic evening?

    2. It depends on the man’s gender.

  2. The spinning loom was an amazing piece of technology.

    1. It led to the development of programming. It was the first programmable machine.

  3. I’d always heard that hemp was killed off by nylon. Hemp wasn’t (and isn’t) very good for clothing but it’s great for naval cordage and had a long history of use throughout the Golden Age of Sail. The story goes that DuPont wanted to capture the market for naval cordage with its petroleum-derived nylon but faced an uphill battle because unlike hemp, nylon rope sinks in water. That adds a lot of complications when you’re trying to get lines across to rig a tow between two big ships. Because hemp rope floats, you could tow it across in almost with a much smaller boat. DuPont allegedly demonized marijuana in part to discredit and drive up the price of hemp, making their nylon cordage more competitive. (The technology to spin nylon down to finer uses such as stockings would not become available for several more years.)

    In fairness, there are lots of websites “debunking” the DuPont/marijuana connection (most recently including a wikipedia page) however they are about as as unsourced and speculative as the sites alleging the connection. I first heard the story above in the 1970s, well before the internet.

  4. And we should not forget the effect of the (a) the invention of the cotton gin and (b) the Industrial Revolution, which created a huge demand for cotton. Together, caused an explosion in the use of slaves in the South, which precipitated the Civil War.

    The founding fathers believed that slavery would eventually die out on its own. Had it not been for the two technological innovations, that might well have happened. But they did occur, turning Dixie into “The Land of Cotton.” And the rest is history.

  5. It caused the improvement of programming. It become the primary programmable machine.

  6. “The book aims to make the mundane miraculous. Consider cotton. Most of the cotton we grow today is descended in part from a plant species that evolved in Africa and somehow got over to what is now Peru, where it mixed with New World strains.”

    Actually, there are four native strains of cotton. Two from the Americas, one from Mexico (Gossypium hirsutum ) and one from the Andes(Gossypium barbadense). The other two coming from Africa (Gossypium herbaceum) and India (Gossypium arboreum). The majority of cotton grown world wide is from the mexico strain not the Egyptian one. There is a large portion of the book 1491 dedicated to the farming of cotton and how the first permanent human civilizations may have been in Peru and not Mesopotamia. There, they farmed cotton to make nets for fishing and it may have been the first large scale civilization not founded on farming to produce food, but rather textiles to obtain food.

    But it is typical of Reason writers to write shit based on a flawed understanding of the facts.

  7. Virginia Postrel

    This evokes ancient memories of times when reason was a libertarian magazine.

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