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