The Volokh Conspiracy

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Virginia Postrel Guest-Blogging About the History of Textiles


I've always much enjoyed the work of Virginia Postrel (who, among many other things, was once the editor-in-chief of Reason), and I'm delighted to report that she'll be guest-blogging this week about her new book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. From the publisher's description:

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.

And just part of the suitably electic collection of blurbs:

"We are taken on a journey as epic, and varying, as the Silk Road itself… [The Fabric of Civilization is] like a swatch of a Florentine Renaissance brocade: carefully woven, the technique precise, the colors a mix of shade and shine and an accurate representation of the whole cloth."
New York Times

"From the Stone Age to Silicon Valley, textiles have played a central role in the history of the world. Virginia Postrel has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject but she imparts it with a touch as light as Penelope's at the loom. Ambitious, erudite, and absorbing, The Fabric of Civilization is both an education and a pleasure to read."―Barry Strauss, author of Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

"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…. 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 and Prehistoric Textiles

"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 every day without even knowing it."
―Marc Andreessen, co-founder, Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz

"Cleanly written and completely accessible, this book opens up an entirely new world of textiles, explaining the most ancient archeological fabrics and the latest polymer blends that cool the body—not warm it as textiles have done for thousands of years—with equal verve."
―Valerie Hansen, author of The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began

"Postrel's brilliant, learned, addictive book tells a story of human ingenuity…. Her deep story is of the liberty that permitted progress. Presently the descendants of slaves and serfs and textile workers got closets full of beauty, and fabric for the cold, a Great Enrichment since 1800 of three thousand percent."
―Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, author of the Bourgeois Era trilogy

"Fascinating and wide-ranging… This is an engrossing and illuminating portrait of the essential role fabric has played in human history."
Publishers Weekly

I very much look forward to Virginia's visit!