• The Fabric of Civilization

  • How Textiles Made the World
  • By: Virginia I. Postrel
  • Narrated by: Caroline Cole
  • Length: 9 hrs and 42 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (119 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From Paleolithic flax to 3D knitting, explore the global history of textiles and the world they weave together in this enthralling and educational guide.

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.

©2021 Virginia I. Postrel (P)2021 OrangeSky Audio

Critic Reviews

“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

“Expansive… The author is excellent at highlighting how textiles truly changed the world.”―Wall Street Journal

“Textile-making hasn’t gotten enough credit for its own sophistication, and for all the ways it undergirds human technological innovation—an error Virginia Postrel’s erudite and complete book goes a long way toward correcting at last.”―Wired

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Pop journalism article lengthened into a book

It started out okay but then it just got worse and worse.

The title implies this book will explore how the development of textiles helped create civilisation. How the production and sale of cloth shaped trade routes and financial markets, it's influence in the development of new technologies, and the effect it had on our society through slavery, workers rights etc. Less than half this book covered these topics, and even then it is a brief overview at best.

It started out okay. The author talked about the meditative quality of spinning fibre, and how it was often a social thing for women. Thread and yarn was labour intensive to make by hand, and cloth was important, as a result their work was important. It helped me reframe the idea of what spinning meant to women. But at the same time, the control of its sale was still held by men.

The author then talked about the technological advancements in cloth production from ancient times to the present. The selective breeding of plants and animals to create raw materials, the development of dyes which led to the the chemical revolution of the Victorian era, how the production of fabric helped start the industrial revolution through the mechanisation of cloth production, and how automatic weavers were the progenitors of punch card computers, and thus modern computers.

Then things started to go off the rails. The author devoted an entire chapter to advancements in the production of fabric in the present day, which boiled down to, technology helps us produce good quality fabric for much cheaper, and people want more environmentally friendly cloth. How does this relate to the advancement of the entire human civilisation?

There was a single chapter devoted to trade, where the author said Italians developed credit slips in the 1300s, when Arab traders already had advanced systems of trade and had been doing this for centuries. She also seemed to give credit to the cloth industry for advancements made in trade, when they just appeared to be be advancements that came out of trade in general.

The author mentioned how the spinning wheel technology was invented in China, and it was the first of the kind. But never mentioned the pottery wheel was developed a few millennia before? I need more of an explanation here.

The author also spent an inordinate amount of time talking to people who have tech startups that revolve around fabric. Yeah, it's interesting, but how has athleisurewear made from synthetic material altered the shape of civilisation? (And that was the most practical of the innovations.) She spoke to a lot of people with start ups which hadn't actually achieved much commercially, or only had some vague promise of future success. It seemed like the author used this book as an excuse to speak to these tech people whom she was in awe of for some reason, and name-dropping famous tech firms.

The author also covered a lot of topics regarding what clothes Italian and Japanese people were allowed to wear at certain times in history, but again, how did that affect the creation of human civilisation? The author talked about how there was a demand for certain types of cloth in West Africa (I think in the 1800s), and how a Scottish cloth producer met this demand and altered the patterns he made to appeal to the market there. Also, how people in west African would buy cloth made in the West and alter it to suit their own stylistic taste, same deal with people in South America. This is interesting and everything, but how does this relate to the creation of civilisation?

On top of that, the author kept describing the physical appearance of experts she was speaking to and telling us things like one was a long distance marathon runner or that another liked to wear a motorcycle jacket. What? How is this relevant? Isn't it kind of demeaning to reduce an expert in their field down to a few pithy quotes about their appearance?

The author also liked to repeatedly insert herself into the text, talking about how she had food poising in India and as a result some expert had more time to dye some cloth, or something, and the circumstances around how she took a photo of an indigenous woman in South America. She would also insert her own personal judgements into the text, saying something like - it was surprising to find someone in Georgia(the state) studying a particular topic. There were many examples of this which were very off putting.

Then there was the narrator. She didn't have the best pronunciation at times, but it wasn't too bad. However, when she quoted women she would speak like a little girl, and when she quoted men, she would speak like a caveman. This was kind of insulting and somewhat offensive to people who were freely offering their advice and expertise to the author.

I'm also judging this book as much by what the author included, as what she didn't. I thought there would be discussion of the relationship between slavery and the production of cotton. The slave trade had a fundamental effect in shaping society, but the author barely mentions slavery other than to say it was bad. This book is about how the production of textiles shapes our society, and she barely mentions slavery at all? What in the absolute....

In the end, I got the feeling I would rather read a book from the experts the author spoke to than her. Half the book had nothing to do with the development of civilisation, and the chapters that did, had only the most brief overview. By the end, I didn't know if I could trust anything the author said.

Basically, this book gave me a good place to start with my own research and inspiration to seek out sources I can actually trust.

If you want a well-researched book that delves into the evolution of trade and civilisation, I would recommend The Golden Rhinoceros - Histories of the African Middle Ages. It covers areas of study which aren't as well-known in western scholarship and is extremely interesting.

3 people found this helpful

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I can’t believe I listened to an entire book about textiles.

I’m having a hard time thinking of a subject I could be less interested in than textiles. Or fabric. Or even clothes.
But I was fascinated by the entire book. It seems obvious to me now, after having completed it, that fabrics and humans’ desire for fabrics is at the heart of so much of our history. And the author not only makes a great case for why it’s important ti understand it but makes it so …interesting to learn about.

Most books that cover subject sweeping through centuries or millenniums get lost along the way. Either too bogged down in the weeds or give in to lazy generalizations. Not this book though. It’s thoroughly researched and engaging.
If you are interested in history at all, any history, then get this book.

2 people found this helpful

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FANTASTIC HISTORY BOOK

LOVED IT!!!!!! GREAT NARRATOR!!! I WILL NEVER TAKE FABRIC FOR GRANTED. AND IT ALL STARTED WITH A PIECE OF STRING.

2 people found this helpful

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Engaging history not as thrilled with narrator

I often find nonfiction either boring or too much like memoir. While Postrel lost me when she got up to the innovators section (way too many big boys with their big toys BS for my taste), I found her angle on civilization quite interesting. There were a few times where I thought she was overlooking more influential factors in preference of her textile-centric viewpoint, but not so much as to undermine her thesis.

While I found the narrator to be generally competent with good phrasing, use of pitch, etc. I did find a few things bad enough to make me set it aside several times. First, her pronunciations were…weird. I don’t pretend to know dictionary standard pronunciation for every word (I’d always heard cochineal as cokineel and was surprised to see websters coachineel. She does use websters). Her pronunciations of several scientific terms was off and she was very inconsistent with some non European names of peoples and individuals. (They cant be both Eee-wee and Yew-ay.). Second, she did shift her tone and voice to try to indicate quotes. But it was clear she had only a couple of voices to use. While they were for the most part free of stereotyping or dialect (no Boston accent, even for the guy described by the author as having a strong one). But a lot of her more feminine voices had kind of sing-song intonations which kind of sounded wishy-washy and her masculine ones were often chuffy self satisfied voices. I thought these didn’t serve the text well.

I admit some of the issue with listening rather than reading any book is the repetition of words. Repetition of a crucial word with few correct synonyms is usually not an issue when reading.. When you have to hear someone say textiles or cochineal hundreds or dozens of times respectively it can become grating. I’m pretty understanding about this and try to take it into account, but for folks who might not anticipate it, fair warning.

1 person found this helpful

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Eye-opening re research of future fabrics

Enjoyed the story very much. Quite annoyed that narrator mispronounced treadle and towns of Waltham and Natick Massachusetts, maybe others that I don't recall or didn't know better.

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Fantastically textured!

So interesting and relevant, revealing and educational and entertaining! Kudos! Stuff I knew and never put in context as well as so very much that I didn't!

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Great book!!!

Stepped away from my usual reads with this one and it definitely did not disappoint. This is a fantastic book full of history and the origins of textiles. I never knew it could be so interesting.

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How textiles helped me to grow up.

i was intrigued by the title but upon reading the unfolding narrative I grew beleaguered with details and lack of pictures. Then went to Amazon/Kindle for copy with some illustrations. Audible version still was useful. Sadly a lack of colorful illustrations disqualified the hard copy from covering my coffee table.
This book reminds me of fabrics role in my youth. Dressing up for school.Decking out for the Easter Parade. Keeping up with the latest fashion crazes with peers. The trips to small and big stores for ties, suits and developing personal tastes. Also important were the curtains I helped my mother stretch and hang and later peered through. The book reminded me of my deceased and fashionable sister who sewed her clothes, loaded her closets with fashion statements and providing many squabbles with her sisters borrowing from her stash. That same sister gifted me with fashionable men's clothing.
But eventually I realized how quickly fashion changed and squandered money, often winding up in the "rag bin" or thrift stores.
Thus escaping the hunger for fashion and developed passions for investing hard earned money, education, literacy, art hobbies antiques and beautiful gardens and wife.
So I must credit one fashionable sister for artistic tastes but give myself credit for the once fashionable that in time "grew" in value.
Thus my broad interests in the technical aspects of fabrics is well rewarded by perusing both audible and printed book versions.
Thank the author for reminding me how fashion helped weaved my life.

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Fascinating history of civilization through textiles

I loved the book. An extremely fascinating look at the history of civilization through textiles. A very well researched study of all aspects of textiles and the impact it has had on economics, art. Science, chemistry sociology in short everything.
The book really represented new a d very interesting knowledge.
I am involved in textiles so it is a subject close to my heart. But I’m sure the book would be of interest to everyone.

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Wonderfully enlightening

This book provides a riveting history of textiles that one would never have imagined.
The thread of its narrative gives insights into mankind. It’s obvious the author was inspired by the subject matter

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  • Shona Hoey
  • 04-01-22

Absolutely fascinating!

I was recommended this by a colleague and was not disappointed. It feels like the sort of knowledge which changes your world view, and makes you sound really clever if you repeat any of it :')

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  • Alyce von Rothkirch
  • 06-22-22

A great narrative but...

The history (and future) of fabrics and textiles is truly fascinating. I just wish they'd chosen a less robotic reader. Honestly, you can't tell if the reader was a human or a machine. She was also totally tone deaf to pauses, sub/chapter endings etc. It's testament to the wonderful narrative that I persisted to the end.

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  • Miss E Keene
  • 01-27-22

Amazing History, very original and informative

This is an incredibly well researched and written book. I work in this field, and yet heard so many new paths of thought on textile history I have not heard explored before.
It is a weighty read/listen, and I digested it in chunks over the space of about a month.
I liked the narrator, but sometimes found myself nodding off to her voice, it was so relaxing, and would have to go back and re-listen. I enjoyed this though.

1 person found this helpful