Fabrics tell a story of human development from the prehistoric world to the space age.
Journalist St. Clair (The Secret Lives of Color, 2017) focuses her spirited, illuminating cultural history on essential fibers that have been spun, knitted, and woven throughout time, from traces of thread discovered in Neolithic caves to the multilayered “one-person spaceships” worn by American astronauts. In each of the chapters the author presents an engaging narrative about plant- and animal-based textiles with particular significance to place and historical period. In ancient Egypt, for example, flax was harvested, beaten, and combed in a laborious process to produce fiber woven into linen, a fabric that became essential for trade, clothing, and mummification. Just as linen was associated with Egypt, silk, produced by worms feeding on mulberry trees, became a lucrative Chinese export. Fragments of the textile have been found in 8,500-year-old tombs and needles, looms, and shuttles unearthed from Neolithic sites. Some fabrics were pressed into surprising use: Although wool is heavy and porous, Viking seafarers depended on it for their sails. Sheep were abundant, and wool was woven to withstand fierce winds and rain. “By some estimates,” writes the author, “the sailcloth of the Norwegian Viking–era fleet would have required wool from up to two million sheep.” In the stratified society of medieval and Renaissance Europe, when “clothing defined who you were, what you did and your social status,” lace signified wealth and power. St. Clair stresses the importance of cotton to 19th-century America’s economy as well as its connection to slavery. Besides economic importance, fabrics can mean the difference between life and death for humans confronting extreme environments. The push to create new fabrics has led to synthetics, beginning with nylon and followed by many other materials that proved hugely profitable for manufacturers. Chemicals involved in synthetic production, however, expose workers to serious health risks, spurring the need for environmentally friendly methods of producing biodegradable fibers. The most fascinating research St. Clair reports is the effort to manufacture spider silk, coveted for its incredible strength.
Vibrant, entertaining, and brightly informative.