The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel
A few weeks ago, I was wandering around the sprawling exhibits of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York, when I suddenly found myself in a light-filled room, standing across from the ancient Egyptian temple of Dendur (completed 10 BC). Constructed during the reign of Augustus, the temple was originally built in Lower Nubia to honor the goddess Isis and the demi-god brothers Pedesi and Pihor¹. Papyrus stalk and lotus flower carvings wind up from the temple’s base. The outside walls are adorned with figures making offerings to the gods and columns of hieroglyphs. Among these hieroglyphs, repeated time and time again, are thin, hooked symbols representing the phonogram ‘s.’ Each figure looks like a small piece of fabric, perhaps a bolt of linen, draped over a line.
It is, in fact, a depiction of folded cloth, and it is no coincidence that such a symbol should be so ubiquitous in the ancient Egyptian writing system. As Virginia Postrel argues in her book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (2020), textiles have played, and continue to play, a “central role…in the history of technology, commerce, and civilization itself.” By following the thread of textile evolution through nearly the whole of human history – from neolithic bast fiber string to modern fabrics composed of conductive thread – Postrel weaves an insightful account of the long-run process of technological innovation and the unexpected impacts it can have on our complex society.
Postrel organizes the book to reflect phases of the textile creation process: first fiber, then thread, cloth, dye, trade, consumption, and innovation. Each chapter is a microcosm of the element’s history. Take, for instance, the evolution of thread-spinning technologies. Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC) spinners used a simple spindle whorl – often nothing more than a simple clay cone or disc with a hole in the center for inserting a stick. The spinner wrapped raw fiber around the whorl and spun it around the stick, allowing gravity to twist the fibers together into twine as the apparatus dropped. A labor-intensive process, it took Bronze Age spinners an estimated 147 days to spin the yarn for a single toga and a whopping 566 days to spin the yarn for a sail. However, this simple technological achievement is heralded as a proto-wheel, one of the first human inventions to harness the power of rotation. The whorl would evolve into spindle wheels, spinning jennies, spinning mills, and eventually, the modern textile factories of today.
In another fascinating section of the book, Postrel explains that the methods used for weaving thread into cloth require deep familiarity with arithmetic and geometrical patterns. In fact, mathematician Ellen Harlizius-Kluck even makes the compelling argument that the mathematics of weaving may have influenced the arithmetic insights offered in Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC). Postrel explains:
Like music, [weaving] is a profoundly mathematical pursuit. Weavers have to understand ratios, detect prime numbers, and calculate areas and lengths. Manipulating warps turns threads into rows and rows of patterns, points into lines and lines into planes. Woven cloth represents some of humanity’s earliest algorithms. It is embodied code.
The idea of weaving as “embodied code” is perhaps best represented in the punch-card loom created by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1804. Jacquard’s loom relied on an intricate system of punch cards which automated the process of weaving by signaling when to raise warp (vertical) threads and insert weft (horizontal) threads. One of the most advanced technologies of its day, the Jacquard loom significantly increased productivity and allowed for the creation of much more complex designs. Postrel mentions that one such design – a woven portrait of Jacquard – required about “24,000 punch cards, one for each row of weft, with more than a thousand holes each.”
The evolution of dye for fabric has also had a remarkable influence on the trajectory of chemical innovation. As Postrel argues, the pursuit of fabric dye “altered the balance of political, economic, and military power, produced the first wonder drugs, and gave us plastics and synthetic fibers.” The history of blue dye is especially fascinating, not least because indigo dye is one of the most sought-after natural dyes to this day. The process of creating dye from the indigo plant requires that the leaves are soaked in alkaline water and kept at low levels of oxygen. A notoriously smelly endeavor, “Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) banned it from an eight-mile radius of any of her palaces” due to the stench. Nonetheless, competition and the search for less labor-intensive, more potent, and longer-lasting dyes led to centuries of scientific experimentation. With the arrival of synthetic dyes in 1856, an entirely new realm opened for modern chemistry. Postrel explains: “The makers of dyestuffs diversified into photographic supplies, insecticides, rayon, synthetic rubber, resins, fixed nitrogen, and not least important, pharmaceuticals. Dyes made the modern world.”
Not only did textiles lead to a multitude of scientific innovations, but they also had an outsized impact on the creation of new social technologies. The need to formulate effective processes for trading – and especially for trading fabric – contributed to the refinement and emergence of new institutions, such as mail service, record-keeping, contracts and agreements, and trade laws. In fact, in their quest to trade efficiently, the textile traders of Italy instigated the widespread adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals, which were first introduced to Europe by Leonardo of Pisa, also known as Fibonacci (c. 1170-1250). Eventually, these conditions gave rise to increasingly larger markets based on trust, cooperation, and competition.
Despite the countless benefits of textile evolution, Postrel does not shy away from some of the challenges that often accompany technological progress. For instance, the advent of inventions like the spinning mill and other “patent machines” brought about temporary, yet painful, periods of employment readjustment. Chemical experiments with dye also yielded many deadly new discoveries. For example, in 1782, during his search for a Prussian blue synthetic dye, chemist Carl Wilhelm Sheele accidentally invented one of the most lethal compounds known to man: hydrogen cyanide. As Postrel explains, “the story of textiles encompasses beauty and genius, excess and cruelty, social hierarchies and subtle workarounds, peaceful trade and savage wars.” The history of textiles serves as a reminder that humans alone are responsible for the ways in which we pursue and harness progress.
In the end, some readers may walk away unconvinced that textiles are truly responsible for the entire scope of inventions discussed in the book. Others may find sections of the book a bit dull, especially highly technical sections. However, even these critiques reflect essential aspects of technological progress over the long run. It is an arduous process of recombination, iteration, and adaptation by individuals or groups who are determined to solve ever-changing problems. Moreover, the consequences of even a single new technology can profoundly shift the trajectory of innovation to have a multitude of unpredictable, cascading effects in our complex world.
Technological evolution is ultimately a relentless, compounding process that binds together centuries of human creativity, culture, and ambition. In this way, the intricate patterns of human progress often stem from the simplest origins. Take for instance, the simple spindle whorl. No more than a carved rock and a stick, this simple object has been transformed by humans time and time again to become the ultra-modern manufacturing factories of today. In tracing the history of textiles, Postrel weaves together a rich tapestry of human ingenuity, scientific discovery, and societal shifts that transcend mere fabric. She shows us something crucial about the nature of technological progress. It can be a tedious, unpredictable, and sometimes painful process, but technological innovation is also one of the most beautiful and unassumingly hopeful of human endeavors.
 Due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser in the 1960s, the area originally occupied by the Temple of Dendur was inundated. The United States provided support for the conservation, restoration, and protection of the temple. In recognition of the United States’ contribution, Egypt presented the Temple of Dendur to the country as a gift in 1965. The temple was dismantled, and each block was carefully labeled and transported to the United States. The MET then reconstructed the temple in a specially designed gallery, where it was inaugurated in 1978.