Remember the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur?
King Minos of Crete has compelled Athens to supply a regular stream of sacrificial victims to a Minotaur living in a labyrinth. Athenian hero Theseus decides to put a halt to the slaughter. He volunteers as a sacrifice, smuggles a sword into the maze, and chops off the monster’s head.
Still, Theseus would never have escaped the labyrinth without the aid of his (doomed) lover Ariadne, who supplies him a ball of string with which he marks his path into the maze — which becomes his path out of the maze, as well, together with the Athenians he came to rescue.
Not all heroes wield blades. And many problems cannot be solved simply by hacking away at them. Their causes are complex and interconnected. They twist and turn. They are fabrics that must be unraveled, patiently and prudently, to be understood. Often, solutions come from following seemingly small threads in unexpected directions, and weaving them into something new.
In her masterful new book The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, Virginia Postrel serves as her readers’ Ariadne — guiding them through millennia of human experience to discover fresh and illuminating insights about how cultures and economies form, how innovation occurs, and how elites and interest groups often try to inhibit that innovation in order to preserve their power and position.
As Postrel points out, our thinking about social and technological change is warped by the materials that happen to survive to be studied. Scholars name historical ages after rocks and metals. Archaeologists sift through mounds of pottery shards. Textiles, which make so much of civilization possible, largely disintegrate and fade from view.
In The Fabric of Civilization, Postrel makes the unseen visible again. “What we usually call the Stone Age could just as easily be called the String Age,” she points out. “The two prehistoric technologies were literally intertwined.”
Speaking of being warped, that word was itself derived from making textiles. Imagine a weaver’s loom. The warp is the yarn stretched lengthwise across it. The weft is the yarn woven over and under the warp to create the fabric. In the process, the warp is pulled and bent, which is how the word took on a new meaning.
Postrel works the metaphor throughout The Fabric of Civilization. Stretched across her writer’s loom are fascinating chapter yarns about the origins of fiber, the spinning of thread, the weaving and dying of cloth, and the rise of traders, consumers, and innovators whose talents and choices helped create our modern world.
I found the chapter on dyes especially revealing. In our clothes, tools, and furnishings, we’ve always cared about more than just functionality. We relish texture and color. We use them to express ideas or signal status. “Dyes bear witness to the universal human quest to imbue artifacts with beauty and meaning — and to the chemical ingenuity and economic enterprise that desire calls forth,” she writes, adding that to a surprisingly large extent “the history of dyes is the history of chemistry.”
The connection between the textile trade and scientific progress is one of the intellectual wefts readers will discover woven throughout the chapters of the book. Another is abuse of power. Whether it is the use of slaves or other exploited workers to produce fiber on a massive scale, the use of government regulation to suppress imported fabrics, or the use of violence to destroy labor-saving machines, the story of textiles features a plot full of villainous characters.
But it also features many heroes, following more Ariadne’s pattern than that of Theseus. Postrel’s book chronicles “the achievements of inventors, artists, and laborers, the longings of scientists and consumers, the initiative of explorers and entrepreneurs.” These heroes came in every color, espousing every creed, from every corner of the earth. They pursued their own ends. Although there was no concerted design, a pattern emerged.
It was the very fabric of civilization itself, “a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads.”