Hearing St. Clair describing her book on public radio, caught my attention, and led me to look into this text. My mother ran/owned a fabric store for many years where she and my sister were involved with many aspects of sewing personally and as part of the business. Given my family involvement, I was fascinated to see this history and context for textile origins, its progression, and perspective on its influence in our lives.
After an Introduction, the author proceeds through almost self-contained thirteen chapters that ‘cover’ her subject and ‘weave the story.’ More specifically, she deals with: (1) Fibers in the Cave: The Origins of Weaving, (2) Dead Men’s Shroud: Wrapping and Unwrapping Mummies, (3) Gifts and Horses: Silk in Ancient China, (4) Cities that Silk Built: The Silk Roads, (5) Surf Dragons: The Vikings Woolen Sails, (6) A King’s Ransom: Wool in Medieval England, (7) Diamonds and the Ruff: Lace and Luxury, (8) Solomon’s Coats: Cotton, America and Trade, (9) Layering in Extremis: Clothing to Conquer Everest and the South Pole, (10) Workers in the Factory: Rayon’s Dark Past, (11) Under Pressure: Suites Suitable for Space, (12) Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Record Breaking Sports Fabrics, (13) The Golder Cape: Harnessing Spider Silk. There is also a concluding chapter ‘Golden Threads: A Coda’ as well as helpful Acknowledgements, Glossary, Notes, Bibliography, and Index sections.
My favorite parts include those when St. Clair uses poetic and literary allusions and descriptors starting early on in the book. For instance, in the Introduction she offers the explanation of the 3 fates of Greek mythology that create a person’s life thread with a beginning, middle and end (each a story line) affected by forces and woven into the culture. I was also particularly interested in the evolution of weaving from a household activity to business and industry (see Robertson’s Essays in Medieval Culture (Princeton Legacy Library) and Khanna’s The Future Is Asian for more on the silk road). Then, there is the development of synthetic textiles leading eventually to global sourcing (see Khanna’s Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization). The prominence of women in this movement both empowering and exploitative comes through the narrative (see also Paglia’s Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism). The observation that we have reached the point of having disposable clothing and the need for environmental consumers to turn the tide against that trend was revelatory. Having been a swimmer and had aerospace business familiarity, it was fun to read the author’s accounts regarding those and other high-performance fabric applications.
From a personal stance, I would have liked more on the fabric business and individual sewing which has now become more of an art form in the developed countries. Some charts about the economics and additional illustrations would have been useful as well. Textbooks like “Going Global: The Textile and Apparel Industry” by Kunz et al may be useful sources in that regard, but obviously do not have the charm and artistic quality of St. Clairs’ presentation.
For those with such interests and tastes, this book is clearly worth your attention.
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