Book Review: The Fabric of Civilization

The Fabric of Civilization: How textiles made the world, by Virginia Postrel. 4.5 out of 5 stars; I was a bit disappointed by the chapter on dyes, because I know most of it already and in greater detail. Then I started counting up how many books I’d read specifically on dyes, and it’s more than a dozen, so.

One of the interesting aspects of this book is that instead of covering everything in historical order, the author broke the book into categories – fiber, cloth, thread, dyes, etc. – and went through the history of each. This allows for a greater focus on the social and technological developments that go along with each aspect of making fabric. For example, one of the things I did not know in the chapter on dyes was how incredibly awful fabrics dyed with murex-derived purple stink. A smell recreated by archaeologist Deborah Ruscillo in the summer of 2001 trying to figure out just how many snails the process required. She found that 1) a large wool cloak would require thousands of snails, 2) the flies, the flies, it’s awful, and 3) the stink of murex-dyed cloth lingers even two decades and many, many washes in Tide later.

(me: Wow, no wonder ancient Rome was addicted to incense.)

A few points of specific interest. First, there’s a lot on how incremental improvements and accumulated small changes in practices and technology add up to big effects over the centuries, and even over shorter timescales. Silk production, for example, picked up by (among other things) figuring out how to chill eggs to spread out harvests over the year, grafting two different types of mulberry to get maximum leaf production, inventing portable stoves to warm up silkworm rooms, and salting cocoons to give workers an extra week to reel them; all things that let the same number of people produce more silk per harvest. And one of the very cool bits near the end of the dyes chapter was about a company that can dye a pound of fabric using 3 gallons of water – when traditional dying often uses over 75 gallons. As in, if you really want to be environmentally friendly, stop throwing out modern technology.

Second, the author gets across that for most of history – as in up to just two centuries ago – thread was time-consuming to produce and always in short supply. There’s a very sobering chart of how many workdays it’d take to handspin the yarn for various items; thirteen days for enough cotton to weave a pair of jeans, 385 days for the wool for a Viking sail. Which doesn’t count another 600 estimated days to pluck the sheep and prep the wool to be spun.

Third – espionage, espionage and sabotage everywhere. If there’s a fiber, a technique, or a dye anywhere in the world, someone’s tried to walk off with it without permission. And Jacquard of the punch-card loom fame had to flee Lyon several times in his life due to threats and attacks from those who feared his machines would take jobs away from the more labor-intensive drawlooms.

Fourth, and this was very interesting to dig into in the wake of our modern social breakdown… the book covers how textiles led to “social technologies” such as agreements, records, laws, and other customs to allow trust and reduce risks between strangers in long-distance transactions. Because fabric gets traded everywhere. A sobering note in the book was the observation that because you can’t easily see, touch, or put a money value on these technologies, they’re often dismissed as not important, or even actively evil. I think we can agree that continues to be a Problem.

Overall, very interesting for anyone who wants to dig into the history of civilization or add depth to a fictional world. I’d heard about ancient China using bolts of silk as currency, for example, but that Iceland had wadmal, a woolen twill used as legal money, was new. And it’s fascinating to poke through Fibonacci introducing the modern number system in 1202, bills of exchange in 13th century Italy, and the realization that in 1730 Paris you could be arrested for wearing calico fabric. The hardback is a bit pricey, you might prefer the Kindle version; but there are some charts you’ll want a larger screen to read in that case.

All in all, a well-woven work!


22 thoughts on “Book Review: The Fabric of Civilization

    1. Well, obviously the dyes have to wet the threads, so the first thing needs to be a deep dive into fluid mechanics, because you can’t possibly just accept surface tension on faith, and really need to understand compressible flows first. šŸ™‚

      *long extensive list*

      Yeah, sometimes my contrarian jerk personality, and strange sense of humor does result in deliberately answering questions uselessly and incorrectly… Why do you ask?


      PS: I may be in a place that is not the sanest ATM. Apologize if releasing the stress this way was disruptive.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. When I first read that, I imagined an insane Automatic Teller Machine.

        [Enter Pin]


        [Deposit] or [Withdraw]


        [Orange Juice] or [Barbecue Sauce]


        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, I do use the two wildly different currencies of trust and trolling, and I have at times claimed to be a badly written script, instead of a human being, so…

        Liked by 2 people

      3. On the other hand, I do not have full control over the trust transactions, and the trolling is less under my control than I would prefer, so I would not even make a good insane automatic teller machine.

        On the gripping hand, I am more likely to identify as Necron or Dalek than Motie.


  1. I’m gonna need this book. I already figured that textiles are an obvious kind of loot to recover in dungeon delves – if weather can get cold, humans and near-humans _need_ clothing or magical bullshit temperature regulation, so that ought to be universal outside of tropical regions – but I didn’t know where to start to get a view of the whole.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or alternatively, they get everything except the textiles.
      Armor without padding or harness.
      Piles of buttons.
      All the ties, liners and pads required to make things work are gone and they have to refurbish everything they find.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, what I mean is . . . okay, here’s a quote from the 1e DMG, page 92:

        “. . . So in distributing wealth amongst the creatures which inhabit the upper levels of dungeons/dungeon-like areas, as well as for petty monsters dwelling in small numbers in the wilderness, assign it accordingly. The bulk of such treasure will be copper pieces and silver. Perhaps there will be a bit of ivory or a cunningly-crafted item worth a few gold pieces.

        “Electrum will be most unusual, gold rare, and scarcer still will be a platinum piece or a small gem! Rarest of all, treasure of treasures – the magic item – is detailed hereafter (PLACEMENT OF MAGIC ITEMS). If some group of creatures actually has a treasure of 11 gold pieces, another will have 2,000 coppers and yet a third nothing save a few rusty weapons. Of course, all treasure is not in precious metals or rare or finely made substances. Is not a suit of armor of great value? What of a supply of oil? a vial of holy water? weapons? provisions? animals? The upper levels of a dungeon need not be stuffed like a piggy bank to provide meaningful treasures to the clever player character.”

        If monsters are raiding, most of their loot is going to be raw materials, tools, trade goods, foodstuffs, etc., rather than coin of the realm. And while most of the time the loot disposal can be abstracted away, either by characters getting rewarded for recovering stolen material or employing an agent to sell it off, knowing what’s supposed to happen is a good start to knowing what can go wrong and require further action.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you heard of The Old Handknitters of the Dales? It’s a book that describes how the rural people of England knit to stay fed back when hose had to be produced by hand. If they swaved, they could knock out a pair in a week. They started with purchased yarn, though. At least if it was for pay. If it was for home use, then they might unravel a knitted garment.

    Oh, and they were volumn knitters who used knitting sheaths to stabilize the right needle and allow them to knit and walk to the coalmine, cook, knit, harvest crops, raise children, etc.


  3. I don’t believe it, about the purple dye. If it stunk that much for that long, and you had that many cultures using murex purple, there would be a huge number of jokes about it in multiple literatures. People love to make jokes about rich people and kings, especially if they can claim they are joking about the enemy king.

    So obviously, the re-creation was missing at least one important step.

    Now… I don’t know dye or snails, but I do know that when I bought a pair of yak wool socks with yak leather soles from the Himalayas at college, when they got warm enough they started to smell like yak dung fires in the Himalayas. Hoboy.

    So did I wash them in Tide? No!

    It was winter, and I wanted to use them at some point, so I stuck them in the space between my dorm room windowpane and the window screen. Every so often, I opened the window on the dormroom side and checked the smell. After three or four cold winter days, there was no yak dung smell left.

    Now, that’s one way to get rid of a lot of smells — just blow a lot of air around them, so the molecules of scent tend to disperse. Some smells break down with heat, others get worse. Some smells can be treated chemically, or can be leached off with substances that tend to absorb smells, like charcoal. There are lots of tricks.

    The process of making Tyrian purple probably had more than one trade secret involved. Making snails into a stable, non-stinky dye was probably the most secret bit. And just because one person has trouble figuring it out, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a better way to do things back then.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Okay… apparently Tyrian purple dye is chemically similar in a lot of ways to indigo and woad.

        And the last step when you make indigo dyed cloth is to wash it off in an acid, such as citric acid or acetic acid. It sets the dye but it also takes out the smell.

        I would imagine that lemon juice or (more likely) good old vinegar would be very nice for getting rid of fishy smells. And then you’d probably want to wash the item in normal soap and water, and I imagine that lye soap would get rid of any remaining smell.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Apparently it’s normal when you dye woad or indigo to rinse off the dyed skeins with tannic acid, vinegar, or salt water, just to get the harsh alkalinity out before doing something with it, although some people use just water. Some people wait until the stuff is dry before they rinse it, and others just do it right after the dyeing is done. Huh.

    I do think the Romans must have had a lot of practice dealing with fish smells, given that they ate garum.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s