All cloth begins with a twist. Journalist Kassia St Clair uncovers the fascinating stories of how fabrics have shaped the world we live in, beginning with the secret power of the linens that wrapped the bodies of Egyptian pharaohs.
St Clair draws on some of this cutting-edge academic research in her purposefully eclectic book; it reads as if it’s the result of an enticing mind-mapping exercise. It is broken up into small sections which occasionally make one feel that, after following her fancy, St Clair had to meet a professional writer’s target of a certain number of words a day. She takes us through the literature quickly and looks at stories across time and from around the world. It is zappy stuff – she propels us from Ancient Egypt to the achievements of Uniqlo or plights of Bangladesh in a sentence or two. But the book is also passionate, informative and fun. It is perfect to dip into anywhere. You will learn about Elizabethan lace and the Michael Phelps swimsuit. You will, fortunately, be told more than once, how warp-weighted looms are engineered.
The history of ‘women’s work’ being devalued is very much a part of textile history, from the lace-makers of 17th-century Flanders to the Japanese silk factory workers of the 19th century. Just like sweatshop workers in the garment industry today, women worked long hours to be paid a pittance — often on products that are sold at prices they could never hope to afford. In this book, Kassia St Clair looks at the developments of textiles through human history, and explains how our ancestors’ lives were shaped by these changes. In her journey, she touches on everything from the materials that went into Neil Armstrong’s space suit to biotech firms experimenting with spider silk...Having read St Clair’s accounts of factory workers’ horrific injuries, I’ll certainly think again before buying anything rayon... I recommend this book to anyone who wants to look at the textiles in our world with a new understanding.
I devoured this book on one of the first chilly days of autumn, wrapped up in a thick woolly cardigan. It is not hard to see why humans, as naked apes, should have felt the need for something to cover them up and keep out the cold. Animal pelts did the job for millennia. Cloth is not quite, as St Clair excitably claims, the “original technology” (Oldowan stone-cutting tools are 2m years older than the earliest cloth). But it is still pretty extraordinary to think that, as long as 34,500 years ago, our ancestors started figuring out the immensely tricky task of twisting fibres from plants into yarns, and then weaving these threads into a web of cloth to shield their bodies from the wind, sun or rain.