Are you a crafter? If you weren’t before, maybe the pandemic has started you on a “maker” kick. I have lots of friends who’ve taken up knitting, woodworking, gardening, and a variety of other hobbies. Maybe you’re not crafty at all, but interested in exploring the human condition throughout history. Or maybe you’re just an avid aficionado of markets. No matter which, this episode with Virginia Postrel is sure to contain conversation of interest to you.


EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes Postrel back to the show to discuss her most recent book, The Fabric of Civilization. They discussed the evolution of spinning thread, fabric dying, and textile manufacturing. (Did you know that it takes more than SIX MILES of thread to make a pair of jeans???) What most surprised you in listening to this episode? Do you have a new appreciation for your own closet? For human innovation and ingenuity?

Please help us keep this fascinating conversation going, and use the prompts below to explore with others.




1- What does Postrel mean when she says the Industrial Revolution was started by thread?


2- What is the origin of the term “Luddite,” and why is its common usage today ironic, according to Postrel?


3- Postrel points to two great technological advances in the history of textiles- spinning and fabric dying. The latter, she says, led to the chemical industry, which “changed everything.” What does she mean? To what extent should we consider this a net positive evolution? What does Postrel have to say about externalities, for example?


4- Postrel and Roberts have an interesting discussion on sumptuary laws. How did the purpose of these laws, and the incentive structures they created, compare in Confucian China, Renaissance Italy and Edo Japan? Can you think of any analgous laws that exit today? How would they compare?


5- When asked about the effect writing this book had on her, Postrel said it has made her appreciate mass production more, not less. How about you? Has this episode changed the way you feel?