Virginia Postrel on Textiles and the Fabric of Civilization
Nov 16 2020

Fabric-of-Civilization-194x300.jpg Author and journalist Virginia Postrel talks about her book The Fabric of Civilization and How Textiles Made the World with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Postrel tells the fascinating story behind the clothes we wear and everything that goes into producing them throughout history. The history of textiles, Postrel argues, is a good way of understanding the history of the world.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Nov 16 2020 at 7:35pm

This episode of Econtalk wins the award for most in need of visual aids. They discuss these terms of art in the textile field, and how the fibers are manipulated and I am completely lost.

Lauren Landsburg, Econlib Ed.
Nov 16 2020 at 7:50pm

Hi, Jay.

If you look in the Delve Deeper section on this page, you will see that we have provided a whole bunch of links with illustrations and detailed explanations of many of the terms used in the podcast episode.

Nov 17 2020 at 10:52pm

You would probably enjoy visiting Postrel’s YouTube channel, where she has posted several visually informative videos related to aspects of her book: dyeing, how much thread is needed for a simple bandana, that kind of thing. We moderns have trouble visualizing looms and weaving precisely because it’s a lost but in-plain-site art.

Meredith Galloway
Nov 17 2020 at 3:05pm

Thank you for such an engaging discussion surrounding the interplay of humanities and technological innovation. I learned so much and developed a deeper understanding for what I see and use daily. What a joy!

Gregory McIsaac
Nov 18 2020 at 1:42pm

Much interesting info about the global history of textiles in this conversation. The US National Park Service has a location in Lowell, Massachusetts dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of textile production there in the 19th Century.

I enjoyed a visit there about 20 years ago. One of the factors that facilitated the establishment of thread and textile manufacturing along the northeastern coast of the US was the geology that produced rivers of a size and slope that could be harnessed to power the mills in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid 1800s, water power was gradually replaced by steam power, mostly fueled by coal from Pennsylvania.

Tangential point: toward the end of the conversation, Russ said “…something like 2% of Americans are involved in the agricultural industry…” While the amount of labor devoted to food and fiber production has decreased dramatically since the early 1900s, the 2% figure can be misleading, because it refers only to people directly employed on farms, and does not count the full food and fiber supply network.

The US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service estimates about 11% of US employment is in the food and fiber sector:

But I think this may still be incomplete because it does not appear to include employment in manufacturing and distribution of farm equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, or employment in transporting food and textiles from points of production to consumers. Portions of other sectors, such as health (human and animal), research, education and public outreach are also dedicated to food and textile production and use. It is probably difficult to quantify, but I’d speculate that including all of these might add an additional 5% to the total employment in the US. The people who grew up on farms and then became production workers or executives at John Deere, or county Extension agents are still employed in the agricultural industry in my opinion

Al McCabe
Nov 20 2020 at 9:57pm

This program brought to mind a comment from an EconTalk guest several weeks ago:

Fredrik deBoer:  In other words, simply an argument of the type, ‘A poor person today lives better than rich people from a hundred years ago,’ that doesn’t mean anything to me because society has progressed. And, the whole point is to bring everybody along with us as we go.

Life for almost all of mankind has been work hard to feed and clothe the family.  Maybe a war once in a while.  The reason we don’t live that way today is largely the free market.  I know socialists only care about dividing up what we have now and don’t really think about future generations, but that part of mankind is really the most important driver in making the world what it is today.

[For those interested: The podcast episode with Al McCabe’s quote by deBoer is available at: Fredrik deBoer on the Cult of Smart.–Econlib Ed.]

Nov 22 2020 at 6:52pm

Thanks for the flashbacks:

To Dickens, when the underclass characters make a big deal about getting away with Scrooge’s bedclothes and draperies after his (future) death.

To my youth, when I spent a boring summer screwing together thousands of wooden frames for steel heddles.

To the Nishijin district of Kyoto, where the Jacquard looms were introduced 150 years ago and can be heard clacking away on the ground floor of hundreds of houses.

Luke J
Nov 25 2020 at 1:38am

I just finished reading her book. Highly recommended! Postrel’s depth of research is so impressive, and even though I had no internet in fabric prior to this Econtalk episode (golden conversation Russ!) I found her book fun and engaging.

JK Brown
Nov 28 2020 at 6:28pm

This reminded me of the significance of bed linens or rather the lack there of, in Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ for the miners and unemployed, even in mid-1930s Britain.  The passage below is from chapter 6 discussing budgets.  ‘Clothing clubs’, I suppose were early lay-away plans?


One or two comments are needed here. To begin with the list leaves out a great deal–blacking, pepper, salt, vinegar, matches, kindling-wood, razor blades, replacements of utensils, and wear and tear of furniture and bedding, to name the first few that come to mind. Any money spent on these would mean reduction on some other item. A more serious charge is tobacco. This man happened to be a small smoker, but even so his tobacco would hardly cost less than a shilling a week, meaning a further reduction on food. The ‘clothing clubs’ into which unemployed people pay so much a week are run by big drapers in all the industrial towns. Without them it would be impossible for unemployed people to buy new clothes at all. I don’t know whether or not they buy bedding through these clubs. This particular family, as I happen to know, possessed next to no bedding.

Also, I would recommend the 2016 Econtalk interview with James Besson for a follow up.  The topic is ‘learning by doing’ but I remember the basis of his thesis came from the movement of labor from farms to the textile mills.

JK Brown
Dec 3 2020 at 10:28pm

Just had this video from an Ulster-Scot heritage center  showing the production of pure linen from seed to handing it over to the spinners.  Three months for growing, couple months for soaking and drying then processing.


Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: September 1, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is September 1st, 2020, and my guest is journalist and author, Virginia Postrel.

I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwire 5220 headset. Virginia last appeared on EconTalk, it's hard to believe, but it was November of 2006, talking about style. Her latest book is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. Virginia, welcome back to EconTalk.

Virginia Postrel: It's great to be with you.

Russ Roberts: I want to remind listeners, you can watch this interview on YouTube if all goes well and you can listen to it wherever podcasts are available.


Russ Roberts:Virginia, your book explores the incredible array of stuff that we make fabric from and how that process has evolved over time. Let's start with a simple item, maybe a shirt or a sweater, and talk about how that was made in the past; and then we'll talk about how it's made in the present. So, let's start with the past. You need to make some clothes. What would you do in olden times?

Virginia Postrel: Olden times. Well, first of all, you got to get the fiber and that might involve growing flax or raising sheep of which, in and of itself involves many, many, many centuries and millennia of cultivation and breeding to get the most fiber possible out of the plant or animal. Then you've got to harvest it. You've got to clean it, which is an enormously complicated process, time-consuming, often gross, and--depending on what it is, or so I've heard. This is one thing I haven't--I did a lot of things during my research, but I did not clean any fibers. And, then you have your fiber.

And, to contrast that to today, I did go to a cotton harvest in Lubbock, Texas, and instead of having people bending over in the fields, plucking cotton balls off of the plants, there are these giant machines that harvest eight rows--yeah, eight rows at a time. They come out, they have the--go. And, the cotton goes in the front and it comes out rolled up in the back. And, then they take it to the gin and it's similarly a pretty automated process. So, that's a big difference.

Then, once you've got your fiber, you have to turn it into thread. And, this is, I think the part that today we most take for granted, and it's where the Industrial Revolution started. And, I think there's a reason that the Industrial Revolution started with thread. It's not just an accident. It's because it was such a huge leverage point in the standard of living. I have a chart in the book, which we can maybe look at it, of how much thread it takes to make certain things.

And, this is not the thread that you sew with. This is the thread that you weave or knit the fabric out of.

So, you take a pair of jeans, which, in the scheme of things is not that much fabric. Pair of jeans, to weave that amount of fabric, takes about six miles of thread. Six miles of thread is a lot of thread. And, nowadays, you can spin in a modern spinning plant that amount of thread in a few seconds. But in the pre-Industrial Revolution period, the very fastest, best spinners in the world were in India; and they could spend 100 meters of thread an hour.

And, that means that it would take about 13 days, 13 eight-hour days, to spin the amount of thread in a pair of jeans. And, that's before you weave it, it's before you dye it. That's just for the spinning; and it doesn't include all the cleaning, and harvesting, and any of that.

So, you can see--not in the book, but I've recently been working on some videos--I also used a bandana as an example. A bandana is very small piece of cloth--it's 22 inches square. And, it would take 24 labor hours to spin that amount of thread, the amount of thread in a bandana.

And, these were the fastest spinners in the world. If you took your European wool spinners pre-Industrial Revolution, they were somewhat slower. So, we--and the result was women--and unlike weaving, which depending on the culture, sometimes men did it, sometimes women did it, sometimes both--spinning throughout history has basically been a female occupation. And it was one of those occupations that every woman did all the time. All the time, because there was so much a shortage of thread. And I talk in the book, I have lots of examples, but Aztec women or women who were ruled by the Aztecs had to turn out enormous amount of cotton cloth for tribute, and taxes, and so forth. At the time a girl was, like, three years old, she'd be starting to learn how to spin this cotton, and her mother would punish her in various ways if she didn't do it.

It was just this unbelievably burdensome occupation. It's not an unpleasant thing to do. People spin today for fun. It can be relaxing; you can gossip while you're doing it; you can watch your kids, you can watch your sheep, whatever. But it was a constant occupation. And, that's something I think we don't appreciate at all today.

Russ Roberts: Well, it's a deep point, because, when we think about the past--and I think we're all aware that we have more clothes in our closet than people in the past had in their closets, if they had a closet. And, when I think about that--

Virginia Postrel: They didn't have closets.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, of course not. Because they didn't need any. Because they only had, like, three shirts, or one shirt. And, I never thought about why, other than the obvious answer that clothes were more expensive in the past, what that meant really was is that the number of hours it took to create the thread, let alone weave it into the fabric that you need to make the shirt, and then cut it, and sew it, etc. was immense. A sheet, you point out is how many miles of thread? on a twin-bed sheet?

Virginia Postrel: So, I have to look at my cheat sheet--I should remember it. But, a twin sheet is 29 miles of thread.

Russ Roberts: Wow.

Virginia Postrel: And, that's that's at a 200-thread count. So, that's just basic Walmart sheet. That's not anything fancy. Yeah. And, so that would have taken 59 days--

Russ Roberts: Just for the thread.

Virginia Postrel: at the Indian spinning rate. And, if you take, like--this is a different fiber and it's not an exact comparison--but if you take the speed at which European women spun using spinning wheels, that would have been 65 days. They spun wool--cotton is actually harder to spin--but to get the general concept, you can see the comparison, yeah.


Russ Roberts: So, one of the things that's educational and fascinating about your book is that I suspect some of our listeners have not spent a lot of time thinking about where thread comes from other than in the store. You buy thread; it looks like this cool thing that goes on forever--it's on a spool. And, if you'd said to me, 'Okay, you need to make that. You need to create enough cotton thread to wrap around a spool like that.' Okay, 'Well, I got the cotton ball, this ball-like thing, and I start stretching it out, which is--it's a relevant thing to do--'

Virginia Postrel: Yes, that's very important. Before you start spinning, you have to get the fibers kind of more or less pointed in the right direction to get it going, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Well, then I'd pull them out and then I'd have a thread. It'd be about four inches, six inches long. And then I'd have to get another piece of cotton, and I would say, 'What am I going to do, tie a knot?' Well, there's no knot in the thread in the store on the spindle, on the spool. So, how do you get a little thing of cotton or 50 things of cotton to make 25 miles of thread? It seems possible.

Virginia Postrel: But, the amazing thing, and this is what's so impressive about this is people all around the world--

Russ Roberts: figured it out--

Virginia Postrel: figured out how to do it.

Basically what you have to do is you have to simultaneously stretch out and twist the thread. And, the twisting makes it stronger because it creates a kind of helix where the forces operate to hold it together.

But, you have to get the balance between the twisting it and pulling it out just right. I mean, I did do a little spinning and I was never any good at it because I never could get that exact balance. When you see somebody who knows how to spin, it looks like magic. It looks like they're just making this something out of nothing.

But, the base--the first way that spinning was developed and the way that was developed all around the world, every culture you can imagine practically came up with something similar--is, you have a stick and you have a weight. Usually depending on what materials were around, it could be made of clay, it could be made out of stone; and you have a hole in the middle of it. And, archeologists find lots of these spindle whorls, the sticks rot away, but the spindle whorls stay.

And, you put the stick through the hole in the middle and that little weight increases the angular momentum: it sort of helps you manage it. And, you start the stick spinning and the fiber comes down, and it turns little by little into thread, and then you wrap it around the spindle. And, eventually you have thread.

Russ Roberts: But how do you attach the next--how do you attach the next piece, once you run out of all the fibers in that first cotton ball?

Virginia Postrel: It's the same way. It is the same way. You just keep feeding it to the next thing, and the twisting and stretching is what puts the next piece on it.

So, everything--one thing that you learn when you study textiles is how incredibly important friction is, because it's all held together basically with friction. The thread--I'm oversimplifying a little bit; physicists, don't write me--but the thread is being held together by the way that the fibers are twisted on each other. Then you start to, if you weave, it's just layered. It's all about friction.

And, in weaving, it's all about keeping those threads from doing what they want to do, which is tangling into a big mess. In knitting, it's looping, but everything is kind of just held together by friction.

Russ Roberts: So, in a modern thread factory, it's "the same technology," where it's just done more quickly? It's still just the twisting of one piece to another?

Virginia Postrel: It's similar. Yes, it is a little--there two technologies that are used. The one that dates to the Industrial Revolution, and obviously it's been dramatically improved and increased, is essentially pulling out and twisting the fiber. And, rollers, and very high speed, and very precise machinery do it, and it's very, very fast. There is a somewhat newer technology that essentially uses air and it twists just the outside of the fiber. Some people think it's not--the people who are really into, like, high quality denim don't approve of this kind of thread, but it creates a similar kind of effect. Just a little bit faster and a little bit quieter.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, to come back to our process, we take our animal or our plant. We stretch out whatever we got off it, from it, until we make thread.

Virginia Postrel: Right.

Russ Roberts: And, do we make fabric first, or do we dye it first? We make the fabric first, right? Or is it, depends?

Virginia Postrel: Well, that depends. Actually, we have this phrase, 'Dyed in the wool.' A dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fan, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, whatever. Well, that is about that question.

You can dye at any stage. You can dye the fabric--oh, here's somebody [aside about cellphone ding--Econlib Ed.]. You can dye the fabric. You can dye the thread. You can even dye the fiber. If you dye the thread first, you will probably get a more evenly dyed fabric. Because, if you have a big piece of fabric and you put it in a dye vat, if you're not very careful, it can fold and the dye will penetrate some parts more than other parts.

And, when I've occasionally experimented with dying at home, I found this to be true. You get a slight--you're going for an overall effect, but you get a little bit of a tie dye effect, even though you're not deliberately doing tie dyes.

So, it depends on what you're trying to achieve, what--even in the past--what technologies you're using, what fibers you're dying. So, for example, wool and silk--protein fibers--are much easier to dye; they just suck up the dye-- compared to plant fibers, which are cellulose-based. They are not as easy to dye.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, those are to die for.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, to die for, exactly.

Russ Roberts: Sorry about that.

Virginia Postrel: So, you can--but let's say that you create the fabric next--because that's the way my book is oriented.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I was thinking about that. Go ahead. So, make your fabric. How do I do that? I've got the thread. Now what?

Virginia Postrel: Okay. Well, I'm a weaver. So, I learned to weave while I was researching the book and I have kind of gotten into it. And, weaving is much older than knitting. There are a million different kinds of looms around the world. And, this is, again, something that people figured out all around the world in different ways.

And, in this case, unlike with the spindle whorls, the technologies are quite different in many places. But, basically what you need is something that will hold, what are called the warp threads, which are the very strong structural threads, steady. Hold them in tension, hold them straight.

And, then you can insert the weft threads over--we think of it as over-under, over-under, sort of like when you're a kid and you do it with construction paper.

There's another thing that's a critical technology that was invented to weave, and that is what is known as heddles--which are originally strings, often they're metal--but it's something that ties around the warp threads and allows you to lift them individually. Or, more often say, you're doing over-under, over-under, you have a bar with heddles and it lifts all the odd threads, and then you have another one that lifts all the even threads, so that you can put the cross threads through.

And, there are many ways of playing with this and creating patterns. The possibilities are pretty infinite, especially when you get fairly complex looms. Or, again, going back to, if you want to do it by hand, you can individually pick up the threads. And, there are forms of weaving that are like that.

Russ Roberts: Essentially, fabric--which seems like cheating; seems impossible--but fabric is basically this over-under idea. Not always, but it's over-under idea. Which is a form of, if you're listening to this at home, it's like braiding. You're passing things over and under different pieces to create this crossword puzzle, this weave of threads. And, when you're done--if I did it, you'd just have a big mess.

So, obviously the loom holds it tight, like you say, is you can systematically do this, but you obviously have to keep the threads that are the--it's weft? What is it?

Virginia Postrel: Okay. Weft is what you're inserting.

Russ Roberts: Right.

Virginia Postrel: It goes from 'weft to right.' That's how you're going to remember it [a mnemonic, rhyming with 'left to right'--Econlib Ed.]. And, warp is--

Russ Roberts: The taut.

Virginia Postrel: it sounds like hard, taut. Yeah, that's the taut.

Russ Roberts: Okay. So, the warp threads are sitting there and then you take the weft one, and you put one through.

Now I'm going to put another one next to it. It can't get over on it, on top of it, because then it's going to be a problem. And, if it's too far away, it's not going to hold together. So, how do you do that?

Virginia Postrel: Okay. So, first of all, you have these heddles that lift the threads so that you can go alternate one after the other.

And, then you usually have something that's called a beater. If you're using a loom like the kind of European floor looms that were--or even that are used today, mechanized and computerized--it's something that comes forward and pushes the threads. Depending on what type of loom. You can also just use a flat stick and push them down so that they go together top tightly as you put in each row of weft.

But, one thing that I learned when I learned to weave that I didn't really appreciate beforehand is that: Putting the weft threads in--and back and forth, especially if you're doing a fairly plain, what's called a plain weave, which is just over-under--that's not the hard part.

The hard part is setting it up in the first place, getting those warp threads taut, keeping them taut, making sure that they don't tangle. That is an incredibly difficult process and takes--people get good at it. I have not yet gotten good at it because I don't weave enough. But, that's where a lot of the setup time is.

And, also a lot of the setup expertise. Because, if you are going to make a pattern with, say, different colored threads in--you're going to make stripes or something like that, you need to get the right number, and you need to get them in the right order, and you need to think about it ahead of time.

And, then if you come to something that's really complicated--like Kente cloth, I talk some about in the book--which is woven in little strips, and then the strips are put together and to make a big cloth, which is worn like a Toga.

You have to plan the strips, which has some complexities. But then you have to think about how it all fits together.

So, there's a lot of brain power in all of these, both in traditional textiles and of course in the industrial ones today.


Russ Roberts: Well, I want to go back just to the plain--let's just keep with the plain thing. Obviously patterns--

Virginia Postrel: Up-down, up-down, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, I've got a--the warp threads. And, their width is going to determine the width of the piece of fabric I'm going to end up with, right?

Virginia Postrel: Right. Right, yes.

Russ Roberts: So, let's say I'm doing a bed sheet or a blanket--make it easy. So, I do all the--I have the tight warp threads and then I have the weft threads going up and down [Terminology reversed though meaning is clear. Reminder: the warp threads go up and down tautly; the weft threads go left to right.--Econlib Ed.].

And, after I've done that a bunch and I've kept them close together, I've kept it tight, at the end, I've got a giant rectangle with a bunch of loose threads on the end. What do I do with the ends?

Virginia Postrel: What do you do at the ends? Well, there's several things you can do with them--

Russ Roberts: I'd burn 'em. I'd singe them. And--

Virginia Postrel: No, don't burn--that only--burning and singes, it's only going to work if they're nylon.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Virginia Postrel: So, we're in the olden days before nylon.

Well, probably you just--if you're making something like a bed sheet, or a tablecloth, or a sari, or something, you probably just hem it. You probably just roll it under and sew it.

If you are a hand weaver today, hobbyist hand weaver, and you're making, say, a scarf or a shawl, or even if you're in the olden times--there are various ways of knotting and tying off the ends.

But, that is an issue, which you have to--now, on the sides you have what are called selvages. That's the side where each pass of weft wraps around. So, on the two sides, it will be finished. And that's how--

Russ Roberts: What do you mean? Explain that.

Virginia Postrel: Okay.

Russ Roberts: What do you mean wraps around?

Virginia Postrel: Okay. So, your weft is a continuous thread. It's on a spindle of some type, it's on a bobbin--

Russ Roberts: It is? It is?

Virginia Postrel: a bobbin.

Yes, you don't put a new one each time.

Russ Roberts: Okay. That's a breakthrough for me.

Virginia Postrel: Okay, I'm sorry, yes.

Russ Roberts: No, that's--

Virginia Postrel: This is a great example of--

Russ Roberts: Stupidity--

Virginia Postrel: unarticulated knowledge.

I left out a critical step. So, it doesn't have to be. And, in fact, when people make, sort of, wall hangings, and sometimes, they'll just put one thread of something colorful.

But, generally speaking, if you're making fabric, your weft thread is on a continuous spool of some sort, usually called a bobbin. They're usually long and skinny. If you look really carefully at my earring, this is a little baby weaving shuttles. So, that would be the thread and it would be in this shuttle, and you'd pass it back and forth.

So--sorry. I should have brought more props, but, so--you have this, the weft thread in a shuttle. You pass it through, let's say under all the odd warp threads are lifted up. You pass it through the odd warp threads. Then you put down the odd threads. You beat it, you lift up all the even threads. You put the weft back through--

Russ Roberts: The other direction.

Virginia Postrel: the other direction--

Russ Roberts: Cool.

Virginia Postrel: then you're back and forth.

So, then when you finish, when you're done with however many yards of fabric you are weaving, the two sides are finished. And, one mark of a good hand weaver is how even their selvages are. If you're really good at it, they'll look quite finished.

And this is something we take for granted. You go to buy fabric in the fabric store, all the selvages on these industrial fabrics are all even--

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Virginia Postrel: but that's because they've put that knowledge of how to do it into the machines.

But, it's a tricky thing.

But, then there's still are, to go to your original question. It's still are the other two ends, the ends where the warp threads are, will be open. And so, if I'm making a scarf on my handloom at home, what I will do is, when I set it up, before I get started, I'll do a few rows, and then I will, what's called hem stitch, which is a way of finishing off. And, then eventually I'll put fringes[?] on it.

But, if you were going to make a sheet, or tablecloth, or something like that, you would probably just hem it.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Virginia Postrel: Because, when you think about, if you sew--which I'm guessing you don't, at least--

Russ Roberts: Oh, Virginia. Okay, I don't.

Virginia Postrel: But, you are used to this. I mean: Why we have hems on our clothes is because of that problem, is because there is, there are loose threads, and they need to be finished off and hidden away.

Russ Roberts: And, your book opens with a number of contributions of weaving and textiles of fabric to the English language. But, you just hit on one of my favorites, "to be at loose ends"--

Virginia Postrel: Yes.

Russ Roberts: It's not good. It's like I'm unraveling.

Virginia Postrel: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. The amount of textile terminology in the English language--and we talked about dyed in the wool earlier--is enormous. And, it's not just English. It's in every language.

And, one of the things that's striking about weaving versus knitting is all the words that refer to weaving are very, very ancient words. And, the words that refer to knitting are much more recent, and in some cases get borrowed from other languages. So, like Russian uses the French word for knitting because I guess that's where they normed in it or something like that.

Russ Roberts: Like you mentioned a shuttle, which is the thing that carries the thread back and forth across the face of the warp threads--you suggested that's where the shuttle bus idea, shuttle to the plane.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. That is where 'shuttle' comes from is--

Russ Roberts: Well, it's perfect because you're going back and forth.

Virginia Postrel: On the other hand, this type of shuttle is called a boat shuttle, so it also has the idea, it looks like a little canoe or something.

Russ Roberts: Okay. Cool.


Russ Roberts: So, in ancient times, one of the lessons that you get from our conversation, I think is that: in general, even when you're wealthy, waste is a bad thing. You don't like to throw out excess stuff. You want to try to find a use for it. My favorite of those is that in the pencil factory, at least until maybe recently, maybe it still happens, the shavings of the cedar that come out of the creation of a wood pencil get collected and are used as bedding for turkeys. Who knew?

But, if you have a piece of this fabric and you want to create a dress, or a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, those extra pieces after you've cut the pattern, they're kind of precious. Because they came out of that thread thing that took forever.

Virginia Postrel: So, there are two points here. One is, if you look around the world and through history, at most garments, they are not tailored. They are not cut into little pieces. Like I mentioned, kente cloth, and I said, it was worn like a toga. You could take a sari. These are rectangular pieces of fabric that are draped. Or a kimono is made of rectangles. And, in fact, peasant clothing in Europe, if you think about a classic--you have to get a picture in your head, but you think about a, sort of a medieval or early modern painting of peasants in the field, and the woman has a wide skirt. Well, that's basically a rectangle that's been sewn into a circle and gathered.

And it--so, you haven't wasted any fabric. And you--if it gets a rip or something, you'll mend it.

And, if you think about even--I don't know if you've ever seen the Gee's Bend quilts, but they are these very well-known quilts from an African-American community in the South that were made out of people's work clothes. And they are also--the reason they're famous is they have this kind of modernist aesthetic to them that was developed, sort of, separate from modernism. And, they're based on keeping pretty big pieces.

So, when you think about something like the classic patchwork quilt that we have in the Americas, it is a post-Industrial Revolution artifact. It is made after people can waste a certain amount. They're not really wasting it because they're turning into blankets. But they can have--where everybody can have tailored clothes that have lots of little scraps of material left over. And, then you can turn that into a new art/useful form, which is patchwork quilts.

But, most--we think about these highly tailored gowns that we see in Renaissance paintings. But those are the clothing, the clothes of the very wealthy--very wealthy people--who are in fact, putting a huge amount of their wealth into luxury textiles. Into velvets, which are made from silk; and have very elaborate brocades; and, these are incredibly, not only do--they're incredibly time-consuming to produce, the resources come from far away, to silk and such.

So, the typical peasant is wearing a shirt, or a skirt, or both that are made of rectangles that are worn until they fall apart, that are patched, that may be passed down from generations.

And, things like the idea of a woman having a hope chest of bed linens, and pillowcases, and things for when she gets married, that's because those linens were very valuable. It wasn't like, 'Oh, my kid is moving into their dorm, let's go to a Target and pick up some sheets and pillowcases.' It was like, 'Oh my God, pillowcases, they're so valuable.'

Russ Roberts: Now, all those people who were in those gowns, everybody else is in a burlap bag with a hole cut in it. Right?

And, I never thought about it: A tunic, a tunic is essentially a rectangle with a hole in the middle for your head and a belt to keep it around your waist. Right?

Virginia Postrel: Well, and actually, it's made by--I don't think that there's a hole. I think that what it is, is it's sewn in such a way that rectangles are put together so that there's a gap. So, I don't think there's like a little bit of waste, where they cut out a hole.

Russ Roberts: Right.

Virginia Postrel: Although, if we were making one, that's how we would make it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, I get--I see it now.


Russ Roberts: Before I forget, I want to--many people have heard of the phrase 'Luddite,' which is, today, means anti-technology. It comes from the textile world. Explain.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. So, the Luddites were--the actual Luddites who used that term--were people who, men who were making really good money weaving on handlooms, not powered. And, when powered looms came in, they feared unemployment, and their wages went down, and they were not happy, and they started busting up looms. But, what's interesting to me about the Luddites is they are late-comers. Because, long before the Luddite--the Luddites are these great beneficiaries of the industrial production of thread. Because the industrial production of thread eliminated--that--thread used to be the blockage. There was--

Russ Roberts: Bottleneck--

Virginia Postrel: a shortage of thread--the bottleneck, exactly. Thread used to be the bottleneck. There was a shortage of thread compared to the amount of cloth that could be woven, because people were spinning all the time making as much thread as they could and it was never enough, it was never enough.

And, you could say, 'Why don't they just raise the wages?' Well, you could do that; but then nobody could afford the cloth because it's so time-consuming.

So, we got industrial spinning. We got the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, there's plenty of thread. It's no longer the bottleneck.

Now, the weaving is the bottleneck. The weaving is what people--and then the weavers started to make a lot of money. Not by our standards, but--

Russ Roberts: More money.

Virginia Postrel: More money. They were sort of industrial aristocrats. They made a lot of money.

So, when industrial spinning came in, there were, I guess we could call them proto Luddites. There were people who were busting up those machines to, and attacking them. And, they referred to them as patent machines because they had patents on them. But, that was basically the same thing. People had been making money spinning and they didn't like it, and that they didn't like the replacement.

And so, the Luddites were sort of late comers.

And, then later when the Jacquard looms came in, in France, which at the time were considered a great advance because you could make complex patterns very easily all of a sudden.

But, at first, the weavers in Lyon, which was the great French textile center, ran Monsieur Jacquard out of town, even though he was honored by the government and such. Because they were afraid for their livelihoods. Although it turned out that they eventually adopted the technology and they became sort of labor aristocrats.

And Lyon became a center. The weavers were actually a potent sort of labor movement force, there.

But, there is in the history of textiles, a constant ebb and flow of fortunes. I kept thinking about Fortune's Wheel, which was this Renaissance concept of: One day, you're on top and the next day you're not. And, people's occupations, ebb and flow, and value, parts of the world are more or less successful. Thinking about textiles is a great way to sort of think about global history and to come to appreciate its complexity, and its cycles, and--

Russ Roberts: Well, here in the United States, you had the textile mills of Massachusetts. Lawrence and Lowell were big centers. Then somebody decided to find cheaper labor in North Carolina, and that became the center. And then they found cheaper labor overseas. And, of course, the people who had those good livelihoods tried to keep out competition. I think somebody wrote a book called Enemies of the Future--that was huge.

Virginia Postrel: The Future and Its Enemies.

Russ Roberts: The Future and Its Enemies. Thank you.

But I like the phrase, enemies of the future. And these folks were the enemies of the future. They fought against change because dynamism is, change is sometimes hard to deal with.

And so, it is a very central--and, I keep thinking, we're talking about fabric, and thread, and dyeing, and weaving, and knitting. But what we're really talking about most of the time--there are other things of course--but most of the time we're talking about clothes. Kind of central.

Virginia Postrel: Well, we are talking about clothes, but it's very important to understand that we're not talking only about clothes, and particularly in a world before plastic--which is itself a descendant of textiles in a certain way.

We're talking about sales [sails?], and bags, and tents, and sheets, and bandages, and pillowcases, and baby's diapers, which I suppose are form of clothes, but we're--textiles are everywhere.

And, in earlier times they were even more prominent than they are today. Because, today, a lot of things that used to be done with textiles are done with plastics. Even something like the coating on an electrical cord. So, obviously there, you're talking late 19th-, early 20th-century, up until World War II, that would have been wrapped in what is essentially cloth. Today, it would be wrapped in plastic

But textiles are everywhere. And, that is why they have both been a huge source of employment over time and a huge source of unemployment with the dynamism that makes for progress. And why that seemingly bad news of people being put out of work has led to such huge gains in the standard of living.

So, you get real displacement in the short term and real suffering in the short term, but enormous gains over, I would say, the medium term, even.

Russ Roberts: Maybe--if you think about the proportion of time that a person in the Middle Ages--let alone a thousand years before, but certainly in the Middle Ages--spent to beclothe themselves, and how--

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: and how little time we have to spend clothing ourselves. I have way too many shirts, way too many of lots of things, because they're so inexpensive and I don't think about it so much. And, in ancient and primitive times, it was the main thing you spent "money" on. It wasn't literally money, sometimes: It was often your time. And it was time you couldn't spend cultivating your food in various ways, or leisure. You used the eight-hour days out of your--I know you are--it's a useful metric.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, useful because it's familiar, not because that's really the number.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Because people were spending 12 to 15 hours a day making sure they had enough to eat, and that they had clothes.


Russ Roberts: But, I never thought about clothes. Clothes, you just have; but of course, to get them, it was unbelievably time-consuming. And, so the transformation of the standard of living to the modern world, a huge part of it is the transformation of that process of clothing creation through the application of technology. And, your book has a mix of both, the improvements in hand creation of these things--obviously, were expensive, and as you say: the sheep with wool, and cotton, it's larger and better protected from whatever. But, the turning of the thread part and the fabric part, the Industrial Revolution just was incredibly transformative.

Virginia Postrel: Right. So, the two huge leaps in technology are learning how to spin, and then we haven't talked about dying.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, let's talk about that.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. So, dying led to the chemical industry, and the chemical industry changed everything. It gave us wonder drugs and agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, photographic chemicals, obviously plastics, synthetic fibers, all kinds of things. And, people love to rag on the chemical industry because it's environmentally unfriendly in some ways, so--

Russ Roberts: It's unnatural.

Virginia Postrel: It's unnatural--well, nothing is natural, basically. That's one of the takeaways from the fiber chapter is that there's no such thing as natural fibers. They're all genetically modified.

So, here behind me is a textile that I bought in India. It's a hand-printed textile and it's representative of what have accurately been called the fabrics that changed the world, and those were Indian-printed cottons. And, they were unlike anything that Europeans had seen when they first started to be imported.

They first came into Europe in the early 1600s. In the 1600s and 1700s, they were huge. Everybody liked them. They were lightweight, they were washable. The dyes--Indian dying technologies were quite advanced. They had figured out how to keep them from fading much more than Europeans, and they were dyed on cotton, which earlier I mentioned is difficult.

One thing that inspired is better cotton spinning and the Industrial Revolution. But, another it inspired was a lot of research into dyes--right at the time that modern chemistry was starting to be developed.

So, modern chemistry and the dye industry grew up together, in a sense. Obviously, dying had existed in Europe and other parts of the world since ancient times; but the idea of trying to scientifically understand what was happening in dye processes was a new one. And, over time, if you were in the 18th century and you were nerdy, interested in this cutting edge of scientific research, one thing that you might do is work in a dye house, where you would apply sort of scientific methodologies--that is systematic testing--to try to figure out how to get the results that you wanted.

It was a long time before any of this application of scientific methodology to dying actually led to understanding what the heck was going on. But, when it did, in the 19th century, and you got synthetic dyes for the first time, not only did you have an explosion of affordable colors that everybody could have--and people started wearing quite bright colors in the 19th century--but you also had the funding of a career path and research laboratories that advanced chemistry--so that, dye fortunes funded further chemical research and further chemical development, because there was a lot of money there. If you could figure out how to do better dyes, because textiles were a huge industry, you can make a lot of money.

Russ Roberts: We're recording this the week that we released the EconTalk conversation with Matt Ridley on the difference between invention and innovation. One of his themes is that a lot of the great innovations of history were not by scientists, but by bicyclists, craftsman, blacksmiths, tinkerers; and once they found something that worked, the scientists would figure out why it worked, eventually, and then they'd improve it. But, the history of dying is a beautiful example that.

Talk about why the dye house, where the dying took place was often very far from town.

Virginia Postrel: Oh yes. Yes. One thing that I mentioned in--

Russ Roberts: And remember, Virginia, there are little children listening, and sensitive people.

Virginia Postrel: Okay. The chemical industry has a bad rep because of environmental impacts, and I talk some about people who are working to reduce those. But, we are naive if we think that unpleasant externalities--as economists would call them--only started with the Industrial Revolution.

One thing you learn about dying, if you do any of it yourself, is that it can be a very stinky process. Indigo, which is a miraculous dye, and again, something that was developed in many different parts of the world--using different plants that have the same chemicals in them.

It's an amazing process and I can't believe anybody figured it out, but they did. It takes several steps. But, in many cases it really stinks. It smells like urine. It smells like various stinky things. Elizabeth the First [Elizabeth I, Queen of England, 1558-1603--Econlib Ed.] required that any woad production, which was the European indigo, be far away from any of her palaces because of the smell from it.

And, indigo is nothing compared to Tyrian purple, the ancient shellfish purple that was highly prized in Roman times and up through the Byzantine period, where you've not only got all kinds of smelly dyes, but you've also got rotting flesh from these snails, and flies, and all kinds of really disgusting things.

So, it's a chemical process, and you're changing chemicals, and many of those are organic chemicals that are not too pleasant to smell.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about the shellfish--the snails, and mollusks that were the source of some of the richer colors around the Mediterranean. Was there a Tragedy of the Commons problem there? Because, you'd have to kill a lot of snails to get that dye out, I would think, to dye a lot of material. And, you talk about somebody who crushed 100 snails for some little thing. Did they die out at one point and did that--was it a problem?

Virginia Postrel: No. That is a myth.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Virginia Postrel: You will often read that they were hunted to extinction and you might think there was a Tragedy of the Commons. I don't know why there wasn't, but there doesn't seem to be.

No. What died out was the knowledge of how to do the dying. Because, what happened was, in ancient Roman times, anybody who could afford it could wear this special purple, which wasn't really purple. It was sort of--it was described as the color of clotted blood.

Russ Roberts: Lovely.

Virginia Postrel: I know. It doesn't sound very pretty to us, but--and by the way, it's still smelled even after the dying. Unlike, say, indigo. Your jeans don't smell. But if you had this purple, you could tell it was authentic because the cloth would smell. Because there were counterfeits. You could get a similar effect using other sources.

Anyway, what happened was, in Roman times, anybody could buy it. It was very expensive, and so it was for elites, but it was more like an economic elite.

In the Byzantine Empire, which is in the early Middle Ages, it became exclusively limited to the Court. It became, literally, a royal color. Then when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans, to the Muslims, that knowledge, which had been concentrated in a few people in the Court, that knowledge was lost, essentially--it died out. Those mollusks are still there in the Mediterranean, and I talk about a researcher who, with her grad student, went to figure out how this was done, and harvested them and all that.

They're still there, but the exact techniques have been forgotten.

One thing that I sort of came to appreciate in doing this was both how knowledge sharing--how important knowledge sharing is in spreading technology and spreading knowledge; but also how it can die out. So, this was an example of something dying out.

Another example was the Incans were amazing weavers, and one of the things that's famous about them--they were a very textile-based culture--one of are called khipu. And, the knowledge of how to interpret these records has largely died out, and people still make advances on trying to decipher them.

But also, they did a kind of weaving that's called double weave, which was you weave two layers simultaneously, and then you can either make like a little pocket, or you can, depending on where you put selvages, you can spread it out. And, that knowledge survived elsewhere in the Americas. But it was actually lost in Peru until a few years ago it was re-introduced by an American weaver who had learned how to do it from other people.

So, you can lose how to do things. And so that's one thing to keep in mind when we talk about civilization. One thing that I've thought about is, like, what do we mean when we say 'civilization'? And, there are lots of different meanings. But one of them is this continuity of shared knowledge and experience. And, it's more than culture. You can have different cultures within the same civilization.


Russ Roberts: You mentioned that only the wealthy would afford or could afford some of these fancier patterns, or cloth, or dyes. Talk about the role of fabric and status. I interviewed you about style back in 2006. You've since written a book on glamor--and fabric, textiles, dye, fashion are all driven by the same, these innovations in fabric, color, pattern, dye, the opportunity to have certain colors. That's played a role all through history.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that is important for us rich moderns to remember is that people didn't wait to be rich to have, say, colorful cloth. Plain cloth will protect you just as well as colored cloth. And yet people started dying practically as soon as they started weaving--it's--because people like decoration, and they like, whether it's self-expression, whether it's status, whether it's simply the beauty of it. And, so you find in ancient textiles, you find complex weaves, you find plaids, you find stripes, you find colorful dyes.

You find people going to enormous lengths to figure out how to do things like make red or make blue. It's easy to make yellow. Yellows and browns are easy. But other kinds of colors can be difficult.

And, it's not just about status, but certainly textiles play a big role in status. I have a chapter called Consumers, which is sort of about the demand side of the market for textiles; and much of that chapter is about how people define sumptuary laws, which in many cases were supposed to limit what textiles a person could wear based on their status, or just based on everybody was supposed to limit them. And, they had different purposes.

So, in some places like China, they were very much designed to maintain a certain Confucian hierarchy of classes where the merchants were low down and the scholars were high up, and that sort of thing--

Russ Roberts: Seems fair.

Virginia Postrel: Seems fair, right.

Russ Roberts: Kidding.

Virginia Postrel: And, there were very specific ranks that could wear specific things. And they tended to get eroded for--in many cases by the Court itself.

In Renaissance Italy, the motivation seems to have been completely different. These were mercantile cities. They weren't trying to keep merchants in their place, keep the uppity nouveau riche from showing off. They were trying to create a cartel of themselves--they were just self-controlled. They were trying to say, 'No, honey, you can't have that new dress. It's against the law.'

Because they were trying to control their family budgets, essentially, by making it illegal to buy more than a certain number of very fancy expensive garments.

And, that totally didn't work. But, it's an interesting example of--we tend to think of sumptuary laws as being imposed from the top down, trying to keep the rising middle classes or whoever down. And that's often the case. Or, as having a moral component. But, in the Renaissance Italian cities, they seemed to really be an attempt at financial self-discipline. And a woefully unsuccessful one.

In Japan, you had a very interesting phenomenon in Edo Japan under the Shogunate, where they had sumptuary laws that prohibited the townspeople, which would include merchants, from wearing certain things. And, instead of just breaking the laws, the merchants figured out ways of creating their own sense of style, which was actually more fashionable. And it was based on being more understated. So, it wasn't that you wore your fanciest textiles on the outside: you'd wear them on the lining of your kimono, and they would just show a little bit. Or, they figured out ways of mimicking certain patterns, new techniques and that sort of thing.

Russ Roberts: I love the phrase, 'sumptuary law.' Did they call it that or is that what we've labeled it? Do you know?

Virginia Postrel: I think that's what we've labeled it. I think that's a recent term. I don't know for sure.

Russ Roberts: 'Sumptuous' is a word you don't hear that often. It's a very good SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test] word. It means, I guess, luxurious, rich ornate--

Virginia Postrel: It often it's often used to describe textiles--sumptuous fabrics--and I tend to think of things like velvets, and brocades, silks.


Russ Roberts: So, reading your book gave me a much better appreciation of just the clothes I have, and the sheets I sleep in, and to be grateful that we don't have to spin thread. And, of course, we'll put up some YouTube videos of thread spinning, and spindles, and the kind of things we--and warp and weft that we talked about for people that want to get a visual image.

But, I'm curious how this affected you, doing the research or writing this book. Has it changed you in any way, besides giving you a little bit of a hobby of doing some weaving, it sounds like?

Virginia Postrel: Well, the weaving has become a big part of my life. Not so much that I spend so much time weaving, but I got involved in the local hand weavers guild and it has tapped my unused executive talents. By the way, the guild in this sense is just a club. It's not like a medieval guild where you're not allowed to weave unless you're in the guild.

Russ Roberts: And, you're not smashing any looms, are you, Virginia?

Virginia Postrel: No. We're not smashing the looms. We actually keep acquiring new ones. It's a joke: they multiply like rabbits. Once you start this, you end up with a bunch of looms.

But, I would say that the main effect that it had on me was: because we're dealing with deep history, going back tens of thousands of years, and all around the world, you get a greater appreciation of change over time and of really how smart and ingenious humans are. The Industrial Revolution is a great thing. We had the Great Enrichment that Deirdre McCloskey talks about.

We had this takeoff, and the chemical industry that came out of dying is very important.

But, that wasn't when humans started being smart. Humans started being smart long before that. And, anybody who could develop some of these complex patterns or seemingly simple looms and this sort of thing--these are very intelligent, creative, ingenious people. And, so--I mean, I always appreciate human ingenuity, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation.

And, you also get a greater sense of how civilizations and cultures come and go and contribute to the ongoing human adventure of, even if they may not--in some cases fade completely into oblivion; in other cases just not be as dominant as they were before.

So, you get appreciation of human beings in all their manifestations, good and bad. There's some really brutal stories in the book, as well. People want what they want and they're not necessarily humanitarian about how to get it.

And so, it's--I would say, looking at this common human experience of making and using cloth has just given me a much deeper appreciation of common human experience in general.

Russ Roberts: You think about how little effort most of us put into getting our food, which is another area that used to be central to human experience and now is much smaller because of technology. In the middle of the pandemic, my wife built a small garden and we've been eating cucumbers; and, I don't like tomatoes, but she's eating the tomatoes, and--

Virginia Postrel: You don't like tomatoes?

Russ Roberts: Not raw.

Virginia Postrel: what's wrong with you?

Russ Roberts: I like cooked tomatoes and I like the basil that she's been growing. And, it's a wondrous thing to put a seed in the ground and watch something come out that you can eat.

And, you could argue that as we've left farming, and something like 2% of Americans are involved in the agricultural industry, and it used to be 40 to 60%. It was 40% as recently as 1900. That is a big transformation in life. And similarly, now that I've read your book, I realized that the other big part of life besides getting food on the table, and boiling the water, and getting the water, and chopping the wood to build the fire that you can heat the water, to cook the dinner--was just making thread. To get the clothes that you could wear. And, that's all changed. And, I'm curious, as an amateur weaver and those who might be involved in this very ancient craft: Is that a nice thing?

My wife loves to garden. It's not because, just because, 'Oh, that way we don't have to buy cucumbers.' It's just deeply fulfilling. It goes back to our ancient past and roots and who we are. What are your thoughts on that?

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Well, first of all, I have to remind people that we didn't just grow food: We also grew fiber. And, that, in fact, part of agriculture and animal husbandry, going back to very ancient times, was the production of fiber for textiles, whether you're talking about wool, or flax, or cotton. Silk was a huge endeavor. It actually has its own name, which is called sericulture, which is like agriculture, but for silk.

Russ Roberts: You learn something every week on EconTalk.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. So--and there's a lot about sericulture in the book.

I do think that making, to use the fashionable term, is a very fulfilling human activity.

However, I will also say that learning to weave, and at a time where, if you really screw up, you can throw out the thread and start over and not feel terrible about it, is a wonderful luxury to have. As opposed to, 'Oh, no'--you spent weeks and weeks spinning that thread, you better find a way to use it.

So, that one of the things we can enjoy now is to do these fulfilling artisanal crafts, and in some cases, just real art, in ways where we don't--it's not life and death, or we have a lot of margins to adjust. And, that's true with people who knit. It's certainly true with people who make quilts. And it's not just in textiles. It's true for woodworking, it's true for gardening--many of these very fulfilling kinds of things where we make things with our hands, and we understand them, and they're personalized and special in a way that something that's mass produced may not be.

But, it makes me appreciate mass production more, not less. There's this kind of attitude that's sometimes out there in the artisanal world that it would be better if everything were artisanal.

Well, no, it would not. We would be incredibly poor and you wouldn't have time to be weaving scarves, because you would be trying to make sure that your children had clothes.

So, I think that we can appreciate the beauty and craft and traditional ways of making things, at the same time that we appreciate the bounty of the industrial and in our days, electronic, computerized world.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Virginia Postrel. Her book is The Fabric of Civilization. Virginia, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Virginia Postrel: Thank you.