Spinning a yarn: a riveting read of the history of fabrics
Europe and made, among others, the Cistercian Order rich. “The wool trade made them wealthy in the 12th and 13th century and also made them worldly”, comments St Clair. Wool encouraged speculation and profiteering and widened the gap between the richest and poorest.
Lace has its own intricate history and cult status. A craft associated with women and incredibly complex designs passed down the generations, it was a luxury used to display wealth, taste and rank. Its value as a social signifier lay in its delicacy, its making and its expense as images from the 16th and 17th century portraits and Vermeer’s famous painting The Lacemaker illustrate all too well.
The pre-eminent fabric of the West, however, was cotton. The story of cotton, the fortunes made and the horror of the African slave market and the fact that from the 1790s to the 1860s, the lives of many millions of American slaves were determined by the demands of king cotton, are well detailed. Even today cotton clothing makes shocking demands on the environment: a single pair of jeans requires 11,000 litres of water.
Extreme conditions are another test of fabrics and St Clair has collated many examples on how clothing was used in Everest expeditions and in space research. The Omega suit for Nasa, for instance, was made using Playtex technology from women’s underwear. She also shows how clothing and serious sport can be contentious, citing arguments over swimsuits at the Olympics.
Probably the most disturbing chapter is the one on rayon, a synthetic fabric that has names like artificial silk, viscose, bamboo or modal. It has a sordid history of forced labour, heavy dangerous chemicals used and horrific medical hazards faced by factory workers. Today’s mass market fashion brands rely on synthetic fabrics which are cheap and quick to produce, but the human cost is high as the tragedy of Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh that collapsed killing 1,135 people in 2013, only too chillingly demonstrated. The building housed five garment factories supplying products for western retailers including Benetton, Walmart and Primark.
Synthetics now make up well over 60 per cent of the global fibre market and polyester derived from crude oil, sheds plastic filaments which are the most abundant environmental debris in the world.
The book concludes that the fabrics we choose and where we get them from still have consequences on the lives of those who produce them. Currently there are futuristic efforts to commercialise spider silk in the US, Germany and Japan, but St Clair’s account of visiting such a factory is just another one of the many vivid tales spun with such style in this utterly riveting history.