Spin­ning a yarn: a rivet­ing read of the his­tory of fab­rics

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - DEIRDRE McQUILLAN

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.


Ja­pa­nese dress­mak­ers.

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