Textile Talk: A regular blog post written for Sew to Speak by Janette Knowles
Recommendations for Summer Reading
It does seem that that world has finally woken up to the importance of textiles as cultural “markers,” --material artifacts, economic and technological indicators, as well as something that makes us aware of our shared humanity throughout history. Most people are swaddled in the softest cloth at birth and wrapped in cloth at death. From the first woman (in all probability) who made cording out of plant fiber in the Paleolithic period to the thousands of people who dusted off their sewing machines to stitch fabric masks for healthcare workers at the beginning of the pandemic, textiles connect us as humans and reveal a great deal about our respective societies—if we take the time to study them which has not been the case throughout a great deal of history. Which is what makes the current books so extraordinary; a true embarrassment of riches.
So how about some summer reading recommendations on the cultural importance of textiles? All are meticulously-researched and beautifully-written, because nobody has time for bad writing and there is a lot about! All of the following books have a decent digital footprint in terms of podcasts, reviews, interviews with the authors (who are all women, by the way) so you can “pre-game” the book online (booooooo) or continue the pleasure of the book when you are done! Here we go!
Threads of Life:A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter (Sceptre Press, 2019)
This book was a popular hit in Great Britain and was a BBC4 “Book of the Week” so every day another excerpt was discussed. You should still be able to hear them online and they are sooooo divine. Hunter is a textile artist and curator, as well as a social justice issue banner-maker and she takes us through a history of examples of textiles from throughout history and in different parts of the world that speak the truth of the maker. She discusses such diverse examples as the famous medieval Bayeux tapestry, considered a hallmark of political propaganda as well as the headscarves worn in 1970s Argentina by the mothers of “the disappeared.” Every Thursday, these mothers, who embroidered their scarves with the names of their lost children, would march in front of government buildings as a form of alternative protest. Hunter’s book is a bit of a memoir too and I enjoyed reading about her life using textiles as a form of social justice.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel (Basic Books, 2020)
Delicious. I really am at a loss how to do justice to the richness of this book. So, I’ll quote the backmatter written by the esteemed historian Elizabeth Wayland Warner: “Virginia Postrel hs created a fascinating history of textiles from their Paleolithic beginnings to the present and future—from the earliest plant fibers plucked from weeds to synthetic fabrics with computer chips in their threads. And why, you say, should we examine mere cloth? Precisely because it fills more and more roles in our lives, yet we take it for granted….” Read it!
The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St. Clair (Norton, 2018)
You might recognize the author from her highly acclaimed The Secret Lives of Color. St. Clair is a journalist who formidably overturns the centuries old idea that clothing and cloth are frivolous subjects for study and “mere women’s work,” and instead, ties textiles to technology and innovation, and ultimately, the advancement of civilization. St. Clair focuses on thirteen episodes through history in which textiles go hand in hand with human ingenuity. These episodes come from various regions in the world and points in history but all will leave your mouth hanging open. One particular favorite of mine were “Fibers in the Cave: The Origins of Weaving” which gives us a glimpse into the manipulation of fibers by cave dwellers approximately 25,000 years ago. Scientists are able to study this prehistoric textile technology using cutting edge scientific equipment and interdisciplinary teams of scholars. A fascinating episode to begin with. “Under Pressure: Suits Suitable for Space” is another favorite episode or chapter of mine which details the development of the piece of clothing/engineering that astronaut Michael Collins wrote was all that stood “between the little soft pink body of the astronaut and the hard vacuum of space” and it involved the cooperation of NASA engineers and bra seamstresses to get right!
Janette Knowles, Ph.D. is the Head of the Art and Design Dept. at Ohio Dominican University and a textile artist and educator. She cultivates dye plants for her own work in her urban garden in Merion Village in Columbus, Ohio and on her fifth generation family farm in Granger, Ohio. She regularly teaches classes on natural dye techniques, mark-making with stitches, and color in textiles at Sew to Speak.