Stitches in time: The history of the world through the eye of a needle

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

I recently read a book in which the author, describing rural life in the early 19th century, casually mentioned clothing as being ‘all made in the home’. I laughed. Anyone who has ever tried to sew anything (let alone make an entire family’s wardrobe by hand) would not be so cavalier about the amount of labour involved. But it is typical of how a female trade tends to be dismissed as something anyone (well, women) can do in their spare time, as a picturesque hobby. Nobody similarly suggests that farmers in the 1800s made all their own furniture or saddles. But just like those items, clothing was made by people who made clothing for a living. Most people bought or inherited their clothes — often second-hand — and only the rich owned more than a couple of outfits.

The history of ‘women’s work’ being devalued is very much a part of textile history, from the lace-makers of 17th-century Flanders to the Japanese silk factory workers of the 19th century. Just like sweatshop workers in the garment industry today, women worked long hours to be paid a pittance — often on products that are sold at prices they could never hope to afford. In this book, Kassia St Clair looks at the developments of textiles through human history, and explains how our ancestors’ lives were shaped by these changes. In her journey, she touches on everything from the materials that went into Neil Armstrong’s space suit to biotech firms experimenting with spider silk.

She starts from the earliest humans to use a sewing needle, and spans the different cultures of the world in their uses of fabric. In all but the warmest regions of earth, people need to wear clothing to survive, and addressing this need led to the earliest experiments with textiles (animal pelts, the other option, still need to be sewn or tied together to make any kind of garment). Our ancestors had to figure this out before they could migrate from Africa.

These developments required a lot of human ingenuity, which it is easy to forget when we are accustomed to buying ready-made clothes, curtains, bed sheets and bags. The most basic technology of weaving was improved over thousands of years, giving us not only clothing but sailcloth — without which the exploration of the world would not have been possible.

St Clair explains how textiles were dismissed as a historical resource until recently. The first archaeologists exploring the Pharaohs’ tombs thought the linen wrapping of mummies was an impediment to be discarded, rather than a valuable artefact in its own right (although mummy wrappings were sold in Europe as a source of dye or for various medicines).

Textile technology has shaped our lives in ways we often forget: the industrial revolution was about cotton as much as it was about anything else. In one of the many fascinating statistics St Clair shares with us, in 1862, one in 65 people alive on earth were in the cotton trade. Meanwhile, the punch cards that allowed a loom to make a jacquard pattern led to the punch cards of the earliest computers.

We can wonder at how silk came to be produced — the folk legend of a silkworm cocoon falling into a cup of tea and thus dissolving, revealing its strands, seems too good to be true. But St Clair explains how this labour-intensive product became so important as a trade good for China — and a marker of wealth and luxury around the world. The Chinese emperors jealously guarded their monopoly on silk, even punishing with death those who exported silkworms. Of course, human ingenuity got around this obstacle too, and sericulture spread to different parts of the world, particularly Persia.

In the post-industrial age, we have synthetic fabrics, serving different purposes in our lives — so much so that we overlook their presence. St Clair argues that exploration of polar and mountainous regions was hampered until synthetic fabrics were developed, able to keep the human body both warm and dry in extreme cold. But she doesn’t overlook the dark side of these developments: the toxic chemicals required to make rayon (carbon disulphide causes brain damage and a host of physical ailments), and the environmental pollution created by polyester. Synthetics are now over 60 per cent of global textile production. We spend less of our income than our grandparents on clothing, because we exploit the labour of sweatshop workers in poor countries. Our addiction to cheap fashion is toxic.

Having read St Clair’s accounts of factory workers’ horrific injuries, I’ll certainly think again before buying anything rayon. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to look at the textiles in our world with a new understanding.

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