In this episode, Shruti and Virginia Postrel discuss her latest book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.” They talk about different methods of dyeing, spinning as a feminine occupation, the textile trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, how technological changes disrupted the industry and much more. Postrel is an author, columnist and speaker whose work spans a broad range of topics from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture, commerce and technology. Her previous books include “The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion” (2013), “The Substance of Style” (2003) and “The Future and Its Enemies” (1998). She is a regular columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and contributes columns, focusing primarily on history and material culture, to Reason.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Virginia Postrel
We spoke about Virginia’s latest book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” that explores the development of technology, industry, and commerce through the history of textiles. Virginia is a columnist for Bloomberg, an author of many books, and writes on a broad range of topics, from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture, commerce and technology.
We talked about India’s contribution to the history of textiles, textile abundance, technological progress and innovation sparked by textiles, protectionism, colonialism and Indian independence, Luddites, Virginia’s intellectual influences, and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.
Hi, Virginia, welcome to the show.
VIRGINIA POSTREL: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Abundance of Fabric
RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things that economists struggle with when they try and understand progress, or try and capture human progress, is that a lot of things that we use today weren’t in existence—sometimes 50 years ago, sometimes 100 years ago, sometimes 15 years ago, when it comes to something like the iPhone. It’s really hard to capture it, and the typical measures we use—say, real output or real wages—don’t quite do justice.
There is, of course, this famous paper by Nobel laureate Bill Nordhaus, who talked about the example of lighting, where he talks about improvements in living standards that are vastly underestimated when we use other measures compared to light, where the true price of light—that is, how many hours of work one must give up in exchange for it—has just dramatically fallen. For me, this really rang true also with the way you’ve set up the history of textiles, the way the true price is falling. I’m actually looking at the table in your book.
POSTREL: This is my great achievement. It’s completely based on other people’s work, but I pulled it all together. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: You talk about the amount of yarn required for very simple items that every single one of us has in our closet. For a pair of jeans, you need six miles or 10 kilometers of yarn. In an Indian charkha, that takes about 13 days. If you go back to the Bronze Age, that takes 37 days to make.
Now, we all own multiple pairs of jeans. One doesn’t think about this at all. One doesn’t think about throwing away a pair of jeans if they’re ripped unintentionally, if you don’t want ripped jeans. We have this abundance of fabric, which I realize is an incredibly new thing in human history. For most of human history, this kind of abundance in fabric has simply not existed.
POSTREL: That 100 hours or 13 days—and the Indian charkha is the fastest pre–Industrial Revolution spinning, especially for cotton. That’s just for the spinning. That doesn’t include cleaning the fiber, preparing it for spinning. It doesn’t include the weaving, dyeing, any kind of finishing.
Another example—I made a video—which will interest your readers because it also has a big Indian component—on bandanas. I did a similar calculation that’s not in the book for a bandana, and that has a mile and half of thread in it. I actually don’t remember the amount of time it takes. I think it’s like a day and a half, or something like that, for the spinning.
Tiny amounts of fabric take an enormous amount of work. Then when you get to something like a sail, it’s huge. A Viking sail took the equivalent of 385 days just to spin the thread—eight-hour days. If you’re talking about a fleet, you’ve got tens of thousands of spinner hours. Again, that’s not including preparing the wool. That’s not including the weaving. It’s not including sewing together the strips off the loom into a sail, all of that sort of thing.
RAJAGOPALAN: This also places my life in a particular context, personally, because an Indian sari—there’s a traditional six-yard version and also a nine-yard version. For really important festivals and holidays in our families, you wear the nine-yard version. That’s nine yards of woven cloth. In terms of yarn that you’re talking, I don’t even know how many miles of yarn that is.
After reading your book, for the first time, I understood why saris are family heirlooms, [laughs] and they’re passed on from generation to generation. Now, I realize we cannot afford not to for most of human history. My generation is perhaps the first generation where we can afford to not think of them as family heirlooms, or not think of clothing and table linen and lacework and things like that as things that took so long to accumulate in terms of wealth or income that we cannot but pass it on.
POSTREL: Right. The sari is interesting in several different ways because the other thing about a sari is, it’s a rectangle. And of course, a sari can be, as you say, very expensive. It can be made of silk. It can be brocaded, which requires very complex weaving patterns.
If you go back in history, almost everybody wears clothes that are basically rectangles. Think about a sari. Think about a sarong, a toga, and the toga-like cloth in West Africa. Think about a kimono, which is basically some stitches, and even—
RAJAGOPALAN: Even a skirt.
POSTREL: I was going to say European peasant clothing is basically rectangles. You can make a skirt; you can make a shirt. It’s just rectangles.
Tailored clothing is a recent phenomenon, and until very recently, it was for the rich and their servants. Now, in the 18th century in Europe, there was also a thriving secondhand market for clothing, and less wealthy people could buy tailored clothing. The reason is that you don’t want to take those scraps of the precious cloth and cut them out and put them on the floor.
You can see this also in the evolution of quilts. Quilting is an ancient process, putting two pieces of fabric together with some sort of filler to make it warm and stitching it together. But only, really, starting in the 19th century do you get the classic patchwork quilt, which is particularly American, but it is not uniquely American. Americans often think it is, but it’s not.
That’s where you can waste enough fabric that you can cut out triangles or squares. Before that, you have quilts that are made with big pieces. They’re still scraps from clothes or curtains or whatever that are no longer useful in their whole, but they’ll be triangles.
There are very famous quilters called the Gee’s Bend Quilters, who are African American quilters, who in their quilt have this modernist geometric aesthetic. But the reason is that they are poor people’s quilts. They’re made out of work clothes that are no longer useful, and they have these larger rectangles of fabric because they’re not wasting it, cutting it into tiny little pieces.
RAJAGOPALAN: The other part of my own life which struck me is, I didn’t grow up poor in India. I grew up middle-class family and a lot of privilege because I got to go to a really good school and things like that. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and they taught us how to knit, sew, darn, sew buttons—basically repair clothing. Because even the idea that you throw something away, as opposed to mending it, is very new.
It’s probably the next generation to mine which is the first that doesn’t need to learn this as a life skill. Already, with my generation and my income levels, this has become completely redundant.
POSTREL: This was true. I was born in 1960, and I was middle class in America. My father was an engineer. I remember my grandmother sitting—when we would watch TV when we were visiting her house—and she was always darning. She had a little darning egg, some type of gourd, and she was always darning socks. Now, I never learned how to darn.
She grew up poor but respectable, if you will. She was always extremely well dressed, but she always took great care of her clothing for that same reason. When I was a teenager, I sewed. I made my own clothes a lot of the time just because that was the only way I could really get clothes because textiles were expensive. Also, I lived in a textile town, and we would go to textile outlets to get cheaper clothes.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is a conversation I’ve had many times with my husband. When sheets wear out or when an old T-shirt wears out, his first instinct is to throw it. But I am a good Indian girl, and my first instinct is to cut it up into clean rectangles, and then use them as dusting cloths and cleaning cloths, and all those sorts of things that my mother used to do. Now, somehow, my whole life and all my weird habits have started making sense to me after I’ve read your book.
POSTREL: Yes, my friend, Adam Minter, and also a Bloomberg opinion columnist, has a wonderful book called Secondhand, which is about the secondhand trade in mostly clothes, furniture and electronics. But this is about the global trade and the way these things get moved around.
One of the things I learned from his book is that there’s actually a rag industry. It’s a big industry because it’s one thing for you around your house, but if you’re a janitorial service or a car wash or something like that, you need a lot of rags, and they’re produced out of, basically, used textiles, but on an industrial scale.
India and Textiles
RAJAGOPALAN: Forgive the pun, but to me, it seems like India is the thread that runs through most aspects of the history of textiles. I just want to learn a little bit about some of the innovations and contributions from India in textiles. Feel free to be specific, right from thread or yarn to dye, weaving, technology and machines, the trade—everything.
POSTREL: India is really central to the history of textiles. We could start at the beginning. Cotton was domesticated in four places around the world. The history of the plant is really remarkable, even before human beings appear because it only developed fiber once, and that was someplace in Africa. How it spread, especially to the Yucatan, is quite a mystery.
It was domesticated in four places around the world. There are four distinct cotton species for cultivation. One was in Africa—and I always hate saying “in Africa” because Africa’s huge—probably around Uganda, but it’s not completely known. One was in the Indus Valley. One of the major cotton-growing regions from the very earliest cultivation of cotton is that area. The other two are the coast of Peru and the Yucatan. From the very earliest days with the development of cotton, India is one of the places that that starts and then spreads outward from. That’s one thing.
Another has to do with spinning. Now, I’m going to get in trouble with this, but I’ve got scholarship on my side. Indians like to claim to have invented the spindle wheel. It was probably actually invented in China a number of centuries before it appeared in India. It’s possible that it was independently invented in India. But even if it wasn’t, even if it spread from China, India was very important in promulgating that technology.
What do I mean by spindle wheel? It’s the belt drive, which is a mechanism that’s used in all kinds of machines. Instead of spinning with a drop spindle, which was invented all over the world, which is a stick with a weight on one end, held vertically and spun in the air—you feed the fiber onto it, and you twist it.
A spindle wheel turns that on its side, and then runs some type of belt from that little wheel that started out as the weight on the spindle to a big wheel. Then you can turn the little wheel many times by turning the big wheel once, and it’s a much more efficient way of spinning. This is the charkha. It’s that type of wheel. That spreads around.
In the 15th century, Europeans invent another piece of the puzzle that produces what we call the spinning wheel. This is a slightly different thing. It not only draws out the thread and twists it, but it also takes it up, so you don’t have to do that by hand. That’s the spinning technology. That’s really important.
India’s known for silk too, but cotton is the great Indian cloth. It’s very difficult to spin because it has very short fibers. The mastery of that spinning technology by Indians . . . When I say the mastery of the technology, it’s not really to build the spindle wheel. It’s to be able to use it. My husband, who loves military history, says it’s like the English longbow. It’s something to do—that very, very fine spinning of cotton. It’s something you have to start learning at a very early age.
Indians were the masters of that, and they export it—cotton textiles—first all over Southeast Asia. They adapted the styles to the local markets, so that an Indian textile cotton print that was made for the Malaysian market would not look like one that was sold to Indian customers. People were very savvy traders. This is part of what historians today refer to as southernization, which is the spread of Indian influence to the east and south, basically Southeast Asia—all of that area.
I don’t get into that a lot in my book. I just mention it, but that is a part of the spread of textiles around the world and of India’s role in that. Then when you get to dyes, that spinning and dye come together and have a very powerful impact in Europe, very powerful. This starts with the Portuguese in the 16th century, but it’s really a story about the 17th and 18th century.
First we have to think, what did European textiles look like before the import of Indian textiles? There was a huge range of them. There were elaborate velvet brocades that funded the Italian Renaissance and were made on incredibly complex drawlooms and that sort of thing, right down to plain peasant clothing. But the one thing they had in common is they were not prints.
Typically, if you had some sort of decoration or patterning in the textile, it was woven in. You either had stripes or plaids, simple things that are easy to do just with different colored yarns. Or you could, by the way you set up the loom, you could have diamonds, and these go back to the Iron Age at least. There are ancient textiles with complex patterns woven in.
Then in the 17th, 18th century, you have use of drawlooms to make very expensive, complicated brocades or silk embroidery, and that’s very high end. But if you’re just an ordinary person, the only kind of fancy textiles you would have would probably be stripes or plaids or something like that.
Indian cottons come in. They have these amazing prints, which again, Indian textile makers adapt for the European market because an Indian print is traditionally an allover design that is dark, and you do it by doing layers. But Europeans prefer to have something like flowers or whatever on a light-colored background, at least at the high end. You also have the import of bandhani. Your listeners probably know, but it’s a form of tie-dye that’s made with tiny stitching.
American hobbyists know it more as shibori, which is the Japanese version, but that is something where the white is done by resist, and then you have a general background. That would be something for a poorer person—might buy a kerchief with that. That’s the ancestor of the bandana.
You have these cotton prints. They come in from India. The prints are new. They’re available at all price points. The other thing is the dyes are very, very good. They are colorfast to washing, much better than European dyes, especially on cotton because cellulose fibers are much harder to dye than protein fibers.
Wool and silk—I know this from experience—are fantastically easy to dye. Cotton, not so much. [laughs] I tried dyeing with cochineal, and I cannot get the cotton to be anything but a fairly light shade of pink, as opposed to the rich red you can get with wool and silk.
So Europeans get very excited about Indian cotton prints, and this has a bunch of ramifications. One is that the European dye industry, which is on the cusp of modern chemistry as a science, tries to up its game. Particularly, the French government fosters research into dyes. People all over Europe who are interested in chemistry and science go to work in dye houses because that’s where the action is.
Now, the truth is, it takes a very long time, till the 19th century, before chemistry as a science pays off in understanding dyes, but that whole emphasis on trying to more scientifically understand dyes—and a lot of that is just doing experiments, like controlled experiments on the biological—the plant and animal dyes that were already known.
One thing that people discover is that some of the ingredients that Indian dyers use are not necessary. They’re just scaffolding. They are things that developed over time. Intel has this thing called Copy Exactly! That’s what a lot of people do when they pass down the wisdom. They know it works, so copy it exactly. In Europe, when they’re trying to learn how to do dyeing better, partly what they do is try to figure out which are the key ingredients that Indian dyers are using. That’s one thing.
Then on the consumer side, people are buying these Indian cotton prints as opposed to their traditional competitors, and this results in a number of different actions by different governments. They’re buying them from the French East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, the British East India Company.
The Dutch are laissez-faire, pretty much. “Bring them in, sell them.” This is why I unfortunately didn’t learn until after my book was done—if you want to find great pictures of these Indian calicos or chintzes, as they were known, the Rijksmuseum website is the best place to look.
The British take an intermediate protectionist stance, which Indians tend to think about most because of the colonial history there. They banned the import of Indian cottons into the mother country, into Great Britain proper, but they are sold in the North American colonies.
When they are available, people prefer them to the British alternatives, which are so-called cottons that actually only have cotton in the weft and use linen for the tough warp threads because British spinners and Irish spinners can’t produce cotton economically. They have to use a drop spindle to get strong-enough cotton threads, and that’s incredibly time consuming.
British versus French Protectionism
Then the French—they are insane. [laughs] Hearing about this was one of the many papers that inspired me that this was an interesting story.
RAJAGOPALAN: They’re like Soviet Union strange at a time well before.
POSTREL: It’s crazy. French dirigisme goes back to Colbert who worked for Louis XIV. Even today, they just think in terms of central planning. What they did was, they not only banned imports from India of cotton prints, they banned all cotton cloth imported, even plain cotton, and they banned all prints, even if they were made in France on French-made cloth.
The difference between Britain and France really had to do with who they were protecting. Britain was protecting the wool industry and, to a lesser degree, linen, but mostly the wool industry. Prints were not a direct competitor to the wool industry because you didn’t print on wool. France was protecting the silk industry. It was really about the high-end things. Ladies would rather wear chintzes, cotton dresses to court—and they did, they continued to—than silk brocades.
They not only did all this ban, but it was, basically, they treated all of these things the way we treat, in the United States, cocaine. It was a crime to import them. It was a crime to own them. It was a crime to traffic in them, and, particularly for traffickers, the penalties were quite severe. You could be sent to the galleys, which at that point existed as much to serve as prisons as to actually work for the navy. You could be executed. You could be executed in pretty grotesque ways.
Even just possessing a printed dress or a printed upholstery in your home—you could be arrested and sent to prison without trial. It was very extreme and lasted for 73 years. Some of the very earliest classical liberal writing about challenging not just the efficacy but the justness of this came out of that.
Because there were lots of ways of getting these Indian cottons into France, it was always very porous. They were perfectly legal in the Netherlands. They were perfectly legal in Switzerland, which is adjacent.
Because the government didn’t want to really punish the French East India Company too much, they were allowed to have these certain auctions of these Indian chintzes, but they were supposed to be for export. You were supposed to be buying them to trade for slaves in Africa and not selling them in either France or its colonies. A lot of the demand was actually also in the French West Indies because it’s hot there.
RAJAGOPALAN: You have to wear cotton. It’s the only thing that works—the soft Indian cotton.
POSTREL: Right, you don’t want to wear linen, which is much more scratchy.
This is the situation in the 18th century. One of the things that comes out of that—here, I tend to follow the historian John Styles’s explanation because there are competing explanations—one of the things that comes out of that competition is the drive of British textile manufacturers to want to sell more stuff in the American colonies, or the North American colonies, including the Caribbean.
To do that, they need to have a cotton warp yarn because their fustians, as they are called, are not as popular. There’s a huge emphasis on trying to find mechanical ways because they know they can’t do it with hand labor. The economics just don’t work out right. So, from that, they develop, essentially, the spinning machines that set off the Industrial Revolution. And it’s not just as a rival to Indian prints. Also, for example, people really want cotton stockings, and there’s a huge stocking industry in Britain. That’s a big part of the Indian story.
The Power and Limits of Trial and Error
Another part is indigo. Indigo, as a dye, exists all over the world. It’s one of the most remarkable things I learned in researching this, which is that, first of all, indigo dye is an incredibly complex process chemically. You have to turn the leaves and water into one chemical. That’s the indigo, but it precipitates. It’s fine if you want paint, but it’s no good for dye, so then you have to turn it into another chemical, expose it to air.
It’s a very complicated process, but it was invented all over the world, and it was invented using different plants. In Europe, it was the plant woad. In India, it was the plant we call indigo. There was a different plant in West Africa. There was a different plant in Japan. There was a different plant in South America. People invented this all over.
Indigo, as a dye stuff, displaced woad in Europe because it was much more potent. You got much more dye per kilogram, or whatever, than you did with woad. First, Europeans started using it to supplement woad, and then eventually it completely displaced it, much in the way that cochineal—which was developed in Mexico, was a very intense luxury red dye—displaced kermes, which was the European version of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: When it comes to dyeing, of course, there’s the whole process. You need to first grow the indigo crop, and then there’s an entire, fairly labor-intensive process that goes into producing the dye. And at a different point, whether it’s in Peru hundreds of years ago or whether it’s in India more recently, the actual dye itself is crucial because you can get some washed-out print or you can get really beautiful, bright-colored prints that we associate with many of these cultures.
The dye itself is also the origin of chemistry and chemical engineering as a discipline in some sense. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that. Taking the long-arc view of history, what is it about dyeing in all the ancient and even relatively medieval civilizations, the process is somewhat secret. We know the outcome. We know how they do it today. But we don’t know the process of trial and error, and how each generation built upon the previous generation’s efforts when it comes to dyeing.
Then this is how we do it today. In some sense, when the Europeans tried to reverse engineer it more recently, one of the great contributions is that they actually document the entire process, all the experiments, the trial and error. And that is what we call “science.”
Whereas this ancient process of trial and error that may have developed over maybe 50, 60 generations and is really passed on through the oral tradition—it never gets documented. It’s lost because textiles don’t survive a lot of the archeological digs that find these ancient things. So, what is it that we know today about the science of dyes and dyeing before the Europeans started documenting it?
POSTREL: The first thing we know is that it’s really old. As you said, textiles tend to disappear because they rot away. There are only a few places in the world—and India is not one of them because they’re all pretty much dry—where we have archeological textiles that are really old.
One of them is Peru. We have 6200-year-old indigo-dyed cotton from Peru. It’s amazing that that long ago, people were not only dyeing with indigo on cotton, they were also making stripes, and they were making three colors of stripes. They had the blue stripes, they had the natural, beige-colored cotton stripes, and then they also used a milkweed that was a bright white, much of which is no longer there, but you can still see it out to make a third kind.
This shows that people who are unimaginably poor by contemporary standards, and certainly don’t know anything about chemistry, were able to figure out very long ago how to do dyeing, and also that they wanted to. Whether it was for beauty, whether it was for religious significance, whether it was for status, people care about the meanings of their textiles, not just their functions. This is, I’m sure, true not just in Peru but everywhere. That’s the earliest dye we have.
One of the documents we have about how dye is done is Pliny the Elder’s account of how the Tyrian purple, the ancient purple made from shellfish, from certain murex species, was made in the ancient world, and it is wrong [laughs] because he was not a dyer. Some of the steps—when people have tried to create this—they don’t work. They actually ruin the dye. He has too much cooking of it.
I write in the book about an archeologist who reproduces this very disgusting process of producing this very valuable dye from the ancient world. It’s scientific in the sense that she holds everything constant but one thing. Everything is constant, but it’s with seawater versus freshwater, versus urine, versus different substances to try to figure out what makes the difference.
The theme of my chapter on dyes is that dyes show us both the incredible power of trial-and-error learning without a fundamental understanding of what’s going on, and its limits. People get really far just by trial and error, and as you say, by passing down the knowledge within families or from master to apprentice. It is held secret because it’s a valuable trade secret.
Only in 1568 do you get the first dye manual, which is basically like a recipe book that an Italian spends 12 years somehow persuading dyers to give him these recipes. The recipes are not that detailed. [laughs] Unless you tried them all, you wouldn’t know.
I forget—it’s in the book, but there are a lot of different recipes for red. That’s the most popular dye in Renaissance Italy. Most popular color, most valuable, prestigious color. You don’t know from looking at these recipes which ones would be better. At least, now that you have it written down, you could try some other people’s recipes.
That is helpful, but one thing, when you look at that book—which is called the Plictho—one thing that is really striking is how much measurement we take for granted. These recipes—they don’t say anything about temperature because they don’t have thermometers. They don’t say anything about pH, which is really important in dye, because they don’t even have the concept.
They had clocks, but they weren’t precise enough, so the directions will say something like, “Do this as long as it takes to say eight Our Father prayers.” [laughs] Basically, everybody says it at about the same rate, and you can measure it that way.
Anyway, there’s a lot of emphasis on how things look, how things smell, even how things sound because that’s what you have to know. That is the kind of knowledge that would have been passed down and built upon in any traditional dyeing culture, which existed all over the world.
RAJAGOPALAN: Here I want to contrast a little bit the technology of dyeing versus the weaving. If dyeing is imprecise because one doesn’t have the right measurements and weights, and of course thermometers and things like that. It’s all a little bit vague, and you need to wing it, in some sense, in each attempt.
Weaving is the exact opposite of that. It is incredibly precise. Weaving is mathematics the way you describe it. You can replicate weaves exactly with absolutely no variation as long as people know the mathematical pattern. Even something that could be measured, that could be translated—for a very long time, there is this veil of secrecy around it.
In the book, you talk about Marx Ziegler, who wrote the first manual, and he’s a radical renegade of sorts, who says, “I’m going to break the system, and I’m going to write the manual.” Because writing the manual is like this rebel move.
Most cultures never think to do that, though you do have a lot of writing, even in India, by then. You have a lot of the folklore writings, storytelling, poetry. It’s not that writing is unfamiliar or that weaving is unfamiliar, but we never quite put these things together in the Latin American cultures or the South Asian cultures to actually have a manual of sorts, even today.
In India, weaving is pretty much passed on through an oral tradition and through an apprenticeship tradition, which is pretty close to an oral tradition. All of this in India, of course, works within the binds of the caste system, where you know who is going to take over as an apprentice, and who is allowed to enter that discipline or profession and who isn’t.
Is this one of the reasons that Europeans became the front-runners in a matter of a century when it came to textile technology, and all the other ancient cultures got left behind as this exotic thing?
POSTREL: [laughs] I’m sure it had some influence. But I don’t want to underplay the amount of record-keeping, shall we say, as opposed to written documentation, in traditional weaving cultures. Because there are ways of recording patterns and sharing patterns and storing patterns that are not paper and pencil or computer.
I write in the book about the Lao loom which stores it. Nowadays, it’s stored on nylon threads, but it used to be with bamboo sticks. Anyone who had that could reproduce the pattern. The Banarasi looms have this similar kind—I don’t remember all the details of it, but I believe there’s a way of storing those patterns.
The other thing is that weavers can reverse engineer. They can look at woven things and figure out how to do them. One reason there is such an emphasis on apprenticeship is not just secrecy. I know this from my own small efforts at weaving. There is a tremendous amount of tactile knowledge involved and tacit knowledge involved.
Even with videos on YouTube, which of course people didn’t have in the 17th century or whatever—or for that matter, the 20th century—even with videos on YouTube, there’s only so much you can learn, [laughs] you can teach yourself. People do, but it’s very hard without an in-person teacher because there’s so much to get things right. There’s so much tactile stuff.
Part of what Europeans did was that they figured out how to mechanize and embed that tactile knowledge in machines, and that’s a very long process. Getting to the first spinning mills is a huge leap, but between those spinning mills and today’s spinning mills is many, many, many incremental improvements and figuring out how to do it better.
The same thing with weaving. Embedding not just the documentary knowledge, which, in terms of patterns, comes with a Jacquard loom—it’s a very efficient way of storing patterns. It’s made for making elaborate brocades, but then it’s so efficient that it starts to be used for everything, even plain weave—up, down—because it’s just very efficient and automated. I think that drive to turn the knowledge into a mechanization is a lot of the great leap forward. I hate to use that term. Thank you, Mao. The great enrichments.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re using it right. [laughs]
POSTREL: Exactly, it just has bad connotations.
You’re right that there is something unusual—and it’s unusual in European history as well—about the idea of writing down knowledge so that it can be shared. When Marx Ziegler did his weaving manual in the 17th century, it’s not that no weaver had ever written down weaving patterns before. They had. He says they must have because you couldn’t keep all these things in your head, but other people couldn’t see them. His idea, which was an idea that was in the air at the time, was that knowledge will advance faster if it is shared.
Also, he didn’t say this, but Joel Mokyr, who’s an economic historian, whom I think is great, did: If it’s shared not only between people in the same profession, but between people who are interested in theoretical science and people who are interested in hands-on craft, and the treating of those things as equal—I don’t know that they were literally treated as equal, but as both really important—is something that is unusual in human history, and unusual in not just the textiles but in technology in general.
That is really important to that European takeoff. I don’t think it’s unique in Europe. You certainly see it in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Once Japan opened to the world, they had already gone pretty far in the silk industry, developing hybrids and all of that stuff. Then they adopt lots of stuff from Europe and leap forward very quickly and also have a source of income, which is selling not their silk but their silkworms.
The European sericulture has been devastated by pébrine despite the efforts of Louis Pasteur, this plague, and the Japanese have ones that are not only better in general but more immune to that disease.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s also the start of dealing with epidemics.
POSTREL: Yes. I write in the book about the origins of germ theory in the silkworm. Before I was researching “The Fabric of Civilization,” I knew about Louis Pasteur. I knew that he had worked on trying to deal with this devastating silkworm disease in the 19th century. What I didn’t know until I started researching this is that, before Pasteur, there was this very interesting Italian man named Agostino Bassi, who didn’t have Pasteur’s publicity or government backing or any of that stuff.
He was, in fact, a lawyer who just was really interested in science, and he did a lot of experiments on his family’s farm. He got really interested in why silkworms were developing this—they didn’t know it was a disease. Something was happening to the silkworms. They would get stiff, and they would die. Then after they died, they would develop this white coating. The disease was called calcino, like calcium, because of that.
He spent years and years and years doing experiments, trying to figure out what toxin was causing this, which is what he and everybody else thought: It must be something in the environment. He tested everything he could think of. He spent all his money. He lost most of his eyesight. He got really depressed. He quit for a year, and then he came back.
Eventually, he noticed that silkworms that were being raised in the exact same conditions in separate rooms had different results. Some would die and some won’t. Eventually, he figured out that it was a fungus, and the spores would infect new silkworms once the other one died. This was the first application of germ theory, of the idea that you would have a biological contagion that was spreading a disease, and that the way to fight that was with various disinfectants.
It came out of silk. Pasteur is much more influential, although he had access to Bassi’s work, which gave him a leg up.
RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things which we think about when you talk about the abundance of textiles today and just how scarce it was—because of how long it took to produce it—also, one has to start considering who was making these textiles. This is where a lot of people talk about how it’s the spinning which gives rise to this particular oppression of women, which of course later takes various other forms.
It’s really this constant spinning, this drudgery for 18, 20 hours that sometimes you may have to do if you were terribly poor. You have to start learning some of these techniques when you’re very young because you have no other choice. Even if you weren’t poor, pretty much everyone knew how to do basic stitching, mending.
What is the role of women in textiles? Also, I want to flip it and think about, how has textiles shaped the domain of women in human history in terms of progress? Or limited the domain of women’s progress?
POSTREL: The role of women in the production of textiles varies with time, place and circumstance, but the one thing that seems to be universal is that women spin. We’ve talked about how crucial spinning is. You can’t make cloth without lots and lots of yarn. The question is, why is it gendered?
Because weaving is not. In some places, women weave. In other places, men weave. In some places, women weave on one kind of loom and men weave on a different kind of loom. Weaving is not a specifically male or female occupation. Dyeing is more male, but women do it in some places. Things vary, but not with spinning. Why is that?
One theory, the most common theory is, it’s very easy to multitask when you’re spinning, especially with a drop spindle because you can take it while you’re walking along. You can be watching your children or your pot or your sheep. Then you have to ask the question, “A lot of men were shepherds. Why couldn’t they spin while they were watching their sheep?”
I think it’s a different reason. I think it goes to this idea that you have to start learning when you’re very young. One of the things that is generally the case is that little girls have much better fine-motor coordination than little boys. If you’re thinking about starting to teach a four-year-old how to spin, you’re going to have much better results with a girl than with a boy. Obviously, individuals vary. My brother had and has much better handwriting than I do. [laughs] But as a general rule . . .
We know that girls started learning to spin very early. We know it from ethnographic research in the modern period. We know it from records of the Aztecs. I talk about it in my book. So, women are the source of the spinning.
It can be a source of oppression, but it can also be a source of power. It depends on the circumstances and the surrounding culture because it is very important, although it is very unproductive—that is you take a long time to make a usable amount, and so, therefore, it tends to be low paid. It is a source of income for women who would otherwise have no source of income other than perhaps be maids or washerwomen or something like that.
That’s where, in English, we have the word spinster, which denotes an unmarried woman and also means someone who spins. An unmarried woman could make a living spinning. How good a living it was would depend on when and where she was doing the spinning.
One of the heartbreaking quotes about the impact of British industrial spinning on India is this widow—I meant to actually get it; it’s not in my book—who writes about how she was widowed at a very early age, but because she could always spin and sell her yarn, she was able to marry off her daughters, and it was always a reliable source of income. Now suddenly, no one wants to buy it, and she has to say that these other yarns are as good, if not better than hers.
In the story, of course, Indian researchers and Indian patriots tend to emphasize the colonialism and the protectionism and stuff that’s involved in that, but it’s also the numbers. When you can go from taking 100 hours to make enough cotton yarn to make a pair of trousers to taking minutes, or even today’s seconds, you are in a world where a widow with a chakra is not going to be able to compete, regardless of what the policy is.
The interesting thing to me, if I were trying to research the big questions of Indian history, would be, were there British colonial policies that kept India from being able to, or Indian regions from being able to, adopt the newer technologies and to make that transition in, say, the way Japan did? That’s the question I would want to know, not why isn’t everybody in India spinning their own yarn to hand-weave their own clothes? Because that is a prescription—much as I appreciate these crafts and love to weave myself—that is a prescription for poverty.
Women and Fabric
RAJAGOPALAN: There are so many amazing things you’ve said, and I want to unpack each one of them. I want to go back first to what you were talking about gendered roles within textiles, which is spinning versus weaving. One was, has this got to do with returns?
Spinning is the most time consuming, and it just takes hours and hours and hours to spin, but it’s also relatively low skill when you compare it to, say, weaving or some of the other things which are involved in textiles. And the returns to spinning are extremely low in terms of wages. The returns to weaving are a little bit higher. Maybe the returns to dyeing, depending on the quality of the dye, are even higher, and then so on and so forth.
Is that one of the reasons it is gendered? Or that just has nothing to do with it? Because when you think about the silk trade, you have women who get paid more than the men because the quality of the thread and the handling is just so important. What is a good way about thinking of gender and returns?
POSTREL: I don’t think it’s about returns. The reason I say that is that Chinese sericulture—while there’s some participation by men, it is overwhelmingly female historically. In fact, the Chinese have an expression: men till, women weave. Weave is a synecdoche for the entire textile process. I think it has more to do with the cultural surroundings of women, whether they are only in the home—although in China, the weaving was done in the home, all of this was done in the home.
In fact, I’ve read that there was, like, peasant foot binding came out of keeping women to weave—I don’t know the history behind that—and then once it became industrialized, they stopped binding their women’s feet so that they could go out and work in factories and bring back money.
But a lot of it has to do with, how do you think about your women? In Europe, for example, weaving is supposed to be a male occupation for the most part, and partly that is technological because the European looms are very heavy looms, and they require a lot of muscles, although a woman could weave on them—there’s no question that she could—it’s just maybe she’d get tired faster or whatever. She would build up her muscles.
But what you have are exclusive guilds that basically will say women can’t weave unless it’s the widow—they make exceptions—unless it’s the widow of a weaver, or then it’s the daughter of a weaver.
You get cases where, for example, Venice is trying to save its textile trade after competition develops elsewhere, and they suddenly let a lot more women weave through these various loopholes in the guild restrictions. Now, that goes to your question because one reason they do that is that then the labor will be cheaper, and they can compete at the lower end of the market, whereas in the past, they had woven very luxurious textiles.
Women’s labor is lower priced, and that has to do with what their alternatives are. I write in the book about this. There’s this feminist critique that says women spinners—this is in Europe—are low paid. Even though their work is important, they get these terrible wages, and that’s because of basically patriarchal oppression from the weaver. But if you look at the accounts of what it cost to make cloth, that spinning is the most expensive part, except for the actual raw material, like the wool or whatever, and the problem is that it takes so long to produce anything.
The reason the women are low paid is because they can’t exit and do other things. They don’t have other alternatives. Now, when you start to get weaving mills and spinning mills then you have women working in them, although that varies, too. In England, the technology that’s developed for spinning is heavier, and it’s predominantly men who work in there, and there is a lot of protectionism of those jobs too, excluding women. Whereas in the U.S. and New England, the mills are basically young teenage-ish, late-teens, early-20s young women.
Colonialism, Textiles, Protectionism in India
RAJAGOPALAN: The other part that you touched upon was the widow in India who is now out of a job because there’s competition, and things like that. Of course, there is a really complicated political economy between the Indian locals and the colonial masters, in some sense, because the British, even after it moved from the East India Company to the Crown, are treating India from an extractive point of view, in the sense that a lot of the raw materials for their textile industry will be extracted from India.
This is also, of course, the first form of resistance in India. In 1917, the first major Gandhian resistance movement is in Champaran, which is a region in Bihar, and it’s the indigo farmers who are protesting because they are being forced to grow indigo and pay most of it in taxes, and they are not allowed to grow food crops, and their families are starving and perishing, and so on.
So, there’s this really complicated relationship. One of the responses to this complicated relationship is this patriotism and mercantilism which says we must protect homespun, and we must only wear homespun, and women and everyone in the freedom movement should be spinning their own cloth. Even men should be spinning their own cloth.
At one point, Gandhi’s charkha was supposed to be on the Indian national flag. Then they changed because they said when it’s reversed, it’s not going to make any sense, so then they used something else instead of it. But that’s how important it became to the resistance movement.
But you’re absolutely right in that, other than a political consequence of resisting a very particular kind of oppression, there is literally zero economic sense in saying that Indian women must spin, and we must protect that industry, because there’s just no contest in modern day on homespun versus loom spun.
POSTREL: There are several points here. In 1917, the only reason you would be growing indigo is because someone is forcing you to, because synthetic indigo has been around for decades. In fact, Adolf Von Baeyer, who invented it, got the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1905. By 1917, there is not much of a market for indigo. Those farmers are absolutely correct that they should be able to grow something else, maybe food, maybe something else.
I told you I was a little nervous because I don’t know that much about Indian history. Of course, Indians are very proud, and what I see is a great deal of very justifiable pride in India’s textile traditions and textile histories. It is analogous to the justifiable pride that Italians have in their history of art and textiles, for that matter. And yet, India is a poor country, and Italy is, relative to much of Europe also a poor country.
There’s this question of what happened? Was this done to us? Of course, things were—as I said with the indigo—things were done that were totally unjustified, but there is also a good old Renaissance Italian concept of fortune’s wheel, which I think you see again and again and again in the textile story, which is that there are places that are dominant in one era and become less dominant in another for reasons that have to do with innovation, that have to do with changing tastes, that have to do with changing trade patterns.
There are many different reasons for it. It’s not always a story about oppression and colonialism, protectionism and government—good libertarian—it’s not always the government. [laughs] These things, and even the presence of those things, is not necessarily the fundamental explanation. I think, very much, Indians should take pride in this heritage, and I think there is a role for preserving some artisanal work in the same way that Japan has its living treasures.
When the United States—the 13 colonies were rebelling against great Britain, they too told everybody to spin and make hand-spun thread, and there was a boycott of British things, but we got over it. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: I would actually go one step further than even what you’re saying. Of course, Khadi homespun—that kind of thing is pretty pointless because cotton and the way now you get cotton knits—not even cotton weaves—it’s just so cheap. It’s ridiculous to subject anyone to do this, and no one would do this out of choice.
Having said that, there are certain Indian weaving traditions which are so beautiful and so integral to Indian living and Indian culture that it is very difficult for them to be outcompeted—at least given today’s technology—and be driven out with some kind of machine sweatshop in Taiwan sort of thing. Even for that to survive, India needs to become rich. The richer you are, the more brocades one can afford, and the more you can pay the artisans who are producing those brocades.
So, if India really wants to preserve the traditional culture and actually pay its artisans what they deserve, the only way to do that, I would say, is go the other way, which is the non-protectionist way. Make Indians more prosperous, and create a global market for banarasi brocades or kalamkari quilts or whatever it is that we’re talking about, because I don’t think you can get something like that. There needs to be a certain level of prosperity, and the size of the market must increase and support it.
POSTREL: Exactly. When I was in New Delhi, I had a wonderful day going to the cottage industries with a friend of a friend. She said two things that are contradictory. I saw lots of gorgeous stuff but it was my first day, so I didn’t want to buy very much. I wish I could have gone back at the end of the trip. She was complaining that the prices had gone up so much since she was a teenager or young, and yet she also complained that the artisans didn’t make much money.
Well, that’s like I could complain—I’m from South Carolina, and there are these Black women on the coast from the Gullah community who make these beautiful sweetgrass baskets. When I was a teenager, they would sell them on the side of the road, and they were really cheap, and these women were really poor. Now, their daughters or granddaughters have Instagram accounts, and the baskets are much more expensive, [laughs] and that’s how it should be.
The reason that those women were selling those baskets for so little was not just that South Carolina was a poor state, which it was, but also because they were Black, and they were oppressed, and they didn’t have very much choice. By the ’70s, maybe a little less oppressed, but still.
I completely agree. I think there are amazing, gorgeous textiles that are made in India where the hand element is very important to their quality, but that’s called a luxury. There are amazing couture gowns made in Paris also by these petites mains, these women who have skills that you find nowhere else, but they are—
RAJAGOPALAN: And they cost a fortune, as they should.
POSTREL: They cost a fortune, exactly. The idea that you’re going to be able to buy a sari of banarasi handwoven brocade, and it’s going to cost—I don’t know what they cost—but $100. No! [laughs] Maybe it’s only going to happen in a poor country. There is an issue also because there’s this question of how do you export?
When I was in India, I didn’t just visit craftspeople. I also went to Lakshmi Sarees, which is a big printing and dye. They take raw polyester, and they turn it into all these inexpensive but very pretty saris.
What was interesting also is that’s a subcontinental market, but that’s still a big market. That’s millions and millions of people, billions potentially. I guess it’s only women, so not billions, but hundreds of millions. But if you think about these crafts, these more artisanal things, you’re going to have a much smaller market. So then the question is—and this is something that people not just in India, but in Southeast Asia, in Latin America think about in terms of their magnificent, traditional textiles—how do you find export markets as well as the traditional home market?
India is a little different because it’s such a big home market, as opposed to, say, Laos, but it is a challenge. I value these crafts as well. I just don’t value them as a source of mass employment, and that’s the problem. The two things have gotten conflated.
The idea of keeping everybody employed, which is you want to be as inefficient as possible so that you create the maximum number of jobs, each one of which pays terribly, versus maintaining craft traditions that are very valuable because of the magnificence of the craft, and there you’re going to have a relatively few really great artisans who are paid well, and their crafts are expensive.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think we do see that a little bit in India when it comes to tailoring some of the finer silks. It should cost a fortune, and it did cost a fortune until 20 minutes ago in human history, or rather maybe just a few decades ago in human history, and now it doesn’t. I think we need to reckon with the economics of it, and we do need to reckon with, as you said, you can’t use these things for mass employment.
Speaking of mass employment, I wanted to talk about this one aspect of textiles which is somehow always associated with drudgery. We think about the spinster who used to spend hours and hours and days spinning yarn. The modern-day, very affordable, cheap clothing that I can buy at Walmart—the T-shirt that’s made in Taiwan or made in Bangladesh—they are made in sweatshops, and these are not exciting places to work in.
Now, of course, I think they’re far improved over the 18 hours of spinning in a day, but you’re working maybe 12, 13 hours on these machines, operating things. It’s very repetitive work, and it’s not exciting. It’s not the handloom stuff we were talking about before or the mastery that Italian women have when they know exactly how to feed the silk protein to turn it into string and things like that.
Is this just the way it is? Is this how textiles has always been? It is the bottom of the pyramid when it comes to really boring drudgery tasks because we need so much of it, and we need so much of it at a relatively low cost.
POSTREL: Here, you have to distinguish between textiles and apparel because today, the manufacturing of textiles is actually a capital-intensive industry where there are relatively few, and this is a matter of where you are. There are relatively few people employed, and they make more money.
When we think about sweatshops, we’re really thinking about apparel, or what is known in the industry as the cut-and-sew business because particularly the sewing part of that is still quite labor intensive, and yet, people don’t want to pay a fortune for their clothes, especially now. Clothes are so much cheaper than they were, say, when I was a teenager in real numbers, so that tends to be the first step up.
The concern today, actually, among economists is that that step might get eliminated by technology because, as terrible as those jobs may be, if you’re a Bangladeshi woman or a Vietnamese woman, that may be the first step on the economic ladder for you, and that will enable you to educate your children, and then they will advance. And of course, this is a path that’s been followed by many, many people around the world, even within the United States.
It was the business in New England and New York, and then it moved down to the part of the country that I grew up in, which is the Carolinas, and now it’s moved offshore, some to China, but also, increasingly, in Central America for the U.S. market.
Now what’s going on in the industry—there are a number of things that may bring that back to more expensive places, partly because robots are learning to sew. I’ve written about sewbots, as they’re known. The cutting has long been automated in certain respects. Also, things are happening with knitting. As you mentioned, knitting has taken over, especially for apparel. Knitting has displaced weaving as the main way of making cloth, and that’s a recent phenomenon.
RAJAGOPALAN: Everything is knit now.
POSTREL: Yes, everything is knit, and partly that’s fashion and comfort and fit. It’s easier to fit because it stretches, and there’ve been some advances to keep it from stretching out too much. But there are also things going on now, technologically, that will enable people to design knitted garments on their computers, using a simulation of exactly how the cloth will move, from the yarn up—using programs that started out in animation, actually, but have developed into the real world—and then output that on 3D knitting machines.
The 3D knitting machines have been around for several decades, but they’re slower, they’re more expensive, but they enable you to keep your inventories in yarn, which is more flexible, rather than in finished garments, which might or might not sell. There’s a lot going on in that arena, and it’s not just T-shirts and dresses or sweaters. It’s also shoes.
You can now—and the major shoe manufacturers have done this—you can now use a 3D knitting machine to make every part of a sneaker except the rubber sole. You can just vary the stitches so that the thickness is different in the heel versus the arch. You have little holes for the shoelaces. Whatever you need, whatever variation, you can program that in. Then you get this piece that comes out flat, and you fold it together and put on the sole, and you have a shoe.
This kind of thing is likely to eliminate a lot of that sweatshop labor. Is that good or is it bad? It depends on where you are in the process of economic development.
RAJAGOPALAN: You know, that’s also the story of textiles in one sense. The jobs are just pure drudgery, but when they are taken away, there’s also great opposition that they are taken away, and this is whether it is about spinning yarn or whether it’s weaving or whether it’s the modern-day using animation to build shoes from scratch. This push and pull between technological change and one generation that is going to pay the immediate cost of unemployment—it seems to just run throughout the history of textiles.
POSTREL: It does. I toured a bunch of museums in the north of England that were built around former textile mills. The theme of every guide’s tour was, “These were the worst jobs. They were so dangerous. They were so noisy. They were so horrible. Oh, we wish they hadn’t gone away.” [laughs] Having grown up in the southern United States, where people are nostalgic in the U.S. about “Oh, the 1950s, when everybody with a high school education—you could get these highly paid jobs working in unionized factory.”
Well, that wasn’t what they had. They had terrible jobs and terrible wages. The only thing was, they were terrible jobs at terrible wages that only white people could get. Needless to say, the Black people had even worse jobs and worse wages. These are not necessarily good jobs.
As you say, what’s true of textiles is true in general of technological displacements. When we talk about the Luddites—today, we use the term Luddites, we tend to refer to people who have a cultural or ideological opposition to technology, but the original Luddites were just displaced hand weavers.
POSTREL: They didn’t care about technology. They weren’t against technology. They wanted to keep their jobs. In fact, they were the beneficiaries of the previous round of technological innovation, which was the spinning mills, because—
RAJAGOPALAN: Because now the yarn was cheap.
POSTREL: Yarn was cheap, and more importantly, yarn was plentiful. They didn’t have shortages of yarn.
RAJAGOPALAN: They didn’t have to wait to get the yarn to then be employed.
POSTREL: Right. Because it took so much time to make yarn, there would be a problem where weavers would not have work because there was a shortage of yarn. That went away with the spinning mills. For about a generation, the hand weavers in the north of England enjoyed what the historian Beverly Lemire calls a golden heyday, and then boom, power looms come in. Suddenly, they go from golden heyday to unemployment, and they’re not happy, and that’s completely understandable.
I think that the challenge is always, how do you overcome that transition? How do you make it possible to make that transition happen? Because everybody is better off afterwards, but some people are definitely bearing the brunt of the transition. This has led to me rethinking my knee-jerk opposition to farm subsidies, for example, which I think are bad in many ways. On the other hand, if it’s what it took to get Americans off the farms in a way that enabled us to industrialize and make a transition to the mid-20th-century economy, well, they might be justified.
RAJAGOPALAN: There are transitional gains traps everywhere. Gordon Tullock has pointed them out everywhere, and now there’s a deal that needs to be made with the devil to overcome the transitional gains trap, and the question is how one does that.
Now, if you permit me, one last big question because you’ve been so generous.
RAJAGOPALAN: How did you end up becoming who you are? I know you used to edit Reason, and you’ve been a writer for such a long time. I’ve read so much of your writing. What is the intellectual journey that led you to write all this?
POSTREL: That’s a very hard question. That’s a harder question than it would be for an academic. My intellectual journey probably starts with a very high SAT score. I went to a South Carolina public school, and I was a very good student, but especially unlike today, I had no world shattering . . . I was going to go to college, but I wasn’t going to . . .
But because I had this very high SAT score, I ended up going to Princeton, which exposed me to a level of intellectual discourse and just an intellectual world that I would not have otherwise been exposed to, which included my husband, who also had a high SAT score, possibly higher than mine—I don’t remember. Obviously, he wasn’t my husband when I was in college, but we eventually married, and he had a big influence on me.
Both within the classroom, and also in outside reading, I became immersed in a much broader world, which included I studied the Renaissance, and I studied Renaissance literature. I studied economics, and then I read widely in political magazines that was outside the classroom, and political works of various kinds, and I aspired, but it was definitely glamour because I didn’t expect . . .
I aspired, actually, to be the editor of Reason magazine because, first, I aspired to edit an intellectual magazine, and then, when I discovered Reason, that was the best match to my actual political views. I did not expect that to ever happen. They were in Santa Barbara. Your career never takes you to Santa Barbara, and so I became a business journalist. Then in 1986, my husband got a job at UCLA—well, he was my fiancé now—but he got a job that he started right after we married, and Reason also moved to Los Angeles.
I was able to get a job as an assistant editor there, working for Marty Zupan, who some people may know from her time at IHS. Then a few years later, Marty left to go to IHS, and lo and behold, I got my dream job, which—glamour is never accurate, and it had many dreamy qualities to it, and many not so dreamy qualities to it because it was the real world as opposed to somebody’s ideal.
I did that for 10 years, and both before I became the editor and during my time as the editor, that’s a tremendous way to get exposed to a ton of different people because you’re not just writing your own stuff. You’re reading lots and lots of other people’s stuff, so that was very important. Towards the end of my tenure there, I wrote “The Future and Its Enemies,” which then required me to read a lot more things that I hadn’t read and develop my thinking about what is it that I am for, in terms of political economy or culture.
What is my understanding of the world and the way things ought to be and the opposition to those things, which is this idea of dynamism and trial-and-error learning and competition and feedback, and puts a central emphasis on learning. Then, through various things, I ended up writing “The Substance of Style,” and that put me on this trajectory of thinking about why people buy things they don’t need and the value of intangibles, the economic value of intangibles, psychological value, the personal value, the sociological value.
That’s been the general trajectory of my work since then. “The Power of Glamour,” in some ways, is a detour because it’s really about rhetoric. It’s about persuasion more than about economics or economic history—
RAJAGOPALAN: To me, that’s a very important classical liberal value.
POSTREL: Oh, yes, it is.
RAJAGOPALAN: To me, it doesn’t feel like a detour. It very much fits in with everything else that I’ve seen in your writing.
POSTREL: The main thing about my writing—and this is also why I don’t have an advanced degree—is that I’m a generalist, or I’m sort of a generalist. That is, I work in a cross-disciplinary way. I am actually quite a snob when it comes to scholarship. I pride myself on my ability to sort the good from the bad, and even though I don’t do a whole lot of original scholarship of my own, as distinct from quasi-journalism or popularization, I do some, and “The Power of Glamour” would qualify in that respect, I think. But I don’t want to be rooted in a single discipline.
If I were 22 years old today, maybe—and now that I know that there’s such a thing as economic sociology—maybe I would go and study that or a history degree in material culture, probably in some place in Britain, but I didn’t know those things when I was young.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve read those books, and they are not as fun as yours.
POSTREL: Well, I have training as a journalist, and that informs the way I write.
RAJAGOPALAN: I love the book. In the big picture, the story of textiles is also the story of human progress. It’s the story of innovation. It’s the story of innovation across the board, actually: agriculture, chemistry, machine design, right industrial organization, the way we organize labor, the way we think about trade and commerce. Pretty much everything that we try and study in the broad history of progress—you tell that story through textiles. What is it about textiles that made you choose that to tell the human history?
POSTREL: I think it’s exactly what you said. After hearing a number of really interesting academic talks and seeing some museum exhibits, I realized that this was a story that encompassed all the different things I was interested in. It encompassed economic history. It encompassed global story. It told us things about labor. It told us things about innovation and the history of science. It included art and beauty and design.
It was really a topic that I thought both spoke to my wide-ranging interests and would speak to readers, regardless of their interests, pretty much.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m just curious as a writer, when does this kind of epiphany hit you? Is it when you are deep studying textiles, and you’re thinking about weaving, and you learn weaving yourself? And then it hits you that, “Hey, this is really the story of human history in one sense”? Or does it start the other way around? You’re thinking about economic history questions, and you decide that textile is the best way to tell it.
POSTREL: In my case it was neither of those, [laughs] really. What happened was, over the course of a really long period of time—it was probably 10 years—I heard some amazing talks, some of them at academic fashion conferences that I had attended deliberately, related to “The Substance of Style” or “The Power of Glamour,” my earlier books—offshoots of that.
Some of them were completely accidental. I went to hear a talk at UCLA, and the person before the person I went to hear, gave this amazing talk about the amounts of brazilwood that were exported out of the Spanish colonies in Latin America as a dye and what had become of it, and it was just fascinating.
Over a period of a bunch of conferences, I heard a lot of really little interesting talks. I also saw some really great exhibits in museums, including one that was on the history of color in fashion, where I really had an epiphany about the meaning of synthetic dyes and how that really changed how clothes looked and why. I knew it was the roots of the chemical industry. How I knew that, I don’t know, but I knew that. I had read the book “Mauve” about the origins of that dye when I was researching “The Substance of Style.”
All of these things came together in a 2014 conference at UCLA—that was the Textile Society of America that a friend of mine recommended. “Oh, if you think you might write something on this, you should go to this.”
Again, I had some really amazing academic talks, and that led to an article which came out in 2015, a feature-length article on the online magazine Aeon, and that led to interests on the part of publishers in a book, but I wasn’t ready to do it yet. Then I spent some time covering contemporary developments in textiles and wearables and related things for my Bloomberg opinion column. It was a lot of different things that came together.
I’m 61 years old. I’ve been at this related stuff for a long time, really, going back to college when I studied economic history. That wasn’t my major, but I really loved the class. I already knew a lot. Then, of course, once I started writing the article and then the book, I had to learn a whole lot more, including how to weave, as you mentioned.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process like?
POSTREL: I do not write every day, actual writing writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to write before I write it—that is, not just thinking about things like structure and organization. In fact, for shorter articles, I don’t think enough about them ahead of time. For this book, I thought about it a tremendous amount, and that’s the reason the book isn't humongous.
I spend a lot of time composing sentences in my head before I sit down and write anything. It really depends on what I’m writing. Writing a book is very different from writing a Bloomberg opinion column, but in both cases, I tend to gather a whole lot of material ahead of time, more than I need, which makes me a slow writer on the journalism front, and then synthesize it and decide what I’m going to do.
Often, once I start writing, I realize there are questions that I haven’t answered, that I still need to go back. This is particularly true of book writing, where I need a certain type of example, or I’m trying to explain something, and I thought I understood it, but oh, wait a minute, I don’t understand this part, and so I have to go back and do more research.
I spend a lot of time halfway asleep also. I actually think it’s really important, that moment when you wake up but before you get out of the bed, or when you’re going to sleep at night, thinking over things, or if you get a massage—that sort of thing. That sort of daydreamy state is really important to connecting ideas.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m going to ask you the most important question during the pandemic now, which is, what are you binge-watching?
POSTREL: What am I binge-watching? At the moment, I am watching an Italian series called “Il Processo” or “The Trial,” which is about a murder case. I’m mostly watching it because I’m watching it with my husband with English subtitles, and then I want to watch it again with Italian subtitles because I’m trying to build up my Italian. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for doing this, Virginia. This was such a pleasure.
POSTREL: Thank you. It was fun for me too.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Alice Evans about the great gender divergence.