“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they’re indistinguishable from it.” That quote from computer scientist Mark Weiser is from a 1991 paper where he outlined the vision of ubiquitous computing; in it, he also referenced “seamlessness”… We just can’t get away from textile metaphors: we catch airline “shuttles”, we “weave” through traffic, we follow comment “threads” — the metaphors are as ubiquitous and abundant and threaded throughout our lives as the textiles (and computing) all around us.
In fact, argues author and columnist Virginia Postrel, the story of textiles IS the story of technology and science (across all kinds of fields, from biology to chemistry); of commerce (as well as management, measurement, machines); but most of all, of civilization (vs. just culture) itself. That’s what her new book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World is all about. But it’s really a story and history of innovation, and of human ingenuity… which is also the theme of the a16z Podcast — and of this special, inaugural book launch episode with the author in conversation with showrunner Sonal Chokshi.
The discussion both dives deep and lightly dips into a wide range of topics: fabrics, from the genetics of cotton to the supply chain of silk (including pre-Industrial Revolution factories, early payment and incentive alignment, “maestre” and notions of expertise); knowledge, from the storage and transmission of it to sharing tacit and explicit code (including manuals, notation, measures); and math as the science of patterns, origins of mathematics (including early education and getting paid for it). The touch on the NASA space program, knitting and AI, and the environmental impact of dyes. Throughout, they discuss the what and the why — the warp and weft of this episode! — of HOW innovation happens, from incremental improvements to sudden leaps, also taking a closer look at the demographics and images involved. And finally, they cover the evolution and meaning of kente cloth (as well as other patterns) in Ghana and beyond… Because the story of textiles — and of technology — is not just a story of one culture or time or place: it is a universally human story, woven from countless threads and wires.
Links & other articles mentioned in this episode:
- YouTube & Instagram from the author, featuring cited images among others
- The Computer for the 21st Century, Mark Weiser, Scientific American, 1991
- Every topological surface can be knit: a proof, Sarah-Marie Belcastro, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, 2009
- How an AI took over the an adult knitting community, Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic, 2018
- Portrait of a Man, Portrait of a Woman, Maarten van Heemskerck, Rijks Museum, 1529
- In Ghana, pandemic inspires new fabrics, Kent Mensah, Christian Science Monitor 2020
- Welcome to the new world civilization, Virginia Postrel, Reason, 2020
images: composite of knitting by © sarah-marie belcastro (courtesy Virginia Postrel) + magnetic core memory wires & beads, magnified 60x (photo from Virginia Postrel) — combined by Sonal Chokshi for the a16z Podcast
- Textiles as a metaphor for culture [2:20]
- The cultivation of cotton and how it became a worldwide industry [9:24]
- The ancient silk trade as a proto-industry [15:24] that required standard measurements [20:13], and a discussion of the critical role of the “maestra” [23:04]
- The complex mathematics of textiles [25:24] and the science of knitting [31:00]
- How information about textile creation was passed down through the generations [35:32], how we store ideas today [43:03], and a curious connection to NASA [44:26]
- The ways that dyes led to modern organic chemistry [47:27]
- Several case studies of innovation [49:57], and a discussion of traditional gender roles related to weaving [57:30]
- The story of kente cloth [1:00:25] and how textiles are a part of global culture [1:07:35]
Sonal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the a16z Podcast. I’m Sonal. Today we have the very first episode — for a new book, coming out November 10, by Virginia Postrel: “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World” — which is all about the central role of textiles in the history of technology, science, commerce, civilization itself. But it’s really a history and evolution of innovation across all kinds of fields, so there’s something for everyone in this episode.
Virginia has written several bestselling books including “The Substance of Style” — a long time favorite of mine — “The Power of Glamour,” which I excerpted when I was at Wired. She also wrote “The Future and Its Enemies” in the late 90s, and was the former editor in chief of Reason and has been a columnist for various magazines and newspapers, and currently she has a regular column in Bloomberg Opinion.
But we’re here today to talk about her soon-to-be released book. In the long discussion that follows, probably [the] longest we’ve done here, we both delve deep as well as lightly dip into a wide range of topics. The first segment covers fabrics, from the genetics of cotton to the supply chain of silk, including early machines, early management techniques, what was considered expertise. We then cover the storage and transmission of knowledge, both explicit and tacit — including artifacts and manuals to notation and measurement — and especially mathematics — touching on NASA’s space program, knitting and AI, and the environmental impact of dyes
And in the last section, we go “meta” on how innovation happens, from the zeitgeist of the times to the dynamics of codifying and sharing knowledge and the industrial enlightenment to the demographics and symbols involved. We actually go deep on the story of, evolution of, and meaning of kente cloth (and other patterns) in Ghana — to finally ending on the difference between cultures and civilizations, because the throughline that resonated most deeply with me throughout this book is that the story of textiles is one of human ingenuity — which is also what this podcast, the a16z Podcast, is all about. Please do also go ahead and rate us in your podcast app when you have a moment.
And now, let me welcome Virginia. I’m so excited to have you on. Welcome.
Virginia: Thank you.
Textiles as culture
Sonal: So, I’m not gonna ask you the obvious question, which is “why did you write this book?” First of all, I know why you wrote the book because we talked about it over many, many long dinners.
Virginia: Yeah, right. I mean, this book wouldn’t exist without you.
Sonal: One of my favorite things is you actually talk about all the metaphors we use, and you call them “heirloom metaphors” — but tell me about some of these metaphors. I mean, you basically say, “We catch airline shuttles, we weave through traffic, we follow comment threads,” like, all our listeners have done all of those things.
Virginia: Right. Well, first of all, let’s start with “heirloom.” So, heirloom is a reference to a loom. And the reason that we have this word is that a loom was a piece of capital equipment. And so it would get passed down as a valuable thing. <Sonal: Heirloom, yes> Heirloom. But some of the more fun ones are ones that we have no idea. Like, “on tenterhooks.
When people would make wool cloth, and I’ve seen this in a museum in England, after they would weave it, they would do what’s called “fulling” — which is a combination of wetting it, and pounding it, and using what’s called fuller’s earth on it — and it felted it. It made it thicker and more waterproof. And then, they would stretch the wool on these really vicious-looking little hooks — on a rectangular frame like nails sticking out — and when you see these tenterhooks, you realize, oh my goodness, that tension, that feeling of tension. I see why that metaphor came to be.
Sonal: Perfect. So, your very first opening quote in the book is, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they’re indistinguishable from it.” And that quote is from Mark Weiser, in “A Computer for the 21st Century,” which was, like, a paper he wrote in 1991. Tell me about why you started with that quote.
Virginia: I love this quote for two reasons. The first is that it’s profoundly true. The most significant technologies are the ones that disappear. But the other is, you see what he did there?
Sonal: Well, I see what you did there.
Virginia: I don’t even think he realized what he was doing. Maybe he did. It proves my point, that this ancient, ubiquitous technology is really important. And, I want people to pay attention to it, and to pay attention to all the ingenuity that goes into the fabric that surrounds us.
Sonal: A little-known fact about that Mark Weiser quote, and I remember this when I was at PARC, and I was writing up, like, some language for [a] living museum project, and one of the things that I found fascinating is we had these quotes about how he also said that not only are the most profound technologies the ones that disappear, but that sometimes, technology should be that when you leave a pencil behind in a meeting, you never go back and feel like, “Oh no, I have to go grab that pencil.” Like, you’re fine discarding that pencil. Like, it can be discarded. And, it’s just — that is what he thought of as ubiquitous computing.
And of course, it’s the opposite with how technology has come out today in terms of, you know, we actually wanna keep our smartphones. They’re not like a pencil. But, the idea that something can become so ubiquitous as to be discarded, I love that quote also evokes that, which I don’t know if you’re aware that it did. But you yourself in the book talk about how “we suffer textile amnesia, because we enjoy textile abundance.” And I thought that was so profound.
Virginia: Yeah, that’s perfect. I didn’t know that about Mark Weiser — who also, by the way, uses, in that article, the metaphor “seamlessness,” which is another textile metaphor. And this really has mostly happened in my lifetime (I’m 60), where textiles have just become so abundant and so cheap that we really don’t think about them. I mean, obviously I’m really contrasting it to a pre-industrial period, where, to make enough thread to weave the fabric in a pair of jeans would take something like thirteen 8-hour days. And that’s the fastest spinners in the world. And that’s just making the thread, that’s not preparing the fiber to make the thread, it’s not weaving, it’s not dyeing, it’s not any of the other processes.
So, we live in this world where fabric is everywhere, and it’s really cheap — and, in fact, my friend Adam Minter has a great book called “Secondhand,” that’s in part about the secondhand-trade in clothes — among other things, also electronics. And so, we do take it for granted. We don’t think about where it comes from, and we don’t think about the labor, or the ingenuity over thousands of thousands of years.
Sonal: This is exactly where there’s parallels to technology, because you point out — I never actually even thought about this — that the agricultural revolution was as much about fiber as it was food. But the Industrial Revolution did bring all these technologies, and as you point out, like, the hours that goes into making thread, the cost reductions and everything that that then enables — that’s exactly what’s playing out with technology right now, if you think about transistors being cheap and almost so ubiquitous, as to be wasted. So abundant, as to be forgotten, which is why I love the quote you open with so, so much.
Virginia: So, driving down the same point, the other thing that I do in that intro is — Arthur C. Clarke famously said [that] any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Sonal: Yeah, it’s one of his three laws.
Virginia: Right, exactly. And, what I say in the preface is, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. What I’m thinking about there is, we know intellectually that it’s not natural, that somebody made it, that there were machines involved, and chemistry, and all these things. But we never really think about it — so that’s what I was getting at. But there’s also — in the first chapter, which is about fiber — a very important point, I think, which is that there’s no such thing as natural fibers.
All of these — what I would call biological fibers, like cotton and wool and linen and silk — are the product of many, many small, concerted, human interventions. They’re basically genetically modified organisms. In some cases, it’s extreme (like with silk). Others like cotton, naturally, [don’t] grow in most of the major cotton-producing parts of the world because they’re above the frost line. And so, if in that natural state, it would never make bolls. It would just freeze, and that would be the end of it. But, humans gradually modified it. And there’s sort of mysteries of why they would do that.
The story of cotton
Sonal: This is actually one of my favorite stories in the book, which is, you kind of go on this genetic sleuthing mission to figure out like the origination of how we were able to turn cotton into this more reproducible type of cotton, I guess, to grossly simplify it. I’d love you to quickly tell that story.
Virginia: So, there are really two stories. One is a science story that’s about the origins of cotton, because there are around 50 cotton species around the world, and only one of them developed fiber, originally. And that was a species that geneticists called A, and it came in Africa. And then somehow — this is the great mystery — somehow it got to Mexico.
Sonal: Did it float? Did it go on a boat? Like, what happened?
Virginia: This is the mystery. So, it got to Mexico and it crossbred with a native species there that didn’t have fiber, and it produced what geneticists referred to as AD. The Mexican species was D. And this is what is known in biology as a “polyploidal” plant, which is common in the plant world. It means it has twice as many chromosomes — and so, therefore, there’s a lot more room to breed it, get more variety.
Well, I interview this cotton geneticist named Jonathan Wendell, and he says [that] when he was first studying cotton genetics, there were two theories. One was that this crossing-the-ocean thing happened back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the continents were still stuck together. And the other was — oh, well, human beings must have brought it on boats. It was what he calls the Kon-Tiki hypothesis, after the explorer Thor Heyerdahl early in the mid-20th century. But we now know from genetic research that it was neither of those — that somehow this cotton got from Africa to Mexico after the continents split apart, but long, long before there were any human beings. It could have gotten caught up in a hurricane. It could have gotten on a piece of pumice — we don’t know, but we can use these genetic clocks to bracket roughly how long it was. So, we owe cotton to this weird, random, unusual event.
Sonal: And, by the way, so unusual that it hasn’t happened again. That was the point.
Virginia: Right, it only happened once. It’s two things that only happened once. One was that a species of cotton developed fiber, and then two was that it crossed the ocean and developed this rich genetic code that could be manipulated in various ways.
So, then people come along. And there’s old world cotton and new world cotton. In the old world, cotton was being raised in places like India that are in the tropics. But somehow we know that cotton spread with the spread of Islam — and it spread into places that were too far north for the cotton to grow. It spread in places that had frost. Why is that? And my theory is that because they wouldn’t have planted it there unless they already had cotton that would grow there — so, it must have come from places like India. And why would Indians raise cotton that could survive frost?
Sonal: It’s a tropical climate, exactly.
Virginia: It’s a tropical climate. They don’t need to. So, my theory is it might have been a commercial consideration. That essentially, if your cotton bloomed first, you could get to market earlier and get a jump on the competition. And so, over time, there would be sort of competitive pressures to get cotton to bloom earlier and earlier. And then once it bloomed early enough — like the cotton we have today — it would be good for planting farther north. Now, there is a competing theory, which is that it had something to do with controlling pests — but we don’t know. This is one of the great mysteries of cotton.
So, nowadays, most of the cotton in the world (90%) is the species that originated on the Yucatan Peninsula, which is called gossypium hirsutum. And, it didn’t survive terribly well above the frostline late into the 19th century. And so I tell the story of this not-so-savory character who discovered a cotton in Mexico and he brought it to the American South, and that could grow above the frostline.
Sonal: You know, there’s so many threads. And in fact, oh my god, I keep saying that. And I swear, it’s not a pun, Virginia. I keep saying thread and it’s actually a word I really legitimately use all the time.
Virginia: Yeah, totally, you can’t — you can’t avoid it.
Sonal: We’re just gonna notice it all the time now. So, a couple of quick notes on the story you just told about cotton. There are some details in your book about not only that Islam spread cotton, but you almost allude in that section, that maybe the adoption accelerated because of cotton. That’s one of the interesting ideas I noticed.
Virginia: It was a desire to get out from under certain landowners and sort of strike out on their own. And there were ways you could do that by raising cotton that were connected with also converting to Islam.
Sonal: So fascinating. And then the other thread, too — you talk about the British Empire in India, and people wanted Indian calico, but that the East India Company put limits on that. And then it kind of pushed other manufacturers like Italians to come up and step up to the plate. And then also — and this is so top of mind today, too — you talk about the ugly part of this history, that it’s the cotton gin, and history of slavery in the South, and even the observation that the South is not as untech-savvy as people portrayed — you know, compared to the “Yankee north.” So, I hope people pick it up and read it to find out more about this fascinating, terrifying history of all of that
Silk supply chains
What I want to focus on in this conversation — and this kind of follows how you organize your book from fiber, to thread, to cloth, to dye, to traders, to consumers — is you describe the evolution of what allowed us to mass-make cotton, and the steps into that. Let’s talk a bit about the supply chain, and vertical integration, and trade aspects. And that’s kind of a big jump — but I think it’s still a great jump to make.
Virginia: Well, one of the things that is the case in all types of textiles is that you have a long supply chain. Well, you have a lot of stages, and there’s a long delay between when you, say, raise the cotton, and when somebody gets paid for the cloth.
So, one thing that is the case throughout textile history is that you have to have a lot of innovation around working capital, and different ways of people getting paid. So, that’s one aspect. Textiles forced human beings to think, at a very early stage in civilization, about financial questions. About, how do you pay for things, where you’re providing inputs, rather than the final, finished product. Because you could raise sheep, and you shear sheep, and you spin wool, and you weave — but those things were not necessarily done in the same household <right>. In some ways, the most interesting developments around the supply chain take place in silk — for the reason that it is a luxury fiber, and also because it’s really complicated.
Sonal: So, tell us about the silk and supply chain.
Virginia: Okay. So, silk — I discovered while working on this book, a lot of people don’t know where it comes from, so let’s start there. Silk comes from silkworms (Bombyx mori), which are basically caterpillars that have been bred over many centuries, originally in China, to feed on mulberry leaves and produce cocoons. And the eggs need tending, the caterpillars need tending. They need to be fed, they need to be given sticks to build their cocoons on. And then, once they make the cocoons, they’re put into boiling water, which kills the insect inside, and keeps it from emerging as a moth and breaking — there’s a single filament that makes the cocoon.
So, once you’ve done that, you need to get that filament off the cocoons. And so, you have skilled people who know how to take filaments off of multiple cocoons, and create thread. And there’s a lot of tacit knowledge involved in that. And that’s called “reeling,” because it goes on these big reels. And then often, you — when you want to make stronger thread, you have a stage that’s called “throwing,” where you twist two threads together to make a stronger one. And then you need to get that on bobbins, and that’s just the thread.
So, one of the most amazing things that I discovered when I was working on the book, are these giant factories — 24/7, hundreds of people — that started in Italy, and had their heyday in the 16th and 17th century. So, this is before the Industrial Revolution — that was their heyday, but they started earlier — and they were organized around these very large, two-story throwing machines that were hydraulically powered. They would go down to the basement and there would be a source of water power. And these are all made of wood, they’re precision machines. It’s just amazing. There are museums throughout Northern Italy where you can see them.
So, the machines are amazing enough. But it wasn’t just the machines. They developed sophisticated management techniques. First of all, they vertically integrated. They didn’t grow the cocoons. They went from cocoon, to thread for export, and then the thread would go to Lyon, which was the silk capital in Europe. I think most of us — and, I would include myself here — think about factories, and management, as starting with the Industrial Revolution. Maybe starting with Wedgwood. And this is actually before that. First of all, they are operating 24/7, and I asked a historian who covers them, like, “What did they do for light?” And he said they had torches. And I said, “That doesn’t sound very safe.” And he said, “No, it wasn’t.”
And they developed measurement techniques, they developed standardized weights, they developed standardized tools for measuring things. One of the things they developed — which is used to this day — is the idea of measuring the fineness of thread by having a standard measure of length. And then how much the thread weighed, given that length. Which gives you some idea that ratio can tell you how fine the thread is.
I mean, when you wander into the textile world, one of the things that’s really disorienting is they have all these weird ways of measuring things, like denier. What is a denier — you know, you may have noticed that when you buy stockings. And it’s from that idea of a certain amount of weight per — for a standard measurement.
So, they developed a lot of techniques like that. And, this was proto-industry. So, then the question comes. Well, why isn’t that the Industrial Revolution? You know, why isn’t that the factory that changed? And the reason is that silk is a luxury. It’s a niche market. It can’t change the world. You don’t make sails out of silk. You don’t make sacks out of silk, you don’t clothe your armies with silk — all of these uses for other textiles don’t apply to silk. So a lot of techniques and machines were developed, and they did influence later developments, but they weren’t revolutionary in the way that transforming everyday textiles was.
Sonal: Isn’t that so fascinating, because it’s such an inversion from, kind of, revolutionary tech today. Because, in that world, you did need mass — both for the capital outlays that you described, you know, that the financing and everything required — and the mass production of things. But in today’s world, the inverse is happening, where we have, like, sort of this late-niche, kind of more long-tail-driven economy in many ways. Because of the internet, of course.
Virginia: Another way of thinking of it is, often new technologies start very expensive. I mean, who used original computers? It was big businesses. They were big, expensive pieces of capital equipment, and then they got smaller and smaller, and now we carry them around in our pockets. You sometimes have sort of luxury items as the first way into a technology because you can finance it that way, and justify [a] higher price. Now, I don’t wanna push it too far. That actually applies in terms of silk versus other things, more to the development of looms, and the drawloom, and Jacquard and his famous punch cards — the one thing that all technology people know about.
The role of the “maestra”
Sonal: So, you have this phrase, “management measure machines” — and those three words just popped out to me, because that to me is the art of technology and startups as well, or any business enterprise. But then you do point out a fourth M, which is the role of the “maestra.” Which, I didn’t know what that was. Tell us about the role of the maestra, and the — why that’s so significant in this supply chain and in this evolution from cloth to industry.
Virginia: So, the maestra (that’s the singular), is a woman with many many years of experience, at reeling — that is, taking these incredibly fine — I mean, they’re strong, but they’re, like, less than a human hair — finds off of the cocoons, and twisting them together into a single thread. And the very best could do — make thread out of just two. And keep in mind, these are natural fibers, they’re biological. They are not totally consistent. So, one of the skills is matching — the matching up these fibers so that they are as consistent as possible, because that makes the best thread. So, it’s a really, really high-skilled job.
Sonal: One might even call it pattern matching, but keep going.
Virginia: Yeah, it is pattern matching. It is a form of pattern matching, along with a lot of manual skills as well. And you learn how to do it because you spend many years as an apprentice, being the person who turns the reel that takes up the thread, while the maestra is doing this and you’re watching her. So, you might spend 15 years doing that and acquiring all of that tacit knowledge. And these women were very well paid for the time, because they were making a luxury product. But, they thought about how to supervise people, they thought about incentives. So, for example, the maestre were not paid by the amount they produced, because they wanted to ensure quality — they were paid by the day, or by the time.
Sonal: Oh, by the way, I underlined that because I thought that was such a great example of incentive alignment — like, modern management practice thinks about these very questions.
Virginia: Right, right exactly. So, they were thinking about incentive alignment.
The mathematics of textiles
Sonal: So, you mentioned the ratio — and this sort of mathematical problem-solving that was already happening with the threading that the maestra did. The thinness, the thickness, etc. You also mentioned, you know, in the book as well, you open with this idea that technology means so much more than electronics or machines, which I love. And that is exactly what the book is about, but also, to me, the theme of this book — and in fact, of the articles that you did for Aeon magazine — the one that I set you up with Ross for — is that the story of textiles is one of technology, and science.
And so, now let’s switch to talking about the math. You have this great quote, that “Spinning trains the hands, but weaving challenges the mind. Like music, it is profoundly mathematical. Weavers have to understand ratios, detect prime numbers, and calculate areas and lengths. Manipulating warps turns threads into rows, and rows into patterns, points into lines, and lines into planes. Woven cloth represents some of humanity’s earliest algorithms. It is embodied code.” I love this, Virginia. So, talk to me and tell me about the math of textiles and more of the story there.
Virginia: First of all, I have to note that in researching the book, I learned how to weave, on a hand loom.
Sonal: I did not know that. That’s so exciting.
Virginia: It challenges me, because I’m not very good in three dimensions, and you have to think in three dimensions even though you’re producing two-dimensional stuff. It is kind of complicated. One point that I make in the book is that weaving is the original binary code — by which I don’t mean Jacquard and his punch cards, that came long long after — but, it’s all up, down, on, off, one, zero. That is woven into the cloth itself.
And then also there’s this idea of math as the science of patterns. And I talk in the chapter about Andean weaving and the use of symmetry and — the people who are doing it aren’t necessarily thinking, I’m following algorithms. It’s sort of like the old thing about I’m speaking prose — but it is profoundly mathematical. And one of the really interesting speculative theories that I talk about is the idea that Greek arithmetic might have originated by the challenges of working on warp-weighted looms, because you have to know about prime numbers, especially on those types of looms, the techniques that they use.
And another thing, which I didn’t get into [in] the book, Judy Frater, who ran the place that I went to India where I learned how to do printing and dyeing — she makes the point that in creating these complex printed fabrics in India, there’s a tremendous amount of ratios because you want to get the repeats exactly right. You need to be able to think mathematically to get things to look right.
Sonal: That’s fantastic. One note in the later part of the book is, you talk about this 1976 study from Van Egmond. And it talks about “Abacus manuscripts” and books, and how he emphasizes their practicality. And the classical view of mathematics, inherited from the Greeks, was the study of abstract logic and ideal forms, whereas the Abacus books treat math as useful. Which I thought was so fascinating, because when I think of the fundamental challenge of learning and teaching mathematics — which is, like, my old world of work and research — that is the challenge, right there.
Virginia: Yeah. So, first of all these Abacus manuscripts have a very misleading name because they’re the opposite of Abacus manuscripts. In fact, they’re teaching people how to do pen-and-paper calculation — not how to use an abacus. And there’s a history, which I explain about why they’re called that.
But you had, in the early modern period, in Italy, the development of these schools, where people who were going to be merchants would go when they’re kids, to learn how to do arithmetic — sort of in between calculation and algebra. They do all these word problems, which, if you were solving them today, you would set up with variables and unknowns. And this was driven by essentially the need of textile merchants to do this new type of arithmetic, which was incorporating the Hindu/Arabic numbers and the zero, all of these things. They were moving away from using Roman numerals.
So, these are business problems. A lot of them have to do with the currency conversions — with lengths, and if you get this much money for this length, and how much would you get for this length. All of this sort of thing. It’s the cloth trade driving a kind of mathematical education. And one thing that’s interesting is that these teachers were the first Europeans to make a living, just by math <Sonal: Oh right, that’s so interesting> they would teach these schools and hire out as consultants, particularly for various construction projects, where they would be doing more sort of geometrical calculations. So, that was driven largely by the textile trade.
The science of knitting
Sonal: I love that. I can’t even tell you, on so many levels. So, knitting is such an interesting thing to me, because a lot of people describe how knitting is technology. And so, I’d love for you to say more about the science and math of knitting.
Virginia: Well, the interesting characteristics of knitting, mathematically, have to do with its three-dimensional qualities. So there’s an actual mathematical paper called “Any Topological Structure Can Be Knitted” — and there are pictures in the book of things like Klein bottles that have been knitted. From a practical, business point of view, this is very important, because we are at a technological moment where 3-D knitting — which has been around for several decades — is becoming more and more important. And it’s driven by the mathematical characteristics of knitting, the computing power, and the shift where, after millennia of being completely dominant, weaving is losing its market to knitting. Knitting is a relatively new way of making fiber. It started around 1200, whereas weaving goes back at least 9,000 years, probably more.
Sonal: And why is knitting taking over weaving? That was so surprising to me.
Virginia: So, it’s taking over weaving mostly because it’s more comfortable, because it stretches in multiple dimensions. Also, a lot of the athletic wear that drives technological innovation in the textile and apparel industries — athletic wear and outdoor wear — is knitted. A lot of it is just this drive for comfort, which has only been accelerated by the pandemic.
Sonal: You make a funny note in the book about what you’re wearing while you’re writing it — and of course I chuckled because every time I met up with you, we‘d wear, like, you know, nice clothes.
Virginia: Oh yeah, this is what I said. “Everything I’m wearing except my jeans — my underwear, shirts, sweaters, socks, even my sneakers — is made from knitted fabric.” But this incredible expansion of knitting, it feeds into the business side too, where — okay, we have this ability to do three-dimensional knitting. It has historically not been as economical as making big pieces of cloth and cutting and sewing, but it does allow us to make more to order so that your inventories are in thread rather than in finished garments or cloth. It allows more variety. There are advantages to it. And, you can knit an entire garment with no seams. Traditionally, most of the knitting that you have in your closet is pieced together, sewn together just like woven fabrics.
Sonal: I don’t know if you realize that you said that the comfort-quality of knitting is that it’s essentially seamless — and that, of course, goes back to the Mark Weiser quote — because earlier you said that the other word in his big paper was seamless.
Virginia: It can be seamless — and that is, in fact, what SHIMA SEIKI, who is the company that first innovated this three-dimensional knitting, although they’re not the only company doing it now — they sold it as “the seamless garment.”
Sonal: Got it. And by the way, because our listeners are very curious — and this is what I love about everyone — the paper, if they’re interested, that you referenced, is “Every Topological Surface Can Be Knit: A Proof.” And the journal, the full name is “The Journal of Mathematics and the Arts,” and it’s from June 2009, and the authors are Sarah-Marie Belcastro and Carolyn Yackel. And oh, it was also in “Math Horizons” in November 2006. So, those are the sources. Oh, by the way, on the 3-D notion of knitting, have you heard of this project called SkyKnit — which is basically a neural net that generates new patterns for knitting; have you read about this?
Virginia: I haven’t, no.
Sonal: Oh, you would love this — I’m gonna send you an article about it. It’s on Janelle Shane’s work, and she, you know, does a lot of creative AI-type experiments. But, she basically took the knitting forum Ravelry, and she trained a neural network on a series of 500 knitting instructions, and then she generated new instructions. And that the Ravelry community has actually attempted to knit. It’s just one of my favorite stories of online things.
Virginia: I’m not surprised it exists.
Sonal: One of my other favorite stories is, and this is an Instagrammer I follow who’s Shannon Downey, because I’m super into all the fabric textile artists — and she basically had heard about this unfinished quilt, and that, you know, they found a box full of fabric and discovered it was a massive quilting project that was just begun, and it was mapped out. And so, so many people on the internet joined up to quilt this quilt — and it’s called Rita’s quilt — and they just completed it.
Passing down techniques
In that case, it’s more technology for collaboration than for creation, but it’s a segue to my next question, which is, let’s talk about the artifacts — and really, this theme of record-keeping and the transmission of textile knowledge. That’s, like, another really interesting theme in your book, and so I’d love to probe on that a bit.
Virginia: So, traditionally, textile knowledge is transferred through apprenticeship — either formal (like, there were these apprenticeships in Europe, they were highly regulated and such) or informal (within families, or villages or whatever). But you have a shift in the early modern period, in Europe — there’s more documentation in China earlier, but you have a shift in the early modern period, where there’s this idea in the air that it’s a good thing to share knowledge, as opposed to keeping it secret.
Sonal: Yeah, it’s in the zeitgeist.
Virginia: It’s in the zeitgeist, and it’s very important in the history of technology and science, and the touchstone example is Diderot’s Encyclopedia and — which, in fact, includes a lot of documentation of how various looms work, and [the] source of some of the illustrations in my book. But in my research, I found a couple of less well-known examples. One is the first dye manual, which is called Applicto. Iit seems to come from some word for envelope. And essentially you had an Italian guy, who went around over a long period of time, prizing various recipes out of dyers, and he published the first dye manual — sort of like a recipe book. It tells you [to] use this much of this or this much of that — so that’s one.
And then the other one — which is very interesting, because it reminds us how important notation is — is the first weaving manual. Nowadays, if you go online, Ravelry has these weaving “drafts,” which is a form of notation that tells weavers how to set up a loom, which threads to raise, in what order to create a pattern. Well, somebody had to invent that notation. And, probably it was invented for personal use, and it was secret. But there was a guy who was very frustrated that they would have to import textiles to get the good patterns, and he was, like, “No, we can do just as well. The problem is people are too secretive about the knowledge, and they aren’t teaching other people.” So, he put together a manual that was the first weaving manual — and there is a site called handweaving.net, where they’ve turned a lot of these instructions into instructions for today.
But this is a theme throughout the book, that there is a tension — because making textiles requires a lot of tacit knowledge, a lot of the kind of knowledge that’s very difficult to write down and articulate — we talk about the maestre reeling cocoons, I mean, it would be very hard to convey that to another person. But there are other types of knowledge that can be codified, and so there is this move toward codification. That really helps jumpstart a lot of technological progress, because you’re able to have people from outside fields to understand what’s going on in other fields, and maybe apply that in other ways. Or you just get people better able to understand the state of the art and technology, and perhaps innovate on top of that. And then the notation that develops for organic chemistry is really important also. I don’t use it in the book, but I do talk about the development of organic chemistry out of the dye industry.
Sonal: It was funny, because when all my friends in college were taking O-Chem — you know, like, shorthand for organic chemistry, I remember just kind of enjoying the notational aspects of it. So, basically the notation, the manual encoding helped make the notation more standardized and common as well, and then there was a zeitgeist move of making the knowledge and artistry of weaving more public. You quote Ziegler, who did that original weaving handbook, that “I hold that it would be possible to produce many more artists in all branches of technology, if only there were no shortage of publishers.” Which I loved, because what it told me is that that manual was basically the printing-press moment of the textiles industry.
Virginia: Exactly, and this resonates so much with today in terms of all the riches we have available online — which includes not only printed stuff but videos, which are incredibly important in people learning how to do things — but it also goes to the tensions that we have around copyright. You know, the history of textiles is full of industrial espionage. I have a few examples in the book, but people were constantly trying to keep stuff secret, and other people were trying to get it, because it’s very valuable.
Sonal: I’m glad that you share that in the book. And I don’t know if you know this, but I actually interviewed Joel Mokyr on this podcast a number of years ago. Yeah, the podcast is called “Knowledge builds technology and technology builds knowledge,” and it was about the Republic of Letters, and that — its role in what he calls “the Industrial Enlightenment.”
Virginia: Oh, and I use that term a lot. Joel’s work is really great, and I’m very influenced in my understanding of this zeitgeist moment by his work. Because you have this moment where you have craftsmen, intersecting with codification, intersecting with scientists — and, each feeds the other in ways that were not previously happening. And that really allows a certain kind of scientific and technological takeoff — particularly technological takeoff — because it gives people where to look for new advances — and also just shares things across borders, shares things across class. You get to tap a lot more knowledge.
Modern-day idea storage
Sonal: You know, one of the things that fascinated me on the history of the knowledge transmission of patterns and record keeping is the idea of storing things in song, and in the cloth itself, and you talk about that in the book, and I thought that was so beautiful, yet so ephemeral. And so, one thing I wonder when you talked about how it’s really important that we now have videos for so many — do you worry about the artifacts of the future, and how future historians might come back into our time and look at some of this?
I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this, but I was intrigued by this idea, simply because you open the book talking about how over half of the tablets that were uncovered on Crete, when they were doing excavation of the ancient minotaur labyrinth area, they were textile tablets. And will future generations have those concrete artifacts? I’m very seduced by that idea of ephemerality and permanence.
Virginia: Well, I am a great supporter of the internet archive. I think it’s an incredibly important organization.
Sonal: We actually had Brewster Kahle on the podcast.
Virginia: It’s incredibly important. So, do we lose this kind of traditional knowledge? One thing that’s interesting is, since about the 1970s, there’s been a tremendous appreciation and recording of people’s traditional knowledge about traditional crafts. And what interests me the most about that is not just that it happened — and there’s some really interesting stories about how it happened in different places, particularly Peru — but also that when you have a living textile tradition, it’s very different from what people in developed countries sort of think it ought to be. It’s not static. It’s not producing the same thing that the ancestors produced. It’s subject to all the kinds of changes that affect all of us.
And you have people adopting and adapting their traditional techniques for the world they actually live in, which is the 21st century world. And I tell some stories from Guatemala, and I’ve also written about some stories from Chiapas in Mexico that [were] not in the book. It’s in an article, it’s online — all these things are on my website also.
Sonal: Great, I’ll link to some in the show notes as well. One last question on this thread. I do think it was interesting that you talked about how programmers first wrote code using punch cards, and this idea of how NASA produced “rope memory.”
Virginia: So there are two intersections between early computer memories and weaving. The first, which was the dominant form of computer memory, before the development of silicon chips, was core memory. And essentially, what you had was weaving. You had threads, copper wires, going horizontally, intersecting with ones going vertically, just like cloth. And then at each intersection, you would have a ferrite donut — they were tiny, tiny, tiny — and, by sending a certain electrical signal down the right thread, so to speak, you could flip the core from positive to negative, and it would be a one or a zero. And that’s how essentially RAM was done.
Sonal: RAM, as in Random Access Memory, right.
Virginia: Random Access Memory. That was before silicon — that was, like, from the 50s to the 70s. That was how computer memory for most purposes was done. In the Apollo program, they needed to do essentially, ROM — Read Only Memory — in a very stable and very compact and lightweight form. Relatively lightweight. And essentially what they did was called “rope memory.” Instead of having the intersection of the warp and weft, so to speak, with a core that could flip, they would just — they would write the program on punch cards, they would debug it, they would get it all working, and then they would code it into wires that either went over or under, depending on if it was a one or a zero. And so, it was literally software you could hold in your hand. It was this physical embodiment — I mean, I guess the punch cards are a physical embodiment too, but this was much more compact. And that was used in the Apollo program.
Sonal: What is rope memory but the code that runs the space program? It’s a perfect thread to end this section of how to store knowledge, transmit knowledge. I also love — throughout your book, there’s actually a few semiconductor analogies smattered about. I finished Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” book recently for the first time. People have been talking about it for years, and I finally read it this year, and I was so struck, though, by how much semiconductor manufacturing actually applies to creative work, too. And it’s just so fascinating, when you see all the analogies from semiconductors to textiles as well, and in some of these creative crafts as well. So, I just think that’s fantastic.
Dyes and modern chemistry
We don’t have time to go into the dye chapter. You already pointed out how the dye industry was one of the earliest applications of some of the organic chemistry notation. But the one interesting fact that I wanted to quickly flick on in this chapter, which was really counterintuitive and quite surprising to me — especially because Marc, Andy McAfee, and I did a podcast on his book “More From Less” is that — people have this assumption that the past was more environmentally conscious than now. And in fact that’s not true.
Virginia: Yeah. One thing that people don’t realize when — particularly when they talk about “natural dyes,” is — they’re very messy, very smelly. Indigo particularly, which is a wonderful, wonderful dye. But it stinks. And it’s not even the stinkiest dye that I talk about in the book. So there’s that. And then the other thing is dyeing uses a lot of water. And I was really struck by this when I took dyeing classes in India, in Adipur, which is in Kutch, which is a desert area, so —
Sonal: It’s in Gujarat, yeah.
Virginia: Yeah, it is <It’s my home region>, so it’s not like water is plentiful. But I came from California, Southern California, and we were in a drought, and so I was hyper conscious of the use of water — and they’re just using tons of water, throwing the water in the yard, throwing the water in the yard. And this was not particularly polluting, but it really struck me — the combination of the history of dyes as this kind of thing that you wanted outside town — people didn’t want to be next to dyers — with this use of water, even today.
And I think when we think that in the olden times, everything was environmentally benign, that’s partly a matter of scale. When you have large-scale production, you’re gonna use more of everything. But it’s really the very modern plants — and I talk about a dye house I visited in LA — that are using really precise measurements. And being — looking for innovative ways to save on water, save on energy, save on time, save on labor, just the — all the economic factors, as well as the environmental factors — that’s where you really get the innovation that becomes environmentally more benign. It’s not by going back to the past.
Sonal: It’s sort of this yearning for a past that never was.
Virginia: Yes, exactly.
Textile innovation over time
Sonal: And the technology is the way forward, and if we do want to do a lot of these great things. So, now some kind of meta theme questions around innovation. So, you actually have a chapter at the end called “innovation,” which made me chuckle because, actually, your entire book is about innovation.
Virginia: The whole book is about innovation. Actually, my editor — I had a great editor, but her idea, we were talking about this last chapter. She said, “Why don’t you call it ‘innovators’” — which is parallel to traders and consumers — but there are innovators in every chapter.
Sonal: It’s not orthogonal, it’s both the warp, the weft. So, let’s kind of come full circle. You say that “to weave is to devise, to invent, to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements.” And I thought that was profound, because I think that is exactly what innovation is. It’s transforming something into something else, or taking building blocks like Legos, or words, or code, and turning them into something else. Or Chris Dixon, in his post, described how code “is the encoding of human thought” — and in your book, you actually have a line in the the chapter on fiber, where you talk about Hardy’s work, and how when you twist things into forming ropes and knots, that it “demonstrates an infinite use of infinite means and requires a cognitive complexity, similar to that required by human language.”
So, I want to ask you about more of the how versus the what — which is, you say that this is a story of innovation, things that are both famous and forgotten. Incremental improvements and sudden leaps, repeated inventions, and once-forever discoveries. So, I’m gonna have you do — very lightning-round style — give me an example, in the meta story of innovation, of an example of something famous, even still famous today.
Virginia: The invention of nylon by Wallace Carothers. Nylon is the first polymer fiber, and in fact I — Carothers is the person who figured out what polymers, which also come in protein forms — he figured out that these really were these giant molecules and he demonstrated it. But nylon is the first synthetic fiber, and the first polymer. And I tell the story. The inventor is less famous, but nylon is famous.
Sonal: And give me an example of a forgotten — I mean I guess your whole book has a lot of these, but a forgotten one.
Virginia: So, the person that I would really love to know who invented it is, somewhere in China, there was probably a woman [who] was involved in silk production who figured out what we now know as the belt drop off. And the particular application was what is called, in spinning, a spindle wheel, as opposed to spinning wheel. She figured out how to take a big wheel, and put a thread or a belt onto a little wheel — and you could turn the little wheel many times, by turning the big wheel. Basically what this person figured out was you could turn that not-load-bearing wheel on its side, and attach it to another wheel, and then you could have it turn faster. And this is incredibly important in the history of textiles, and it’s incredibly important in the history of machines — and we have no idea who did it. Although we have a reasonable idea of what kind of person it was and where it was.
Sonal: Okay, so that’s “famous” and “forgotten.” So, now let’s do “incremental” and “big leaps.” So, give me an example of an incremental improvement that was important in advancing the fabric of civilization.
Virginia: All the incremental improvements in the quality of cotton for example, in not only breeding cotton that could grow above the frost line, but making it more disease resistant, making it — longer fibers, more per boll. All of those kinds of incremental improvements.
Sonal: Now, give me an example of an opposite of incremental improvement — a “sudden leap.”
Virginia: The invention of aniline dyes, synthetic dyes, which set off essentially organic chemistry.
Sonal: Say a teeny bit more on that one.
Virginia: Yeah. So, there was a 19-year-old student called William Perkin, who was fooling around — he was trying to actually synthesize something that would be like quinine, a malaria drug. And he didn’t get what he wanted, but he noticed that this precipitate in his beaker was kind of purple-y, and he tried dyeing silk with it, and it worked really great. And then he said, hey this is a business — and like many many entrepreneurs before have said, if he’d known what was going to be involved in taking his bright idea and turning it into something that could actually be a company, he might never have done it — but he did. Because they had to invent all kinds of machinery, and ways of producing large chemical sources, stuff like that. <I love that> And there’s actually a whole book about that called “Mauve,” but I tell the essentials of this story.
Sonal: That’s a story that I remember learning from Xerox PARC, which is, when you have material-science type innovations — like, the piece, the component is one tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle — it’s actually the broader ecosystem that you build around it that’s actually the true innovation. And I was on the frontlines of watching a lot of the architecture and orchestration and attempts at that.
Virginia: And this is also why — I mean, a lot of textile innovation falls under material science today. And this is why people publish about some cool new textile idea — and it never sees the light of day. Because it’s not viable, either as a business, or in some cases just as an actual textile. And I tell some stories about the 20s and 30s, things that people were fooling around with. Because rayon was around, and they had this idea that you could take natural materials and transform them — because rayon is made basically from wood — and turn them into fibers. And so, they were trying, like, everything. Eggs, and milk. And I talk about the milk fibers, which were very big in Italy, very backed by Mussolini’s government and stuff, and why they didn’t maintain themselves after the war.
Sonal: Well, that goes to the next lightning-round one, which is repeated inventions. Because today, there is a resurgence in kind of wood-based and, like, bamboo-based fibers as alternatives to cotton, for instance, and other fibers. So, what would you put on your list of a repeated invention — something that was invented over and over again many times throughout the history of textiles?
Virginia: Well, the simplest one is the drop spindle, which is essentially a weight with a hole in it, with a stick. And the weight maintains the angular momentum and lets you draw out fiber and spin it. And it was invented in slightly different forms, all around the world.
Sonal: And now, what is an example of a — not a once in a lifetime, but once in forever kind of discovery. And it doesn’t have to be invented by human ingenuity, it could be discovered by human ingenuity.
Virginia: I mean, certainly we talked about the idea that cotton only happened once, but that’s not really human ingenuity.
Sonal: That’s why I was giving you an out, actually, because they did discover…
Virginia: Well, I actually used my “only once,” which was the spindle wheel. <Right> Which you would think with all this spinning all around the world, you would think that people all around the world would have figured out ways to do it faster, but it actually only happened once. It happened in China, and then it spread from there.
Gender roles in portraits
Sonal: It’s interesting that you speculate that it was likely a woman. The thing that actually struck me personally, is this idea of the role of women and taking back the power of, sort of, women as some of the original coders or original scientists. A lot of critics today tend to emphasize that there’s this implied domesticity and subordination of the era’s images of spinning women, as in doing weaving. And you talk about how that may not necessarily be the case.
Virginia: Right. In the chapter on spinning, I start with a paired set of portraits that are in the Reich’s Museum, in Amsterdam. And it’s a husband and wife. The woman is spinning, and the man is a businessman, he’s got his account books, he’s got some money — symbols of their trade. And these are actual, real people. We have a pretty good idea who they were, they’re not types — but these could also be the iconographic symbols of industry and commerce. Before smokestacks became the images of industry in the, say, 19th century, <right> the symbol that people used to symbolize industry was a woman spinning. Because this was the epitome of sort of productive labor that’s making something, as opposed to commerce, which is trading something.
And so, you would have these very common images — and that’s because it was an incredibly important activity. Cloth consumes enormous amounts of thread, and there was never enough thread. That is why, in fact, it made such a big difference when you have the Industrial Revolution. Why does it start with thread? Because thread is incredibly in short supply always, and it’s this input into all these different kinds of uses of cloth. Everything from sacks to sails for the British navy, to all of these kinds of things. Really important. And so, women’s work — it was domestic, but then a lot of men’s work was domestic, too, and it’s not a symbol of subordination in these portraits. It is a symbol of equality. And in fact, if you look at the construction of the portrait, in sort of a deep art-analytical sense, like, their hands are in exactly the same positions. It’s commerce and industry as equally important.
Sonal: And by the hands, you mean that there was a certain curl. You describe this in the book…
Virginia: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Sonal: …that shows that it wasn’t just someone posing, it was the precision of an actual weaver who knew the art.
Virginia: She is actually positioned like she knows the art. And then his hands are more artificially posed, with the coin and with the book and stuff — but they mirror the positions of her hands.
The unique case of kente cloth
Sonal: So then, the last tension is that you open the book talking about how this is so ubiquitous across cultures. And in fact, when you describe the words that we use — you talk about French words, like métier. You talk about non-European words, like in the Mayan language — the terms for weaving designs and hieroglyphics both use the same root. In Sanskrit, the word for sutra, which now refers to, like, a religious scripture, it originally denotes a string or a thread. You talk about the word tantra, which is tied to tantrum or warp or loom. The Chinese word zǔzhī, meaning organization or arrange, which is also the word for weave. And chéngjiù, which means achievement or result, which originally meant twisting fibers together. So basically, you really outline how this is so ubiquitous throughout multiple cultures.
So, now I’m gonna just have you tell me one last story, which is the story of kente cloth. I think what’s really fascinating to me about the kente cloth chapter is my mom [was] born and raised in Uganda — which is not originally where kente cloth is from, right — my whole entire family’s from Uganda. <Oh right> So, I grew up…
Virginia: Did they come to the U.S. after they got kicked out…
Sonal: So, it was the Idi Amin. Exactly.
Virginia: I remember when — I remember when that happened, yeah.
Sonal: It was — it was before I was born. My grandparents, her parents got relocated to the U.K. and my aunt went to Sweden. But, I grew up surrounded by African fabrics. And then we have this political moment, where people are using kente cloth as a symbol. The thing that I wanna focus on — and especially, by the way, because it also to me tied together your other books, and that includes both “Glamour” and particularly “The Substance of Style,” where you talk about…
Virginia: It was very resonant on that one, yeah.
Sonal: It’s very resonant on that one, because you talk about how fashion is totemic.
Virginia: So, West African weavers have for a long, long time, made cloths that are called “strip cloths” — which is that they weave 4-6” wide strips, which are then sewn together into a complete cloth that’s then wrapped around the body in various ways. And this is ancient. And in fact, I talk in the book about how strip cloths were even used as currency.
Sonal: Cloths as coin, that was so cool.
Virginia: Kente cloth is actually fairly recent — dates back just to the 18th century, probably, 19th century. We don’t know exactly when it originated. And in Ghana, there’s a great contestation between two ethnic groups — the Asante and the Ewe — about who invented it, because it’s the national cloth and source of great pride. And I talk about the research that’s been done that suggests that its distinctive weave pattern was probably developed by the Ewe, but quickly adopted by the Asante, who then put on their preference for bright colors, which is very much what we associate with kente cloth.
And what makes kente cloth distinct is not the patterns, although they are distinct and interesting — it’s the way it’s woven. It is woven in an alternating sort of squares of warp-faced and weft-faced weaving, so that it’s something — you could not produce a total kente cloth on an industrial loom. It has to be woven in these strips, and those strips have to be put together, and there’s a special loom that was invented to make this kind of pattern.
Kente cloth is very interesting technologically, or artistically, because it requires a great deal of forethought and planning. So, that’s interesting. Now, what makes it particularly interesting — and, of course, resonant in the U.S. — is how it went from being a kind of cloth for particularly Asante aristocrats, to then when Ghana became independent and you had the sort of pan-African idea, it became a symbol of sort of Africa in general, the African diaspora. Muhammad Ali went to Ghana and he wore kente cloth, it was a big deal. The president of Ghana was photographed in “Life” magazine shaking hands with Dwight Eisenhower on a state visit to the U.S., and he was wearing kente cloth. And in moving from Africa to the United States, its meaning and even its physical characteristics changed. First of all, the Asante elite were not related to the ancestors of African Americans. Their ancestors were the ones who sold into slavery. But textiles mean what people want them to mean, how people use them, and their meanings evolve.
And so, what you had was — first of all, you had this transformation in the 1960s of kente cloth from being a symbol of a tribal elite and a national elite, to being a symbol of African pride and the African diaspora. And then you started to have people who were famous — like W.E.B. Du Bois, they would put a little kente cloth in their stoles that they wore with their academic robes. And then, at Westchester University of Pennsylvania, students adopted, as black students, to symbolize their pride in their academic achievements and their racial identity. And they started wearing not a whole piece of kente cloth, but essentially something that amounted to one of the strips that it was made from. And this spread to becoming a widespread custom, particularly at graduations. And this is what a living textile tradition does. Because people want many different things out of textiles, and one of them is an expression of their identity, and also who they want to be, who they aspire to be.
And then you have kente cloth also go from being always a woven pattern, into being frequently a printed pattern for all kinds of things — where it takes on this, kind of, new meaning and new purpose. So, kente cloth has had many different incarnations, and it has different incarnations in Ghana. I mean, the top weavers of it make new patterns all the time.
Sonal: There’s a Ghanaian fabric maker that created a fabric featuring the Ghanaian president — because he made lots of frequent televised speech appearances during the pandemic — printed spectacles, you know, floating against, like, the swirling red, white, and green background, which I thought was fabulous. And it even had symbols like padlocks for signifying lockdowns, and plane propellers for the borders that are closed. It just goes to show how culture evolves so quickly, in so many ways, and people find meaning. I’ve also been fascinated growing up, you know, going to India, that patterns — the history of patterns, like, ikat. Like, it’s part…
Virginia: Oh, I love ikat.
Sonal: I do too. And it’s widely used in Turkey. But then some of the techniques are, you know, rooted in shibori in Japan. But shibori itself was something…
Virginia: They have their own kind in Guatemala.
Textiles and world culture
Sonal: Oh, I love that. But the other thing that I think is really beautiful about this, is it’s not only a story of things being reinvented or invented multiple times all across the world in different ways — but it’s also a story of borrowing, and reborrowing, and building on — because you know, shibori started in India and it went back to Japan, and it went back to China. I mean, it’s just like all over the place. I just got that all messed up, but the technique just kind of comes back. And last time I went to India, it was totally in vogue to buy, like, salwars that had, like, modern shibori in cool new colors like neon. Which I think is so cool. Like, this is the story of culture and technology. But you also talk about how this is actually not about culture, but about civilization, and how there’s actually a difference between the two.
Virginia: You can have multiple cultures within a civilization, and you can have a continuous civilization where the cultures change. And I’m not using it in a, like, “civilization good, barbarism bad” kind of way. I’m using it to describe, essentially, a survival technology that humans have as a way of transmitting ways of protecting themselves against [a] hostile world and hostile people.
And then the second idea of it is that it’s cumulative. It builds, and that cumulative nature can be broken, or it can continue. The example I use is, think about Western Europe in 1980. And think about Western Europe, or as it was known at the time, Christendom, in 1480. That is a continuous civilization, but it culturally couldn’t have changed more. The politics were different. The people’s understanding of the natural world was different. How they dressed was different. How they spoke was different. Every aspect that constitutes culture had significantly changed, but this cumulative civilization had continued. And what I’ve argued in a new article out in “Reason,” where I develop the idea about civilization in the current context, is that some time in the recent past, we — for the first time ever — developed a world civilization. We had a coming together of east and west into a single civilization that hadn’t been the case ever in human history before.
So, when I talk about the fabric of civilization, I’m talking about the continuous building up of knowledge, and techniques, and technology that helps knit together — to use a textile metaphor — different civilizations.
Sonal: So, this is a great note to end on, because while you talk about how this book is about the fabric of civilization — which is cumulative, it has layers, it’s about survival, you know, cloth protects us — what you end the book on in your afterward is this beautiful quote, which is that “This heritage does not belong to a single nation, race, or culture. Or to a single time or place. The story of textiles is not a male story or a female story. Not a European, African, Asian, or American story. It is all of these — cumulative and shared, a human story, a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads.” And that is the essence of this book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.” By Virginia Postrel. Thank you for joining this episode of the a16z Podcast.
Virginia: Thank you.
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