From String to Spandex — Books about Textile History

Textile history books.

Today we’re going to take a look at some books covering world-wide textile history.  It is interesting to see how different authors organize and present this huge body of content. (I will link them all to World Cat in case you are interested in finding them in a library.)

The oldest book I have on the topic is —

The Story of Textiles, by Perry Walton.

The Story of Textiles, by Perry Walton, Tudor Publishing Co.,1925, (my copy is from 1937)

It has some information about the early stages of textile production, but it is mostly laudatory biographies of the various inventors and mill owners of the Industrial Revolution.  This is history the way it was taught when I was in school; names and dates.  Books like this were the reason I didn’t even like history until much later in life, when I discovered the gold standard of women’s history —

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Women’s Work, the First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, W. W. Norton, 1994

This is one of the first books I ever read on women’s history, social history, material culture, and all that good stuff  — how ordinary people lived and what they accomplished. 

It covers 20,000 BC to about 500 BC, mostly the Middle East and Europe.  It is organized roughly chronologically, describing textile innovations and how they played out in various cultures.

If this book were a yarn, it would be an artisanal 6-plied yarn of multiple colors and diameters.  Each chapter has a main narrative thread — how people in Crete used snails for purple dye, or how Assyrian women shipped off woven cloth to sell — but that strand of “what we know” is plied with strands of “how we know that” from archaeologists and researchers.  Wayland Barber includes the etymology of textile terms, descriptions of uncovered frescoes, ancient inventories, re-enactment experiments, and more. It is an easy way to learn a lot about fields beyond textiles.

I have re-read this book recently, and now that it is about 25 years old, I did have some reading issues with it.  Quite often, sentences start, “Up until fifty years ago…,” meaning I had to do some mental math.  And there were references to promising archaeology projects, and I wanted to know, “Well, how did those come out?  Were any more silk robes found? Were the tablets ever decoded?” etc.   So I would love to see an updated version.

My new favorite book ever on textile history is —

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020

It is organized much like Women’s Work, following first the steps of the textile process — Fiber, Thread, Cloth, Dye — and then their ripples through society — Traders, Consumers, Innovators.  One difference is that it comes all the way up to modern times, and even describes some possible future textiles.  Another is that it covers more of the globe than Women’s Work does. It does not shy away from the negative aspects of textiles throughout history, such as slavery and environmental destruction. What I like about this book is that it shows that textiles are not just a luxury hobby — they have impacted and influenced so many other areas, including literacy, banking, and chemistry. 

If this book were a yarn, it would be basic twisted hemp at one end, morphing into crimson wool, then silk, then mauve rayon, and ending up as a fiber optic cable.

Both of these books were written by women who learned how to spin and weave, and therefore understand what they are writing about.  It is amazing to me how they can describe visual processes so well. However, I do think readers who are not spinners or weavers might find themselves looking for videos to supplement the books.

Another new favorite of mine is —

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St. Clair, Liveright Publishing, 2021

I don’t see this book as one yarn, but as a handful of fibers and fabric — lace, a cotton boll, linen mummy wrappings, Lycra, and spacesuit material.

This is not an all-encompassing history of textiles; rather, it tells you more about the textiles you thought you already knew, and shines a light down the dark tunnels of forgotten textiles.  Each chapter stands alone, and if you ask me, it provides plenty of cocktail party conversation fodder.

Here’s an example:

All the statues and many other objects found by Carter in Tutankhamun’s tomb had been painstakingly cocooned in linen.  A bundle of staves, for example, found in the first shrine were wrapped with a very dark brown, basket-woven linen; the veil that was draped over the guardian statues was a rich cream and had a texture that Carter described as filmy.  Although this was the first time this practice had been observed, as it were, in the flesh, it was already know from surviving rites and paintings.  These indicate that the wrapping of cult statues was an important part of worship.  They were kept in special shrines deep within temples and were dressed, in private, with fresh linen at least once daily by priests…The linen, in other words, was part of the point, not just a protective layer. [pp. 45, 46]

It was during the early dynastic period that the powerful, royal, and wealthy were buried deeper, in specially constructed graves, fully encased in linen. The wrappings became increasingly elaborate over time. … Tutankhamun was wrapped in sixteen distinct layers…Sources claim to have found pharaonic burial cloths a thousand yards long, so that they were wrapped around the body to a depth of forty thicknesses.  Artemidora, who died in the late first or early second century and was buried at Meir, was encased in so much linen that the finished mummy was nearly two yards long — a third taller than Artemidora herself.  The wrappings around her feet were carefully elongated, so that they appeared nearly a yard long. [pp. 47, 48]

I read a lot of textile books and articles, but I still learned so much from this book. 

I do not think this author knows how to spin or weave, though — I noticed a few mistakes in how she describes the process. But the wealth of information and polished writing style make it well worth reading.

Summing up my three favorites, I must point out that they have very little in the way of illustrations, just a few diagrams and line drawings.  But that actually helps me focus on the information.  If I have to bounce back and forth between text and illustration, I get lost.

But if you do like to see the items described, I would recommend having by your side 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by François Boucher, Abrams Books, 1987. Many of the famous finds described in the narrative books are pictured in this book, in wonderful large-scale photographs.  Elizabeth Barber’s book includes a small sketch of the Venus of Lespugue; but Boucher’s book has a photograph of it that is 4.5 inches by 11.  There are also maps and timelines.

Now a quick overview of illustrated world textile history books (or should it be, world history textile books?).  It seems like illustrated books would be preferable, but I have trouble concentrating in this format.  Quite often, the books don’t go into detail on the textiles that they do illustrate, but they do go into detail on the textiles that are not illustrated.  I wish they would just say “not illustrated” when they mention a famous textile, because that would spare me the headache of searching for non-existent illustrations.

The Illustrated History of Textiles, Madeleine Ginsburg, ed.

Sample page from Ginsburg book.

The Illustrated History of Textiles, Madeleine Ginsburg, ed., Studio Editions, 1991.

This coffee-table book has one section of about 100 pages covering all of textile history.  The second half of the book is aimed at collectors, with sections on the history of embroidery, carpets, knitting, lace, and tapestry; and then a section on buying and caring for a collection.  Many illustrations; most in color.

Textiles: A History Kindle Edition

Textiles: A History, Fiona McDonald, Remember When Books, 2011

This concise book could probably be a textbook for a textile arts class.  The first chapters discuss the main textile fibers (linen, silk, wool, cotton); then there are chapters for the various processes used to form and decorate textiles. There are lots of small illustrations, and a good glossary.

5000 Years of Textiles, Jennifer Harris, ed.

Sample page from 5000 Years of Textiles.

5000 Years of Textiles, Jennifer Harris, ed., Smithsonian Books, 1993 (I have the 2004 version)

Unfortunately for me, I own the small edition of this book, not the coffee-table sized one, so the font is about 1 point.  The full-color illustrations are still large enough to impress though. The first section focuses on different textile techniques — but spinning is not covered at all.  After that, it is organized by the different regions of the world, and their characteristic techniques.  For me, it is a little confusing that some chapters are related to a certain era, but most are not — for example, chapter 7 is “Safavid Iran, 1499-1722”, but chapter 8 is just “The Ottoman Empire,” no years given. 

However, this book talks about all kinds of empires and cultures that were new to me, and that I am intrigued to learn more about.  And it is wonderful to read about the entire world, not just the Mediterranean or Europe.


World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser

Sample page from Schoeser book.

World Textiles: A Concise History, Mary Schoeser, Thames and Hudson, 2003

This book is organized along very large themes, such as “Church and State,” “Trade and Trends,” and “Oriental Influences.”  It provides a rapid overview of the spread of textile techniques and designs, and the impact of textiles on trade and governments, which is similar to The Fabric of Civilization mentioned above.  But whereas in her book, Postrel chose one historical example and described it in depth to prove each point, Schoeser seems determined not to leave anybody out.  Cultures, regions, and rulers are mentioned with strobe-like effect; for the reader without encyclopedic knowledge of world history, I think it can be dizzying.  Here is a partial paragraph as a sample:

The Silk Route was disrupted (but restored) by the rise of the Mongols in the early 12th century and their conquests in China…By the 1450s Mongolian rulers held almost all the territory bounded by Korea, Vietnam, Syria, and Poland. Entire cities were destroyed during the devastation wreaked by the Mongol Timur (or Tamerlane, c. 1336 – 1405) as he swept from Samarkand across Russia, Mongolia, Persia, Anatolia, and India. Artisans were spared, treated as booty, and relocated, and these enforced migrations hastened the dispersal of techniques.  Weavers from Herat (in Afghanistan), who were known for their gold-woven silks and silver brocading, were removed to the Chinese Uighur region in 1222 and returned fifteen years later when their city was rebuilt. By 1260, Chinese craftsmen were at work in Tabriz, also famed for its golden cloths or nāsij. [pp. 74, 76]

If only those sentences had been placed in chronological order, I think they would be easier to follow.

This book is heavily illustrated; but on every second page, the illustrations are in black-and-white, and a lot of those are such low contrast that they are essentially just a page full of gray.

Besides the usual index, it has a geographical index, which is very helpful.  I use this book for reference when I am looking up specific textiles or cultures.

Textiles: The Whole Story

Textiles: The Whole Story, by Beverly Gordon, 2011, Thames and Hudson

This book is organized by the purposes of textiles as Gordon sees them — utility, community, status, communication, spirituality.

This is a beautiful book, with tons of pictures of textiles from all over the world, but I had to give up on reading it.  Schoeser’s book makes me merely dizzy, but this book is like being on a Tilt-a-Whirl — every topic sentence is followed by quick mentions of various cultures throughout time.  For example, after this sentence, “While any cloth can be used for psychic protection, particular textiles are believed to offer special safety,” the paragraph goes on to mention Christians in the Crusades, Malian mud cloth, traditional Navajo dress, Eastern European embroidery, the hill people of Southeast Asia, with North Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Indonesia thrown in for good measure. (And it’s not that that paragraph is an introduction, with more detail into each example following. It just goes on like that through the whole book.)

The illustrations are gorgeous, and I love seeing so many cultures represented, but I think it is more useful as a design inspiration book than as a history book.

So there you have it, an assortment of textile world history books.  If you like history at all, I would highly recommend Virginia Postrel’s book, The Fabric of Civilization, and Kassia St. Clair’s book, The Golden Thread.  If you would like to know more about prehistory, I recommend Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work.

As far as the illustrated books, I have found all of them at used book stores for $10 or less.   If you are going to go hunting for one, I think Jennifer Harris’s book 5000 Years of Textiles is the best choice.