In my most philosophical moods (and I’m usually in a pretty philosophical mood) I tend to see pretty much anything as a window onto the cosmos. But I’d never considered my cotton slacks as a window onto the forward march of human progress. That is, until I read Virginia Postrel’s new book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.” 

Did you know that the microbial theory of disease starts with silkworm farming? That the origins of computing have something to do with the algorithmic nature of weaving? That double-entry bookkeeping and modern finance are creatures of the textile trade? Well, I do now, thanks to Virginia’s fascinating new book. We talk about all that, as well as the nature of the human desires for protection, comfort, pleasure, novelty and status that drive the whole story forward. Could whatever you’re listening to this on now even exist if we didn’t care about so much about pants? I don’t know, but “The Fabric of Civilization” got me wondering. 

In addition to this book, Virginia Postrel is author of The Future and Its Enemies, the Substance of Style, and the Power of Glamour. Reason magazine under her editorship in the late ’90s and early Oughts was a big formative influence on me and I count myself lucky to have her as a friend. She is also, I should mention, a member of the Niskanen Center’s board of advisors.  

You can subscribe to the podcast here.

Readings: The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel


Will Wilkinson: Hi Virginia. How are you?

Virginia Postrel: I’m fine. How are you?

Will Wilkinson: I’m great.

Virginia Postrel: Good.

Will Wilkinson: Thanks for joining me on Model Citizen. I have with me today, the author of a new book, The Fabric of Civilization. What’s the subtitle? I always forget the subtitle.

Virginia Postrel: How Textiles Made the World.

Will Wilkinson: How Textiles Made The World. This book is replete with textile based plays on words.

Virginia Postrel: They’re unavoidable.

Will Wilkinson: They are unavoidable. That was something you discussed right at the beginning, how much language we have that’s based in weaving and cloth making and stuff like that. I hadn’t even thought of it, but you’re right, it’s kind of invisible on the language. But the sheer number of textile based metaphors, it does suggest it plays a pretty deep role in the development of our civilization.

Will Wilkinson: You want to just give me the really quick elevator overview, 60,000 foot view of the book? And then we can start digging into some of the details.

Virginia Postrel: Textiles are one of the oldest, most important and most ubiquitous human technologies. They’re something that from the time we’re born, we’re wrapped in cloth. People in pretty much every culture in the world have developed ways of making cloth, which is not just the making the cloth, it’s the raising the plants and animals to provide the fiber. It’s spinning them, it’s dying thread or cloth, all of these things. And it’s an absolutely essential technology.

Virginia Postrel: But we tend not to think about it. And to some degree, that’s because we enjoy textile abundance today. We can take textiles for granted because they’re common, they’re cheap. And to some degree it’s because of things like the fact that textiles tend to rot if they’re left for thousands of years, whereas stone and even metals are more likely to be preserved.

Virginia Postrel: And so for example, we could call it the string age because string is actually an essential technology that was developed around the same times as stone tools, but we call it the stone age, because the stone tools survived. Even though, in many cases, they were tied to shafts of various sorts with string.

Will Wilkinson: This book, when I looked at the title, it reminded me of, there’s a kind of genre of books, like how Salt Made The World, or Tea. And this one really strikes me as really credible as a technology, a commodity that underlies almost everything we think of in the modern world.

Will Wilkinson: And I really found it astonishing, the range of things that just making fabric is at the root of. We have things just like the development of math or computation, it can be traced back to weaving. And a lot of the origins of modern chemistry can be traced back to dye making. And modern accounting and finance can be traced back to things that start in the textile trade.

Will Wilkinson: And I found that really, really fascinating. It is something that, I think as you say, we’re kind of ignorant of all of it. We take all this stuff for granted. My shirt doesn’t seem like tech, right? These days we think tech is somebody’s made an app for a phone or something like that. But I have no idea what this is made out of.

Will Wilkinson: Now, all of a sudden, I’m incredibly self-conscious about whatever you think that I’m wearing is made out of, because you get so deep into it.

Will Wilkinson: It’s a beautifully structured book. Each chapter takes you through a different aspect of textile making and the distribution and consumption of cloth and clothing.

Will Wilkinson: And so, maybe we can just start at the beginning, which is… One thing I want to emphasize at the start, which is why people ought to buy this book is, I really can’t remember the last book where I learned so much reading it. Now I know quite a bit about a lot of things, but I mean, there’s so much in here that was new to me.

Will Wilkinson: And it’s interesting because it is just relevant to your life. I didn’t know the cotton that we use in clothes, how it was hybridized, or where the seeds came from, like everything involved. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t know about how you make flax thread. And I really didn’t know the differences between cotton and linen and stuff like that.

Will Wilkinson: Now I do, plus a bunch of other stuff.

Will Wilkinson: So you started at fiber-

Virginia Postrel: Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: … just the basic building block of fabric and textiles. And one of the points that you emphasize that I found interesting is that the things that we think of as natural or organic fibers, are really anything but.

Virginia Postrel: Right. So first of all, thanks for noticing that the structure is really important, because coming up with the structure was the critical thing. Because you don’t want to write a library, you want to write a book. And this is a normal size book. It’s not a giant tome, it’s not multi volumes. And yet it covers from pre-history to the near future and all around the world. And so how do you do that?

Virginia Postrel: So actually, what I have is, as you said, I do this sort of textile journey from fiber, thread, cloth, dye, traders, consumers. And I have a final chapter called innovators, which kind of brings us up to the present. But then each chapter also has a theme. So the theme of the fiber chapter is, as you say, is essentially, there’s no such thing as a natural fiber, that even the things we think of as natural fibers are deeply artificial. They’re products of human effort, human artifice.

Virginia Postrel: So I tend to use words like botanical fibers, or plant and animal fibers, things like that. They are different from things that are made in labs in certain ways, but they are definitely not natural in the sense that they’re not what you would find in the wild.

Virginia Postrel: Natural sheep has much less wooly fleece and more sort of hair that would be hard to spin into thread. It molts. It rubs up against bushes and loses its fur that way. And that’s how human beings, presumably, got the idea, “Hey, we could do something with this stuff.” But over time they bred sheep which were the first domesticated animals after dogs. But they bred them so that they would produce more of this wooly fleece that’s good for making yarn and cloth out of. And then they also eventually stopped molting.

Virginia Postrel: And if you were in ancient times, during history, about 5,000 years of sheep breeding, you got these wooly creatures, but this is like Mesopotamia, this is still a long time ago. In that period, they didn’t shear the sheep, they plucked the sheep when the times of years where the fur would get loose-

Will Wilkinson: They just yanked it out?

Virginia Postrel: … they would just hold the sheep… I can’t even imagine how hard this must have been because sheep are kind of large. They would pluck it out. And only later did shearing come in.

Will Wilkinson: That’s a very familiar thing to me as an Iowan. I try to convince people that this is a really high tech state. You might be driving down the highway and all you see are fields of corn and soybeans, but none of that stuff grows in nature.

Virginia Postrel: Right. Right.

Will Wilkinson: And If you’ve ever seen what indigenous maize looks like it does not look like these giant, fat ears of corn.

Virginia Postrel: And the same thing is true of cotton. And in fact, amazingly, the guy, the expert on cotton genetics, especially new world cotton genetics, is in Iowa, in Iowa State. So I went to Iowa state and I met this guy, Jonathan Wendel. And he has a greenhouse on the top of his building.

Virginia Postrel: And he has pretty much all of the 50-ish cotton species from around the world. And the thing about the 50-ish cotton species is that most of them are completely useless for fiber. Most of them have no more fiber on their seeds than a peach does.

Virginia Postrel: They have these pretty flowers that kind of look like hibiscus, but they don’t produce fiber. And only once was there a mutation on a plant, someplace in Africa, that produced fiber on the seeds for reasons that aren’t understood.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. They don’t understand… adaptive purpose at all.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. They don’t. It’s not clear what exactly it does. It’s not about attracting birds. There’s different theories… don’t seem to be right. And they had this plant in Africa, which the genetic sequence is called the A genome.

Virginia Postrel: And what’s really wild is that somehow this plant, this A African plant seeds, got over to Mexico to the Yucatan, and crossbred with another species, one of these that didn’t have fiber, that’s called D, the genome. And they produced what’s known as a polyploidal species, that is, it has twice as many chromosomes as the original.

Virginia Postrel: And there’s sort of more room to play. And this AD cotton as it’s known, did have fiber. And in fact, as it developed both in nature, and then once human beings arrived, was bred, it was able to have more fiber, wider fiber, more desirable characteristics, because it had more genes to play with.

Virginia Postrel: And that became of the New World cottons, which are the ones that dominate the world, the Gossypium hirsutum which is the one that’s native to the Yucatan, which is 90% of all the cotton we use. And then there’s one called Gossypium barbadense which is native to Peru, that’s where it was cultivated. And that’s the longer, fiber cotton sometimes called Sea Island, sometimes called Egyptian, which is kind of a misnomer actually. But pima cotton-

Will Wilkinson: Egyptian cotton comes from Peru?

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, it does. And in fact, it wasn’t even in Egypt until the 19th century. And also, all Egyptian cotton means on a product today is this cotton came from Egypt. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it has long fiber cotton. So-

Will Wilkinson: Right. Yeah, this is also a book about globalization.

Virginia Postrel: Yes.

Will Wilkinson: Every single thing has some surprising, international component to it. As far as the Mexican cotton goes, I was delighted to discover, which I did not know, that one of my favorite characters in American history was somehow involved in this. I’ve always been attracted to him because he has my father’s name, James Wilkinson.

Virginia Postrel: I was like, Walter Burley? Really?

Will Wilkinson: I’ve always been a huge Aaron Burr fan. Fan? I’ve always had a deep and abiding interest in Aaron Burr. And here’s a good aside. I mean, people don’t know that Aaron Burr, after he was tried for treason, he was acquitted for his escapades with James Wilkinson. He fled to the U.K., and he went to London, and he stayed with Jeremy Bentham.

Virginia Postrel: Oh. I didn’t know that.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. He camped out at Bentham’s house. He was a committed Benthamite. And the whole time he was there, he was trying to get Bentham to… He wasn’t giving up on his plan to conquer Mexico. He wanted to conquer Mexico, but he wanted to make it into a Benthamite Republic. And I shit you not.

Will Wilkinson: And he was prevailing upon Bentham to write the constitution for his notional Benthamite Republic that he wanted his brilliant daughter, Theodosia to rule. It’s a crazy story. It’s something I thought about writing a book about, because people don’t know about it, but it’s really cool.

Virginia Postrel: It’s crazy, yeah.

Will Wilkinson: He wanted this Republic of Happiness, governed according to these really rationalistic Benthamite principles.

Will Wilkinson: But anyway, in the process of that, he had enlisted this just total, shit stain, James Wilkinson, who’s involved in pretty much everything bad that’s happening at the beginning of the American Republic. He was just a mercenary, basically. He would do whatever, if you paid him. And so he was like a Spanish agent. Right.

Virginia Postrel: Right.

Will Wilkinson: But anyway, he’s the guy who’s responsible for getting the Mexican cotton seed to the South?

Virginia Postrel: Well, indirectly.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah.

Virginia Postrel: So there was this other guy, also a sleazy character, called Walter Burley, who worked for Wilkinson. And Wilkinson sent him to Mexico to ask for more money from Spain. And the Spanish were like, no way we already gave you plenty of money. We’re not giving you any more money.

Virginia Postrel: And then another thing that Burley was doing was scouting a possible invasion route if the U.S. wanted to invade Mexico. So it was-

Will Wilkinson: And you can’t have a war if it’s just Aaron Burr [crosstalk 00:16:58].

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Maybe so. But the thing that was actually important that came out of that trip was that Burley found a cotton species in Mexico that he thought might grow well in the Mississippi Valley. Now, to understand why this is important, first of all, you have to understand something about cotton, which is, in its natural state, cotton blooms when the days get short, that is the flowers come out when the days get short. So in the late fall.

Virginia Postrel: And then after the flowers come, then the bulbs come, where the useful fiber is. So that’s happening now, or even later. And the result of that is that generally cotton, certainly in its natural state, and even in most of its cultivated state, is a tropical plant. It’s hard to grow above the frostline. In the old world, there were species that developed that could grow in places like Uzbekistan and stuff. But in general, it was, even in the 19th century, early 19th century, a tropical plant.

Virginia Postrel: And Sea Island cotton, originally Peruvian cotton, you could grow that kind of around Charleston, South Carolina, there were a few places you could grow. But the various kinds of the shorter fiber cotton, the Gossypium hirsutum that were grown in the American South were not super successful.

Virginia Postrel: Partly there were certain diseases, there was something called the rot, that they were subject to. And also it was hard to get them to grow farther north. And by farther north, we’re not talking north, we’re talking like Northern Mississippi.

Virginia Postrel: And then at this time in the early 19th century, you’re also having the settlement of the Mississippi Valley and… Mississippi and Alabama, which were not originally part of the original colonies.

Virginia Postrel: And then later you get Louisiana, all of those kinds of states in the Mississippi Valley. This is the frontier. There’s really good soil. People think, hey, we could grow cotton there, but there aren’t successful cottons species.

Virginia Postrel: But Walter Burley goes to Mexico City on behalf of James Wilkinson, and he sees a cotton species that he thinks would work well there, and he brings it back to the United States.

Virginia Postrel: And the story, which I think is probably apocryphal, although it is often repeated, so who knows, maybe it’s true, is that Mexico actually forbade exporting cotton seed because, you know, protectionism. But there were these dolls stuffed with the cotton seed and he could export the dolls.

Virginia Postrel: But anyway, one way or another, this cotton seed got to the Mississippi Valley and was eventually hybridized in various ways, and became very successful cotton, the basis of the cotton plantations in that part of the world. And then this had this greater consequence of people settling that area, and not just voluntarily. About a million enslaved workers were transported from the Eastern States into this area.

Virginia Postrel: And so there’s this kind of second exile, or a second Middle Passage that’s within the United States where people are being taken away from the places that are familiar, from their families, from their communities, and taken to this frontier.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So we’re suddenly right in the thick of everything that’s good and bad about American history. It’s a place of innovation, some of the innovation leads to horrible abuses of other human beings. I find just standard history annoying, because it’s always political history. It’s presidents, kings, but-

Virginia Postrel: Well. Not since the 1970s, but okay.

Will Wilkinson: No. Still, most of the history that gets read is it’s biographies of presidents, right? Like A book about Ulysses S. Grant, or a book about Alexander Hamilton, that’s most of the history that’s written and consumed. You’re right, there’s history about everything. Or just the books that kids read to learn the history of their country.

Will Wilkinson: The real history that’s interesting is the kind of stuff that you’re talking about here. It’s the history of technology and commerce. That’s what drives everything. The question of the expansion of slave states is a question that doesn’t get started in the same way unless there is a heavy demand for enslaved workers, which comes from demand for some commodity that they’re producing that the plantation owners can’t hire labor to produce.

Will Wilkinson: And so the underlying question of American slavery is where’s the demand coming from for the commodity? So you-

Virginia Postrel: Well, I think there is a mistake in what you said, which is that they can’t hire labor to produce. They could have hired labor to produce.

Will Wilkinson: Yes.

Virginia Postrel: I mean, and then after the Civil-

Will Wilkinson: They just wouldn’t have made much money.

Virginia Postrel: Well, no, it’s not the cost of the labor, there’s actually literature on this, there’s a recent paper. It’s not so much the cost of the labor, because one way or another you’re paying the cost. You have to buy the slaves, you have to feed them and clothe them-

Will Wilkinson: You have to feed them [crosstalk 00:23:04].

Virginia Postrel: … and all those things. It’s not really a savings in the cost. It’s more something that shows up when you’re, say, settling the frontier. It’s other margins. It’s not the outlay of cash. It’s that you have a kind of control over your labor force that you don’t have with free labor.

Virginia Postrel: So that you can say, “Hey, we’re moving you from Virginia to Mississippi.” “Oh, but I don’t want to leave my family here in Virginia. My daughter works at the other plantation,” or whatever. “Well, you don’t have any choice because you are enslaved.” That is the much more important economic dimension from the point of view of the slave owner than the cost of the labor. Which then-

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So if you were depending on free labor, if you wanted… So this new cotton plant, it grows great in Mississippi. Mississippi is not super settled, so it doesn’t have a preexisting labor force. So if you’re trying to scale up fast and get something going, it’s going to be hard if you have to be advertising in newspapers on the coast to persuade laborers to come migrate there, right?

Virginia Postrel: So other parts of the United States were settled without slaves, even though there were no people there. I mean, there were people there, that’s a different issue, but they were not widely settled. And so how did that happen? It happened through immigration. It happened through migration of people who wanted land, who maybe didn’t have it.

Virginia Postrel: And so you could conceivably have had it done that way in the Mississippi Territory, as I think it was called, which includes Alabama, and in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. It could have been settled in a different way. I mean, the tragedy is that it wasn’t, because all of the things that-

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. All of the non slave states settled that way.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. So that belief that slavery would play itself out that was widespread in the founding period didn’t take into consideration this idea sort of expanding into these territories, and this new crop.

Virginia Postrel: But in Virginia, slaves were used to chop wheat. And McCormick’s Reaper was developed on a slave plantation. And in fact, a slave named Joe Anderson was involved and was credited by the McCormicks with helping to invent the reaper. So it’s not as though there’s something intrinsic about cotton versus maize, or wheat.

Will Wilkinson: Absolutely. So what was the market for all this cotton? So these plantation owners were growing a bunch of this Mexican cotton because presumably there’s a big market for it. Who were they selling it to?

Virginia Postrel: Yes. Well they’re selling it, primarily, to British cotton mills. So this is the industrial revolution has taken place in the late 19th century, where suddenly it becomes economical to spin cotton in large quantities.

Virginia Postrel: And cotton is an extremely desirable textile, and I write a lot in the book about the effects of the importation of Indian cotton textiles in Europe, in terms of exposing them to cotton textiles in large quantities, affordable cotton textiles, and the influence of the dye technologies and printing technologies that were used there. And also the reactions there too, where France, in particular, basically treated all of these fabrics the way we treat cocaine.

Will Wilkinson: So to ban everything.

Virginia Postrel: Ban everything. Yeah. They banned the Indian prints. A lot of places, including the U.K., banned those imports from India. But they also banned cotton, cloth. They banned prints, even if they were done on fabrics made in France by French manufacturers. And they did it for 73 years. And they put people in jail, and they sent them to the galleys, and major traffickers.

Will Wilkinson: It’s nuts. I mean, this comes in later in your book. And this is also a bunch of stuff that I didn’t know. So just the bans on these imported textiles was motivated for mainly just protectionist reasons?

Virginia Postrel: Yeah it was protectionism. I mean, it was weird because we would…

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Virginia Postrel: … was protectionism. I mean, it was weird because we would think that something that was so draconian as the version in France must have been motivated by some kind of moralistic crusade. But no, it was just protectionism. I mean, the protectionism took more conventional forms like in Britain. And in fact, when they finally repealed the prohibition in France, they replaced it with a 25% tax. So, there was still protectionism and the history of textiles is full of protectionism down to this day. It’s also full of industrial espionage.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the industrial espionage in a little bit. But I wanted to emphasize that, as you’re saying, the US market for cotton is mostly the British textile industry. The technologies that are at the root of that are things like the cotton gin in the US. But then all of these other textile technologies that are coming up in England that are making the mass manufacturer of textiles possible, and that is the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Will Wilkinson: The technologies that get the industrial revolution started are textile centric technologies. And the beginning of the industrial revolution is the real takeoff of, when you cite Deirdre McCloskey, the great enrichment. The reason that we’re so rich today is that we’ve had a few centuries of compounded economic growth that starts with these technological developments. So, it really is interesting. It really is true in a way that things like cotton are at the basis of the quality of life that we have today.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. When you understand, we started with the fibers chapter, let’s move to the thread chapter. When you understand about thread, about yarn, about how much goes into any kind of cloth, then you start to understand the industrial revolution in a sort of profound way. So, what most people don’t realize is that it takes a tremendous amount of thread to weave or knit anything.

Virginia Postrel: So, you take the fabric, the denim in a pair of jeans, takes about six miles of thread to weave that much fabric. And in the pre-industrial world, using Indian spinners, who were the best and fastest, would have taken about a hundred hours to spin that much thread. Now that doesn’t include cleaning the fiber, getting it ready for spinning. It doesn’t include weaving, it doesn’t include dying. It’s just the spinning. And so, a hundred hours, it’s about 13 eight-hour days for the thread in a pair of jeans. One pair.

Virginia Postrel: Or, to take another example, sort of inspired by COVID, I made a video about bandanas. So, I did a similar calculation for bandana. So, a bandana is really small. It’s 22 inches square. It’s got a mile and a half of thread in it. And that would take about 24 hours to spin, using an Indian Charkha in the pre-industrial world. Well, 24 hours, just for the spinning, not the waving, not the dying and all that. 24 hours to make the thread in a bandana, which is tiny.

Virginia Postrel: Think about sails, think about tents, think about sacks, not to mention, clothes and blankets and all of those things. And thread was the bottleneck. The result was, in every culture in the world, pretty much, women spent their lives spinning. They were always spinning. It was something that you just did. You spun for yourself, you spun for sale. You spun for taxes, in many places.

Virginia Postrel: So, it was this bottleneck. And in fact, weavers could have been weaving more cloth in many cases, if they could have gotten more thread. Well, when you have the industrial revolution, suddenly that bottleneck goes away, and the cost of the thread goes down, and the productivity of the spinning workers, we think of these poor people in the spinning mills who were so horribly paid. Well, all right by today’s standards. Yes. But compared to what spinners made when they were spinning by hand, the wages were better.

Virginia Postrel: And there’s a tendency, particularly in some of the feminist history literature, to blame the fact that spinners didn’t get much money on the fact that it’s the patriarchy not taking their work seriously, even though it’s critical. Well, it is critical, but it was also in aggregate. The yarn was, with the raw material, the most expensive part of making cloth. It was much bigger than the profit margin or what the male weavers were paid or anything like that. But the problem was, per hour, the productivity was so incredibly low, even with really good spinners. So they got very, very low wages.

Virginia Postrel: So, when you start to understand all these pieces in a very specific way, you start to see why being able to spin cotton or wool with machines instead of individuals, becomes this huge point of leverage. Because it affects all the cloth in the economy, which is a lot of cloth. And particularly in the world of sailing ships, and the world before plastics and all of these-

Will Wilkinson: I mean, a sail is gigantic.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: So, with the amount you’re saying, that much thread goes into a pair of jeans. [crosstalk 00:34:24] It’s huge. It takes many, many, many, many, many, many people, many hours of labor to produce that much. So, it’s not going to, you know.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. For a single Viking sail, it took 385 days of spinning, basically. It took longer to make the sail, start to finish, than it took to make the ship, start to finish. And we just take them for granted. We’re like, “Oh, look at that ship. That’s what’s in the museum.” They don’t even put sails on them because the sales have rotted away.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. The technology, the ingenuity and skill involved in making a sail is, in many ways, more impressive than the engineering that goes into…

Virginia Postrel: Well, they’re both impressive. But the point is, back then they wouldn’t have thought of them as like, we think-

Will Wilkinson: Because it’s so hard to get.

Virginia Postrel: … people. In fact, there’s a textile archeologist named Ava Anderson Strand, who’s in Denmark, but she’s Swedish or whatever. She points out that in one of the sagas, there’s a character who only cries when he loses his sail, because it’s so valuable.

Will Wilkinson: One thing I wanted to talk about, which I found fascinating, is that basically all these cultures all over the world independently discover that you can make fiber into thread.

Virginia Postrel: Right.

Will Wilkinson: They all sort of independently invent similar technologies for spinning thread. I think that’s really interesting. And then also, it seems like almost a universal that it’s women who do the spinning.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. That is a universal, and unlike weaving. Weaving, it depends on where you are. Some places like in China, women wove. But in other places, mostly in Europe, most places in Europe, men wove. In some places, definitely in some parts of Europe, both men and women wove. In other places, I think there’s someplace in West Africa where women weave on one kind of loom and men weave  on another. So, but spinning seems to be a universally female occupation.

Will Wilkinson: There’s not a lot of men with their drop spinners or whatever they’re called.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, nowadays you can find men who spin. And in fact, when I took a spinning workshop in Peru, it was a man who was leading it. But he was a young guy, he’s a 21st century guy who learned from his mother, whatever. But there are a lot of theories about why this is, “Oh, you can multitask, whatever.” It may just have to do with manual dexterity at a young age, or something like that. I mean, nobody knows why it became the female occupation when all the other aspects of textile production, it depends on time and place, but yeah.

Will Wilkinson: It shows up over here, I don’t any evidence for anything, but like with hunter-gatherers, you get this sexual division of labor where women do a lot of foraging, they did the gathering. Men mostly do the hunting. It turns out that the foraging is more productive than the hunting. The hunting is really highly variable. Most days, you don’t get anything.

Will Wilkinson: And so, the calories that would come into a family were much more likely to be, on average, the woman was providing the bulk of the calories for the tribe and the little family units. It’s a similar question. “Why are they doing that and not hunting?” Some of it probably has to do with what is and isn’t consistent with taking care of children at the same time. I don’t know.

Virginia Postrel: It’s possible that the spinning came from foraging. I never thought of this till now, but it’s possible. Because if you think about the early gathering of the wool that the sheep scratched off onto the bush, or the flax that fell and rotted away with dew and you pick up the fibers, and this kind of thing. Or even, it’s flax and you harvest it, or cotton or whatever, before you have cultivation. It’s possible that the spinning was an extension of the foraging, in the same way that cooking would be an extension of the foraging. So, it could have come from that.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. My opinion is part of the answer to the actual division of labor is that men are lazy, and like to hang out and pretend that they’re awesome. And because they’re bigger and stronger, they can kind of get their way. I want the job where we’re just going to, hang out in the woods together all day long and get nothing. And then, every two weeks when we get an elk, we’re going to declare ourselves giant heroes, and you’re going to agree with that. Meanwhile, you’re actually feeding the family.

Virginia Postrel: That could be true. On the other hand, spinning is actually now, first of all, to learn spinning is really hard. I found that firsthand. But once you know how to do it, it’s very easy. And people use words like meditative. And I actually have a friend, because I became a weaver and I joined this weaving guild. But anyway, she’s also a spinner, and she’s in the IT Department of the UCLA Library and has millions of Zoom meetings all the time, and she spins during her Zoom meetings.

Virginia Postrel: So, it’s something you can do while you’re doing other things. And it was very much a communal activity, also. Women would get together and spin. They might be doing that while they’re watching kids. But also in Europe, there was this thing, spinning bees or women would get together, especially at night in the winter time, they would share the heat and light and they would spin. And the guys would come around, and that was part of the attraction because there was a lot of flirtation and rowdiness going on, too. And then, all these places would ban these gatherings. And that was a point of some struggle as well, because aside from everything else, it helped people work at night, by allowing them to share the expense of the heating and the lighting.

Will Wilkinson: It’s just really tedious. And basically-

Virginia Postrel: It’s time consuming. It’s not tedious.

Will Wilkinson: Because you don’t have to think about it.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. You can do it. Weaving is tedious, or it can be. It can be, if you’re doing complex patterns. It can also be simple.

Will Wilkinson: Since everywhere, again, we take it for granted. We like to have clothes, there’s lots of incredibly useful things you can make out of fabric. So, there’s basically always unmet demand for the things that you can make from cloth. But as you say, thread is the bottleneck, there’s never enough of it. So, it kind of makes sense to basically kind of idly be making it constantly when you’re doing something else.

Virginia Postrel: Right. And especially, I mean, we tend to think about spinning wheels, because everybody’s seen these pictures or you go to a museum, but most of the spinning throughout history was done with a different technology called a drop spindle, which is basically hanging in the air. It’s sort of like a top with a very long stick on it instead of a short one, and the weight keeps it spinning and it’s hanging in the air, and you could do it while you’re walking, is the point I’m getting to. So, it’s very compatible with all kinds of different activities.

Will Wilkinson: You know, what specifically is the technology that then just does away with this? Is it the Spinning Jenny?

Virginia Postrel: It’s not the Spinning Jenny, exactly. The Spinning Jenny, basically what that does is it allows small scale production. It’s good for home use. You can make six times as much thread, one person can become six weavers, I mean, six spinners. But then, what comes later is something that is called water [crosstalk 00:43:19] something. Basically you get mechanized, large scale of production where you can have one person tending many, hundreds of spindles at a time. And that really changes. It’s water powered, and then later steam powered. And that really changes the scale.

Will Wilkinson: I don’t know if this comes up in the fiber or the thread chapter, the things that were most fascinating for me were these big scientific and technological advances that are based in these things, trying to figure out what’s killing silkworms.

Virginia Postrel: It’s like one of the most important things in history.

Will Wilkinson: Again, this is another thing I didn’t know. The germ theory of disease is ultimately rooted in people trying to figure out how to not have their silkworms die. What was it? An Italian guy-

Virginia Postrel: Yes.

Will Wilkinson: … ultimately finds out that it’s a fungus?

Virginia Postrel: There are two versions of this story. Because Louis Pasteur was really good at publicity. But before Pasteur, there was a guy in Italy called Agostino Bassi, who was a lawyer, but he really wasn’t into being a lawyer. He was into doing scientific research, particularly on animals. And he got interested in this question of, there was this particular, let’s call it a disease, something that was killing the silkworms called calchino.

Virginia Postrel: And basically what would happen is they would get stiff and then they would turn white and die. And so he spent, it’s a quite a story, he spent a long time, he lost all his money, he started going blind, it was self-funded, trying to figure out what was causing this. And he did tons of experiments. He kept subjecting silkworms to various poisons, because everybody thought it was a toxin. Everybody thought it was some kind of poison in the air.

Virginia Postrel: And what he eventually figured out was that it was not a poison in the air. It was spores. It was, in fact, an organism that was doing it. This is the very first origins of the germ theory of disease. Which then, and this is at the beginning of the 19th century, like 1809-ish. And then later there’s another silkworm disease that draws Pasteur into his first research on animals, because silkworms are animals.

Virginia Postrel: Before that he had just worked on yeast, he’d been working for brewers. And so this is then the extension of the sort of, it’s the guy who gets all the publicity for the germ theory of disease. But really, it was Bassi first who figured it out, and came up with a lot of procedures and ways of creating a more sanitary environment, disinfectants and such. Also, he could see that this sort of thing might be relevant in other kinds of diseases. He foresaw that application.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That’s really cool. And you discuss Japanese silk, and it seems like they sort of independently discovered some of the sanitary precautions, though they didn’t have the theory of it. So, there’s a lot of these things where, through trial and error, people just try different things. I didn’t know how complicated it is to raise a silkworm, to maximize the amount of silk you get out of it. You have to have the eggs be at a certain temperature and certain humidity.

Virginia Postrel: It’s really hard when you have no thermometers or ways of measuring humidity or pH, or any of these things. Which also comes up in dying.

Will Wilkinson: It seems like the Japanese were especially good at kind of just figuring it out over time. They had a really complicated method that worked really well to get good output.

Virginia Postrel: They were really good. And then, the other thing is in the 19th century, after the opening up of Japan, they already had a very developed silk industry. But they latched onto things from the West, to what was known in modern genetics, and other various devices, temperature controls, and that sort of thing. And they developed new forms of hybrid silkworms that were better than anything that was available before that. And even more new ways of raising them and controlling temperatures.

Virginia Postrel: And from the late 19th century to the 1930s, Japan was the leading exporter of silk thread. And a lot of that went to the United States. Which, despite having no indigenous silk industry, people kept trying, but it never worked. It would buy the silk thread from Japan and then around Patterson, New Jersey, the Mid-Atlantic States was a big silk weaving and production dying industry. And that was the first time, really, where silk became kind of a mass market fabric. Middle-class people routinely owned silk.

Virginia Postrel: And one interesting little sideline of that, which I don’t discuss in the book, but crazy quilts develop out of that. Because a lot of crazy quilts, which are kind of random, are made from silk. And so, you’re not going to cut up a bolt of silk to get a pattern for a quilt the way you might do it with something else. But you get those little scraps when you’re making your dress or whatever you cut out in the pattern pieces, and then you can make those into a crazy quilt.

Will Wilkinson: Because silk is expensive.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: You don’t want to waste it. So, all the trimmings off of the things that you mostly cut silk out of, you can repurpose those. That’s cool. I kind of read the thread chapter as being about technology and labor and how much technology is driven by the need to economize on labor. This is the last, your last real chapter, but I kind of want to talk a little bit about it. The thing that’s really driving everything is just how much people want fabric.

Virginia Postrel: Right, exactly.

Will Wilkinson: None of this happens if people don’t really, really want this stuff badly.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. It’s very typical of the way we talk about things, I have five chapters that are all about, four chapters are all about production. A lot of people would stop then. Then I have one that’s about merchants and trade. A lot of people would stop then. But then there’s the one on consumers, because that’s the whole point. The reason people do all this work is because people want and need fabric. And when I say consumers, I mean people buying in the marketplace, but I don’t just mean people buying in the marketplace. There are other ways of getting your fabrics, besides trade.

Will Wilkinson: Maybe we can have an aside here, because I’m curious. You’ve written a couple of books, broadly about fashion. You’ve got the Substance of Style, The Power of Glamour. To what extent is this book rooted in those earlier projects?

Virginia Postrel: Well-

Will Wilkinson: Or is it at all.

Virginia Postrel: … I don’t know. It’s all rooted in my brain. It’s rooted in the future and its enemies, too. This book combines a lot of those things. I mean, what those two books were really about was about subjective value. That is, I mean, that’s what unites them. The Substance of Style is about sources of economic value that are not function. And The Power of Glamour takes it even farther because it’s sort of like stuff that’s just in your head. It’s really about rhetoric and persuasion and our longings, and our ways we deceive ourselves, but also tell the truth about ourselves.

Will Wilkinson: It’s a mysterious idea of glamour.

Virginia Postrel: It is. It’s a mysterious idea-

Will Wilkinson: Inherently mysterious.

Virginia Postrel: … Believe me, there’s no section of the library you can go to, to find the books on glamour. It’s not like textiles or history. So, this book, it combines my many interests. It combines my interest in history and technology and innovation and economics and politics. But also, the idea that the kind of value that we derive, or that we imbue things with, is not just about function. It’s also about beauty. It’s pleasure. It’s about status. It’s about meaning, identity, all of those things. And they all come together in textiles.

Virginia Postrel: I mean, one of the examples that I have at the beginning of the chapter on dye is there’s this textile that’s been found in Peru, which is where many of our oldest textiles come from because of the dry climate. And it’s dyed with indigo, and 6,200 years old. Well, 6,200 years ago, people were like incredibly poor by any standards. Why did they waste time and money, or time and resources, going through the very complicated stages involved in indigo dying? And it’s because textiles offer something beyond just the functional.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I was getting at, was trying to make the connection with your earlier stuff. Because II kept thinking, as I was reading this, at every point, people are putting so much freaking trouble. It’s so much work, but there’s so much determination and there’s so much ingenuity. This doesn’t make any sense to me if it’s just that people want pants, right? There wouldn’t be demand for so many different kinds of things.

Will Wilkinson: Pretty clearly, really early on, the underlying driver of demand for textiles, once you get past the satisfaction of the basic need for protection against the elements, is people want to say something about themselves. They want to signal their status, what kind of people they are. I really started to see through this book, the extent to which human status consciousness fundamentally drives human ingenuity and innovation and technology, or even human vanity. People want to look better than other people. So, they need something that other people don’t have.

Will Wilkinson: So, it seems like there’s a lot of that underneath the demand for tons of the stuff that you’re talking about. A lot of it just is useful, like you just want a sail for your ship, and you need to make bedsheets, or something. But a lot of the story really does seem to be about status signals.

Virginia Postrel: Well, I mean, definitely status signaling is a part of it. And that’s how you get Sumptuary laws, which are trying to deal with that impulse. But I think it’s a mistake to just reduce it to status signaling, because that’s only one kind of signaling. And this is sort of what The Substance of Style was about. What else is there besides status? There is, first of all, just pleasure.

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:56:04]

Virginia Postrel: There is, first of all, just pleasure. And when you look at something like the European adoption of Indian prints, a lot of that was about, wow, this stuff is gorgeous. We love it. And then the Indians were also very good business people. And so they would adapt their designs to local tastes. And they did that long before Europe. They did that in East Asia and then they also did it in Europe. And in many cases they had to develop new techniques because Europeans liked to have a light colored background and then the design on top of that. And Indian traditional prints as they were made for the Indian market were dark. They would overdye the complete thing so that you would have blues and reds and some of it would be the pattern and some of it would be the grout.

Virginia Postrel: So there is this desire for things that are beautiful, things that you like. And then there’s also identity. And that can be a local tribal or village identity. It can be religious identity. It can be a sort of subgroup of all different kinds of ways of signaling identity. And that’s one of the things that makes, when you have a living textile tradition, it tends to change over time. And it’s not, there’s a whole debate about when does fashion happen and what drives it? And I don’t get into that. But one of the things you can definitely see in the modern world is how even “traditional textiles” will change over time as both technology and trade bring in new elements and as people just think, “Oh, I want to do something different.”

Will Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, when does fashion come in? And I feel like if you understand people at all, fashion comes in the second somebody knows how to make things more than one way. I mean, a lot of just taste or fashion in the sense of something is in style and then it’s out of style. The simplest forms of that are like you painted the interior of a room a certain color that seemed fresh. And then a few years later it seems stuffy and old.

Virginia Postrel: It’s habituation. Yeah, it seems.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It’s just habituation. People get bored. You stop noticing things that are the same. Your brain just literally stops registering things that it already knows are there. It doesn’t need to update it’s representation. So it doesn’t even pay attention to it because it just can insert it into the representation. So it disappears. It seems pointless. And so people just want something that’s just different than what they had before. When it’s new it’s just experienced as having a higher level of a reality, because you actually perceive it. You haven’t habituated to it yet. And I think that’s just something people like. And so there’s always a demand for novelty in anything that people have because, like you’re saying, pleasure has a lot to do with it. And one of the pleasures is just the feeling of being alive to the thingness of the thing.

Virginia Postrel: Right. Yeah. And people notice, I mean, one way to describe it, is people notice changes more than levels, so that and there are survival reasons for that. And so people like changes to some degree. They like to see the things in their environment be different so that they’re noticeable.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, your brain is literally like it works a lot like machine learning predictive algorithms where your brain is always getting ahead of the actual stimuli to… It’s making guesses and predictions about what it is and it’s good at it. It makes good guesses a lot of the time. And it’s best at making good guesses when the environment is stable and relatively unchanging because it makes the prediction. The prediction is confirmed. And so you can rest, you feel like, “Okay, I know how things are,” and your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. It only updates the changes in the environment that economizes on its load. But when something does change, your attention fixes on it really hard because usually it means that there is an expectation that your brain was predicting that something would happen, but something else happened.

Will Wilkinson: And then the brain gets instructions. You’re like, “Wake up. You you got to register this.” And I literally think that’s what wearing a different style of shirt is a little bit like. It’s just like somebody has it on and you notice that they have it on. You’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” You look better because people paid attention to what you put on because it wasn’t what their brain was expecting. And then as soon as everybody’s wearing that thing, everybody habituates, and then that effect goes away. And then and so you have to iterate again with some innovation and… So and I say I think that kind of thing plays a bigger role than people think. And it’s not any objective thing other than people want things that are different because they pay attention to them.

Virginia Postrel: Right. I think that’s a lot of it now.

Will Wilkinson: Speaking of status and the chapter on dyes. All right. So here, the fun thing about the chapter on dyes for me, well, two things. One, that dying fabrics is the basis of modern chemistry.

Virginia Postrel: Oh yeah. And that is absolutely the case. I mean, the chemical industry came out of the synthetic dyes. And before that, the development of chemistry… Alchemy gets all the press, but that stuff didn’t work, whereas trying to figure out how to get your reds to be better, you could tell whether it worked or not.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah, because you didn’t know why something made a color. You’d have to just do trial and error. And one of the things that I didn’t know that I found fascinating, I didn’t know that purple was made out of snails.

Virginia Postrel: Oh, well, one version of purple. Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. One version of purple. And just the idea of industrial scale snail gathering so that you could crush them and make purple dye is wild. And again, that’s one of those things where nobody needs anything to be purple.

Virginia Postrel: Right. Well, yeah. So this is the Tyrian purple, sometimes called royal purple. This is the most valuable color in the ancient world, in ancient Rome and in ancient Greece and these kinds of places. And it came from Tyre that was traded by the Phoenicians. There are other places that developed it as well. And it’s made from these mollusks. There’s actually three different species that can produce it. They all have a certain gland that secretes a purple color. And one of the great things that I did, or I had this great experience of talking with an archeologist named Deborah Ruscillo who was at Washington University in St. Louis. And she is a specialist in faunal remains, which is mostly bones. But one thing that-

Will Wilkinson: What kind of remains? Faunal?

Virginia Postrel: Faunal, like animal remains.

Will Wilkinson: Oh, animals. Okay.

Virginia Postrel: So basically she studies the things that you can study, the sheep bones and figure out whether they’re being raised wool or for meat or for both. And you could tell the mix of the flocks and all of this, which was one of the really interesting things that I learned early on. But she would see when she’d go for digs and stuff out in places like Crete, she’d see these giant piles of all these shells. And they’re huge. It’s, as you say, industrial scale. And she was wondering, well, how much did you actually need to dye something? So she decided to do some experiments and she and a grad student, first of all, they baited traps, these sort of clay pots, basically in this bay off Crete where these snails can be found. And the first thing they discovered is that a lot of stuff you don’t want goes in the traps including things that sting and a lot of water or they’re heavy. But they ended up collecting these Murex snails. And also they gathered some off the sea floor just with their hands.

Virginia Postrel: So they have all the shells, they have all the snails. So the next step is they have to get them open, which is much harder than it sounds because they’re basically hard as rocks. And they didn’t want to use some kind of power drill or something that wouldn’t be authentic. So they finally found a way to open them up. Then they have to get the glands out, put them in a dye pot and you’ve got all these… So soon they have their own pile of shells that looks like these piles she’s seen elsewhere, except that it’s got this added feature of rotting snail flesh, which is totally disgusting. And all these horse flies are coming and stinging them. And even though they put the snails in pots that have lids, the horse flies go around the edges and try to lay eggs in them. It’s just totally disgusting. And the whole thing stinks to high heavens.

Virginia Postrel: Guys who are working 100 meters away are complaining about the smell. And they’re doing it on a very small scale. They’re doing it with pots like you’d have on your stove. Whereas in some places like Tyre back in the day, the whole city was full of this. So the Greek geographer Strabo wrote something to the effect of Tyre is very rich because of its dyes, but it’s a horrible place to go because no one wants to live there because of the smells. And the most remarkable thing, and she managed to recreate, they did dyes and they did trial and error with different mixtures to see what the results would be. But one of the most remarkable things about this ancient purple that was very valuable is that it didn’t just stink when you were dying, when you were doing the dye, which is the case with, say, indigo. It also stank after you washed the clothes or the toga or whatever and you’d been wearing it for two years. It still stinks.

Virginia Postrel: And in fact, Deborah says that she has this… I mean, she did this, I don’t know, 15 years ago, and she’s washed the cloth in Tide and it still stinks. There was actually a value to that smell because it distinguished the real thing from a facsimile that might’ve been made by combining plant dyes to get a purple. So you could say, “Well, this is the real thing because you can smell it.” And it wasn’t like they considered it a good smell because there are satirical poems from the Romans where it’s being mocked as a terrible smell.

Will Wilkinson: So it was a high class thing to wear things of this purple. So people want it, but you want the signal to be reliable. So the fact that it stinks, and the thing is nobody likes somebody who stinks. So it’s like, one, it serves as an authenticity marker, but also it’s a kind of counter signaling in a way that I stink and it doesn’t matter because I’m rich. You’re not going to count it against me.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. However, by the Renaissance, well, there are reasons that a lot of the techniques were lost with the fall of Byzantium because by the Byzantine Empire, it had gone from being a dye for rich people, which is what it was in the Roman era, to being an exclusively royal dye. So fewer and fewer people knew how to do it because they only worked for the [inaudible 01:09:02]. And then when the Turks, fall of Constantinople and the Turks took over, that knowledge was lost. So by the Renaissance, they had a much better kind of, or the early modern period red was the prestigious dye. And it didn’t stick. 

Will Wilkinson: What do you think is the most prestigious color now?

Virginia Postrel: Now? Oh, well see, now it’s totally different because all of the colors are equally available. So it’s just a matter of fashion. So things come in-

Will Wilkinson: Why is it that all directors in Hollywood wear plain black baseball caps?

Virginia Postrel: Oh, well black is an interesting thing. I mean, first of all, historically…

Will Wilkinson: I think black is probably the fancy… if you’re wearing all black, it’s like-

Virginia Postrel: Well, all white has its moments, too.

Will Wilkinson: True.

Virginia Postrel: And in fact now people like Kamala Harris, people wear white, women particularly in politics, wear white because it’s a suffragette color. But what people don’t know is that why did the suffragettes wear white? Well, in that period, white was a very prestigious color and it signaled that you had money or at least effort because it’s hard to keep things white. And so at the turn of the 20th century, white is a very prestigious color, very fashionable. And what the suffragettes were trying to do is show that, yes, they were radical, but they were also respectable. And so they wore white because white is this very bourgeois color.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I’m clean.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. I’m clean. I can keep my clothes clean. Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: I want to talk a little bit about trade. I think there’s more in the trade chapter about kind of the extent to which textiles are just kind of the basis of modern economies. It’s really fascinating. The first thing that jumped out at me, which I thought was interesting was just how often people would just use cloth as a currency. I really didn’t realize that it was, you could just pay for something with a bolt of cloth in a lot of places. Anyway, why do you think that was?

Virginia Postrel: Well, cloth, in pre-industrial period, cloth has many of the characteristics that you would like in a currency. It’s limited in supply. If you get too much, then you just make pants out of it or whatever. It goes out of the currency market and into the goods market. If there’s not enough, you can make more. It can be made in standardized sizes. It’s divisible. A lot of the things you would like with a currency. Now, it would be wrong to say it was commonly used as a currency, but it was used as a currency in widely dispersed places. So it arose independently. Generally, at least the ones we know about are in the Middle Ages. It was used in China, it was actually legal tender. The government said you had to take these standardized silk bolts as currency. And you could pay your taxes in them. And in fact, many cases, taxes were levied. This is common everywhere. Taxes were levied in textiles.

Virginia Postrel: And the Chinese government would adjust which textiles you had to pay by which textiles were produced in that area. It was often silk, but in some places might be hemp or even cotton. But there are two other places where it’s more like a spontaneous order where in Iceland and also in West Africa where there’s trade between sort of West Africa and what’s now kind of Libya, you get standardized units of cloth that develop and become recognized as money and that are traded mostly as currency, but occasionally used actually as cloth for other purposes, because that’s how you sort of control the money supply. That keeps it in balance.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. There was something about bolts of cloth as currency that reminded me a little bit of cryptocurrency in the sense that you have to invest. There’s a pretty standardized investment in resources that goes to making a certain quantity and you can’t just ramp it up.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. It does have those, definitely has those characteristics. Absolutely.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Bolts of silk, the first Bitcoin.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact, can’t remember who it was, but there was somebody who was involved in that world who argued that instead of talking about Bitcoin mining, they should talk about weaving because it’s more analogous.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Yeah. And you’re just you have a energy and kind of labor intensive process that is going to fabricate something. It’s not something you’re digging out of the ground. It’s something that wasn’t there until you made it. I want to talk a little bit about the, I guess backing up a little bit to the cloth. The relationship between weaving and math and the computer computation is super fascinating. That’s the one thing that I did know a little bit about, how the early computers were on punch cards that were really similar to the punch cards that they used.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. That’s the one thing that everybody knows or-

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That’s the one thing that-

Virginia Postrel: I mean, not everybody, but it’s widely known about if I ask them, what about textile history and technology? Oh, well, there’s a card, had these punch cards and they inspired the punch cards and it’s kind of garbled.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. But you’ve got so much more in there about that kind of topology of weaving and the kind of algorithmic nature of different patterns. And it really is compelling as just seeing that Peruvian weavers have this really complicated understanding of certain geometric relationships.

Virginia Postrel: Right. The symmetries of various sorts and how you can play with them to create different patterns. Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And these are things you wouldn’t need to know if this is something that you weren’t doing. Right? And so you can really see how a certain kind of how it becomes a kind of common knowledge of certain kinds of geometrical attributes, like the way things fit with one another that just wouldn’t be around if you weren’t doing this exact sort of thing. And it really is just so similar to computation. It really feels like an embodied form of computation.

Virginia Postrel: So weaving or cloth making, because I also write about knitting, it’s deeply mathematical in the same way that music is deeply mathematical. So you may not realize you’re doing math, just like we don’t realize we’re speaking prose, but you are. And math has been called the science of patterns. And you definitely see that in the world of cloth making. I mean, you mentioned the sort of symmetrical operations, various algorithms that are involved in Andean weaving and creating their patterns. I talk about some ideas about how Greek weaving may have inspired some of the early number theory, including what’s called the granddaddy of all algorithms, which is division by subtraction, where you have the larger number and the smaller number, and you keep subtracting the smaller number from the larger number until you end up either with zero or with a remainder.

Virginia Postrel: And in weaving context, this could tell you whether you could make a certain pattern that has a certain repeat with the number of warp threads you have. And if you ended up with a remainder at the end, you could add the number that you needed before you start up and discover by experience that it wasn’t going to work and curse a lot. This sort of algorithm would tell you. Anytime you’re making cloth, you have to do a lot of counting and measuring and understanding ratios. Particularly, I know more about weaving, but you definitely see it any time in weaving.

Virginia Postrel: And then there’s also a weird geometrical aspect, which is basically when you’re weaving, you’re taking a one-dimensional thing that is a string and turning it into a two-dimensional thing that is a plane, that’s a piece of cloth. And you do it by manipulating things in three dimensions, by raising and lowering threads and running the weft thread through them.

Virginia Postrel: In knitting, you can create three dimensional shapes. And that’s really where the topology comes in in knitting. You can create basically anything. And nowadays, that has a lot of commercial applications, because increasingly the industrial scale production of three-dimensional knitting is becoming more and more common. It’s been around for several decades, but as the computational aspects become better and some of the mechanisms become better and also as clothing and shoe manufacturers want to have less unsold inventories, this allows them to keep their stocks in thread which can be changed very quickly, unlike with weaving, which is kind of a pain to set up. So you’re starting to have… You can use a computer program that can drive the three-dimensional knitting machine to make a sneaker where you tell it to do different patterns at different thicknesses for the arch and the heel and where the shoelaces go and all of that. And then you come out with this piece that you just then fold and fix in place and add the rubber sole and then you’re done. So it’s pretty amazing.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. You mentioned that kind of knits have been taking over.

Virginia Postrel: Yes. Knits are taking over after.

Will Wilkinson: All your yoga pants. I mean, is it just that you can knit a tube? You can’t weave a tube.

Virginia Postrel: Well, you can weave a tube actually. But it’s not usually done, but you can weave a tube. It’s called double weave. But there are really two reasons. One is that knitting creates a stretchier cloth, holding the fiber constant. So without adding spandex to the equation or something, knits are easier to stretch in different directions. And with modern finishes, they’re less likely to stretch out of shape. I mean, that used to be a big, big problem with, say, sweaters stretching out of shape that were-

Will Wilkinson: Yeah, you accidentally put it on the hanger when it’s wet and then you have these hanger bumps.

Virginia Postrel: And that can still happen, but it’s much less likely to happen today. So that’s one thing. And then that goes to the whole comfort and formality. Nobody wants their jeans to be tight and constrain their stomach at Thanksgiving dinner or whatever. And then the other reason has to do with the setup times. It is much easier to change the color of the yarn or that sort of thing on a machine that is knitting than on one that is weaving.

Will Wilkinson: Back to some of the social aspects of clothes, I’ve found it fascinating that athleisure, which is mostly these knits, has become such a class marker that it’s like a certain kind of affluent mom is going to wear certain kinds of yoga clothes. But I mean, you live in LA and it’s even the same for guys’ stuff now, these kind of jogger pants. And there’s this hyper casual ethos that is… I don’t know. It’s signaling something like white signals I am clean. But it’s like, “I have the resources to look after myself or I don’t have to worry about looking formal because I’m just important.” I don’t know what it is, but…

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on there. Let’s talk about the pre-everybody working from home world. Partly you had things, like you said, the certain affluent mom wears the yoga pants. Well, the certain affluent mom wears the Lululemon yoga pants. I mean, there’s all kinds. You can buy yoga pants at Walmart. I mean, they don’t have to be expensive. Certainly, these can be manufactured very-

Will Wilkinson: I live in a college town. It’s like every single college girl wears yoga pants. But yeah, there’s a certain couture love for yoga pants.

Virginia Postrel: So there’s that. And then there is… A lot of this came out of Silicon Valley and it started as actual a kind of egalitarian ethos going way back. But it got to this kind of like, “I’m so well-recognized that I don’t have to wear a suit because I’m rich and important and you’ll recognize me anyway by knowing who I am,” or something like that. And so then the people who wear the suits are the secretaries and the doormen.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Well, it’s like solving a certain kind of problem that I was fascinated by the section on sumptuary laws, which I hadn’t known that much about. I knew…

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Will Wilkinson: … sumptuary laws, which I hadn’t known that much about. I’d known they existed, but didn’t know how structured they were in certain places at certain times, like that only people of a certain class or a certain profession could wear this kind of fabric with this kind of pattern. But what was fun about it is it constantly breaks down, right. You can’t actually enforce them, because people want to wear whatever the higher tier is. So there’s this weird arms race.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Well, you get different things. So for example in China, where everything is oriented toward the court, people are constantly emulating the things of the higher ranks that they aren’t supposed to wear.

Virginia Postrel: And in Japan, where the sumptuary law has a similar Confucian hierarchy built into it, people actually more or less obey the laws, but they basically create more prestigious way… The townspeople are the prestigious ones. It’s not a court. The people don’t aspire to be a samurai. They aspire to be a rich merchant or an actor. You have a different kind of world. And so you get things where they’re obeying the laws, but they’re signaling in other ways. They wear outward very plain, the outside of the kimono will be very plain, and the inside will be very fancy, that sort of thing. Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I thought that was cool. There’s like the Italian guy who’s supposed to be enforcing this [crosstalk 01:25:50]-

Virginia Postrel: Well, yeah, and Italy is a whole other thing. It’s basically-

Will Wilkinson: You’re just completely stymied by the ingenuity of the-

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. Well, in Italy it was a completely different thing going on, because there it was essentially in these city-states that are run by merchants, the merchants were trying to essentially have like a cartel to all agree that we won’t let our, particularly wives and daughters, wear these things, because they’re busting our household budgets. And so we’re going to make a law that says you can’t buy this thing. It’d be sort of like if we had a law that said you can’t spend more than X amount on a wedding reception or something that, so that everybody can say, “Well I can’t, because it’s illegal.”

Virginia Postrel: But they managed to find ways around it. And essentially in Italy what happened is things that started as fines, the fines became important to city revenue, then the next step was that the fines became fees, so that they weren’t even considered penalties anymore. It was just like if you pay this money, you can wear X, Y and Z. My favorite example of the thing you could wear, because it isn’t about women, is these basically miniskirts that men would wear to show off their legs.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah.

Virginia Postrel: And you could pay a fine and be able to wear it.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah, maybe we should just have like yoga pants fees that would raise a ton of money. Speaking of Italians, a cool fact, again math-related, that I didn’t know you had this whole bit about Machiavelli learning math in basically like a little business school. And I hadn’t known the extent to which a lot of mathematical education comes out of having to solve these problems that merchants have with like this thing is worth so much, how much do you barter it for? And you get a lot of complicated math, but you also get like double-entry bookkeeping from the kind of economic issues that face the firms that are creating textiles.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, you have this sort of simultaneous… So when we’re talking about cloth and the chapter on cloth, it’s about math, mathematics in its sort of deep “I am a mathematician” kind of way, science of patterns.

Virginia Postrel: In the chapter about traders, it’s much more practical. You know all those techniques for arithmetic that you learned in elementary school? Somebody had to invent those. And a lot of them were invented as ways to solve problems having to do with textile trades. And in Italy in the early modern period, there were these schools that were called abacus that taught kids essentially kind of arithmetic and also word problems. A lot of the problems were things that we would use algebra to solve, but they weren’t necessarily using algebra.

Virginia Postrel: And most of those problems had to do with textiles. And it would be if such-and-such amount of textiles is worth this, and such and such is worth that, combine the two. Or they would be about barters and trades. Or they would be about currency conversions, because every city had its own currency, and people were trading, having to do all these currency conversions all the time. And the teachers who taught these were the first Europeans to make their livings doing math.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, because if you’re doing this kind of heavy trade and you can’t do the math, you’re going to get fleeced, so to speak.

Virginia Postrel: Exactly, yes, another textile metaphor.

Will Wilkinson: Another textile… and they’re all over. And so this trade too is the basis of a lot of modern finance, that like you have these marketplaces that they have so many days where the market’s open, so you have to get your goods there. But it’s a hassle, so you end up just having an agent who does it for you and who’s already there. And then after a while, that guy just becomes the guy who buys your stuff from you. And it just all develops toward like-

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. You have a lot of the banking system in Europe developed out of the textile trade. And in fact, a lot of famous bankers started in textiles, or banks-

Will Wilkinson: I didn’t know about the Lehman Brothers that were-

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, yeah. Or there was bank in the UK called the Linen Bank, and that was because they started as a linen business, and they had offices in different places to sell linen or buy linen. And then those offices became places that you could change money or cash bills of exchange, which were these kinds of IOUs that were used heavily in the textile trade to move money from one place to another without actually carting gold and silver over the Alps or whatever.

Virginia Postrel: And so you develop these sort of complex… And they have, as you mentioned, they had developed double-entry bookkeeping, and it is spread through the textile trade as better financial controls of various sorts. So yeah, it becomes a major driver of modern finance.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And you also mentioned how the development of these kind of intermediaries and middlemen is also… Textiles are where you first get this kind of resentment of this class of merchants who are doing something abstract. So it’s not clear what it is they’re doing. They’re kind of floating people loans. They’re buying something from somebody and selling it to somebody who could in principle just buy it directly themselves, but taking a cut in the middle. And it’s never stopped being the case that people get mad at those people.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. So textile middlemen go way, way back. Our earliest records of long-distance trade and of textile middlemen are the oldest Syrian private archives, which are 4,000 years old, cuneiform tablets, correspondence, contracts, lawsuits, from people trading in what is now Anatolia. Yeah, everybody hates the middleman.

Virginia Postrel: But the problem with the textiles is that there’s a very long distance between when you harvest the fiber and when somebody sells the cloth, and it’s got a lot of different stages. So there’s this constant need for working capital, and you have to figure out ways to provide that. And there are different ways in different times, but generally speaking, you get various middlemen, and people don’t necessarily like them, because they imagined that, “What the hell are they doing? Why am I paying him for that?” And then you feel like they have power over you, and you don’t like that.

Virginia Postrel: And some of what they do is kind of abstract, and some of what they do is kind of annoying, like having quality guarantees, which means you spend a lot of time making this cloth, and then the middleman says, “Hey, this cloth is no good. It’s not going to sell. I’m rejecting it.” And then you’re pissed, because you need the money. And this would be annoying today, but when people are living much closer to the bone, and it might mean that they can’t feed their children, you can see why they get mad.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. But you mentioned that without those guys, there’s an incentive to cheat [crosstalk 01:34:01]-

Virginia Postrel: Oh, and the cheating is… There was plenty of-

Will Wilkinson: The good fabric at the end of the bolt, and that’s what you see. But you unspool it, and it gets crappier and crappier.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

Will Wilkinson: And so you’re not going to snow the middleman, because they can only make a living if people trust them. And so they have to do the quality control, and that actually does make the whole entire process way more efficient, because there’s not all the waste that goes into-

Virginia Postrel: Right. Right. And they’re also doing things like telling people, “These are the colors.” I mean, so it’s sort of color forecasting or whatever. “This is what’s selling this year.” We’re talking far late enough in history, where there’s clearly an element of fashion going on. I mean, we can argue about whether fashion may be eternal, but definitely in the 17th or 18th century, there’s a lot of fashion. And so people are saying, “This is going to sell. This isn’t going to sell.” The middlemen are the ones who have occasion to know a lot of that sort of information and to pass it on to their suppliers.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Speaking of passing on information, before we wrap up I wanted to circle back to… Industrial espionage was one thing you mentioned, how it is that Italian technology’s got moved to England, but also just the importance of… I mean, you have a number of examples where things are kind of closely held secrets until somebody decides to just publish a manual that tells you how to do things.

Will Wilkinson: And it occurred to me that just the openness of information is really important in this story for innovation. People always have an incentive, if they know how to do something that other people don’t know, to keep it to themselves so that they can charge more, because they don’t have competitors. But that also just slows down innovation. Because in some ways, clearly it was good that the English guy ripped off the Italian factory, because that allowed a much larger production of this valuable good at a much larger scale, and created competition that probably drove innovation further. And so I wondered if you saw any general lessons there for the-

Virginia Postrel: Well, what I would say is when you delve into these things, you see both the importance of it and the limits of articulated knowledge. So once you start to have book publishing as something that people can make money from, you start to have people, for both idealistic and commercial reasons, think, “Oh, I’ll make a dye manual, and I’ll go around…” The first dye manual, which was published in the 16th century in Italy, was put together by somebody who was not a dyer. He just spent 10 years coaxing recipes out of professional dyers. And it’s very cookbook-y, a lot of it. And of course they don’t have any kind of time measurement, everything’s bad, and so it’ll say like, “Do this for the amount of time it takes to say three hail Marys,” or that sort of thing. Or it’ll say what it should look, or that sort of thing.

Virginia Postrel: And then later on you have a weaving manual. The first weaving manual comes out in the 17th century, and it’s how to get certain patterns. And in order to do that, you have to figure out, first of all, a code, a way of representing what you’re doing in the same way musical notation or anything like that. And these kinds of books go a long way in spreading ideas and opening up fields to people who weren’t necessarily apprenticed in them.

Virginia Postrel: That said, there is a lot of tacit knowledge involved, and so there’s a lot of stuff that’s hard to transfer. And so for example, the throwing mills, these amazing Italian silk-thread-producing mills that were copied by the brothers Lombe in England. One brother sends the other brother over, gets a job in one of these mills and copies all the plans. But when they transported them to England, they weren’t all that successful at silk production compared to the quality that was possible in Italy.

Virginia Postrel: On the other hand, they had a more profound influence, which is that they helped sort of jumpstart some of the ideas that eventually led to the spinning machines of the Industrial Revolution, which then came to the US when Samuel Slater illicitly took what he knew from working in English mills, and came to Rhode Island. So there’s a lot of that sort of story. Silk travels from China in the silk cocoons hidden in the canes of some Nestorian monks, got to the Levant, and then from there into Italy, and eventually you have a silk industry in Italy and France as well.

Virginia Postrel: So clearly it’s important that people have kind of technical knowledge. And I think that Joel Mokyr, the economic historian, he has written about what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, which is this combination where you have a lot of craftsman knowledge, artisanal knowledge, being shared and exchanged with scientific knowledge, and they inform each other so that the scientific theories say where to look for greater advances, future advances, and less likely to waste your time. But this sort of how-to knowledge is equally important, because it tells you what has worked in the past and what is another area that you might look. And the two groups of people inform each other, and that’s very important in the history of textiles.

Virginia Postrel: I mean, right up to the invention of nylon, where you have somebody who’s a genius basic chemist who gets lured to DuPont to do basic research and promised he can research anything he wants. But then the depression comes, and his boss says, “Hey, you can’t research anything you want. We need something we can sell. See if you can apply this.” And then from that comes nylon, and then later other synthetic fibers. And the understanding that he first developed what polymers are, the basic research, was essential to that process. But then it didn’t just sit in an academic journal. It became something that developed into a whole new category of material.

Will Wilkinson: So what’s the future? When do I get my synthetic spider-silk boxer shorts?

Virginia Postrel: That’s a really good question. I don’t know when. The thing that’s, immediately, that I think is really going to happen is a lot of stuff around three-dimensional knitting, including things like using software that was originally developed in animation to simulate the behavior of individual… Very specific, like this kind of yarn from this particular manufacturer, we can simulate mathematically how it will behave when we make it into a sweater, and we can do all the sampling in the computer. This is very exciting stuff.

Virginia Postrel: There are these bio-engineered silks that Bolt Threads and others have developed. I’ve been following that for about six years, and it’s always right around the corner. And they-

Will Wilkinson: It’s like driverless cars.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: Like, “Any day now.”

Virginia Postrel: Well, I mean, they say, and I have no reason to doubt them, that they had gotten to the point where they could scale up at an industrial scale, but that there were better market opportunities in their leather substitute, which is made from mushroom cells. And so-

Will Wilkinson: Incredible.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. And that just has to do with demand for leather substitutes is bigger than demand for silk substitutes. But I think those sort of bioengineered fabrics will eventually come, but it will be a while.

Will Wilkinson: For a while I was getting some probiotics that the packaging was this stuff made out of mushrooms, that was really like the padding instead of styrofoam, and it works just like it’s perfect styrofoam. The crazy thing about it, though, is you just throw it in the sink and turn on the water and it dissolves.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah.

Will Wilkinson: I thought that was so cool.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. And that’s one of the promise of these kinds of fabrics that are made from protein polymers is. I don’t think they’d dissolve in the sink. That wouldn’t be good. You don’t want that to happen. But they would break down eventually. If you throw them into a landfill, they would eventually break down, and they would just be proteins.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. There’s a lot of polyester hanging out in landfills. But the archeologists of the future will be grateful at least.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah, right.

Will Wilkinson: So I think we need to wrap it up. But I just wanted to ask you one last question, which is just, this is a big project, this is such a fact-intensive book. It’s synthesized as so many different bodies of research into a coherent story. And so I was wondering just what was the most surprising thing that you learned? Because I found a lot of things surprising, but I was wondering, as the person who did all this, what jumped out at you that kind of changed the way you thought?

Virginia Postrel: It sort of depends on when you start with, when I learned. So long, long before I was doing this book, or even the article that eventually led to it, I heard a talk about calico prohibition. And I was like, “How on earth did I not know about this? I was 10 years editor of Reason magazine. So why doesn’t every libertarian know about this?” I don’t know.

Will Wilkinson: I didn’t know about it.

Virginia Postrel: But it’s not that famous. Somebody told me Murray Rothbard wrote one paragraph about it in some book. But it’s an amazing story.

Will Wilkinson: But you mentioned that it’s like an antecedent to classical liberal writing on free trade-

Virginia Postrel: Yes, very early, yeah.

Will Wilkinson: It’s happening before, like the Corn Laws stuff.

Virginia Postrel: Yeah. Yeah. So that surprised me. But once I was actually researching the book, I was really surprised by the scale of these Italian silk throwing, the machines themselves, which are huge and complicated and all made out of wood and driven by water power. And the fact that they were having factories that were operating 24/7 and employing hundreds of people, and thinking about how to pay them to have incentive-compatible compensation, and that sort of thing.

Virginia Postrel: And this is in the, well, it goes back farther, but certainly the 16th, 17th century, long before the Industrial Revolution. You can go to places in Northern Italy where there’ve either been museums that have recreated these machines or preserved some of the later ones. And they’re really extraordinary.

Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I thought that was a cool story. One of the things that brings to mind, that one of the reasons I like this book so much is that there’s something… Sometimes I think about the economy, and it doesn’t make any sense. It seems weird and abstract. And a story like this guides you through, kind of step-by-step, the development of just one class of things, but how many things are involved in making it what it is today. How many different innovations had to happen, but also how those innovations compound and build on each other.

Will Wilkinson: And to see that in my shirt that I’m wearing, that there is a vast amount of accumulated knowledge and know-how built into these things. And for some reason it makes the economy make more sense, that there’s value in… Like the value involved in just making cheap T-shirts, it just seems like it’s not a very hard thing to do, but it’s an incredibly hard thing to do, to make cheap T-shirts.

Virginia Postrel: Right. I mean, it’s not hard to do because you’re building on centuries and centuries of research and a lot of refinements, even in the last… Even if you were to go back 20, 30, 40 years, not that long in the scheme of things, you would find that the T-shirts were a lot worse, and the machines to make them were a lot worse, and the machines to spin the thread were worse.

Will Wilkinson: Well, thanks so much, Virginia. I really appreciate you taking the time to come on. The book is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. It’s just such a fascinating book. I think this would make a great Christmas gift. So if you’ve got a very curious mom or dad or significant other, I think this is a book that anybody who just likes learning will really enjoy. So thanks so much, Virginia.

Virginia Postrel: Thank you.

Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:49:16]