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Virginia Postrel joins the show to discuss how textiles are the most influential commodity in world history.


The story of humanity is the story of textiles — as old as civilization itself. Since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture. Virginia Postrel joins the show to discuss how textiles are the most influential commodity in world history.

What can the history of textiles teach us about innovation?

Further Reading:



0:00:07.2 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to free thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:09.3 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

0:00:10.5 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Virginia Postrel, an author, columnist and speaker, and former editor of Reason Magazine. Her new book is The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

0:00:22.3 Virginia Postrel: Great to be with you.

0:00:23.8 Trevor Burrus: I’d like to start with the question you ask in your afterward. Why textiles?

0:00:28.1 Virginia Postrel: Well, there are a couple of reasons; one is I’m very interested in things that are very important but overlooked, and in our time, textiles definitely fall into that category. They are everywhere. It’s not just our clothes. It’s our blankets, it’s our sofa cushions, it’s seat belts and duct tape, and fire hoses. It’s all kinds of things. They’re everywhere, and it’s a huge global industry, and one that has had an enormous impact on human history. But we don’t know about it. And we don’t know about it because, as I say in the afterword, we suffer textile amnesia because we enjoy textile abundance. So partly tracing where that abundance comes from gives us not only insights into textiles, but insights into the history of innovation, into all different aspects of human history globally, so that’s one reason.

0:01:35.7 Virginia Postrel: And then a related reason is that I am interested in a lot of different things, that’s one of the things it’s hard to explain about, what do you write about? I’m interested in economics and politics, and culture, and art and technology, and textiles enables me to write about all those different things.

0:01:57.9 Aaron Powell: What is a textile? What counts?

0:02:00.7 Virginia Postrel: Yes. Well, that’s a good question. I for the purposes of the book do not include leather, which is sometimes classified as a textile. But I include… I don’t have a quick definition, but basically it is something that is made out of thread. Well, that’s not even true, because there’s such a thing as non‐​woven textiles, which I don’t really talk about, but felt is the historical example. Nowadays, there are lots of different kinds of non‐​woven textiles. If you have a mask with a filter in it, the filter is probably a non‐​woven textile. And I don’t write about those in the book, but that’s not because they’re not textiles, that’s just because you can’t write about everything. I don’t write about carpets either and they’re textiles. But it’s essentially a floppy thing made out of, usually out of thread, but out of fiber of some sort.

0:03:02.2 Trevor Burrus: And throughout, your story, of course, is quite long, but it seems that we probably can’t say for sure. But essentially, every culture at some point developed this, it seems like.

0:03:14.8 Virginia Postrel: Pretty much every culture developed textiles. There are some people in Tasmania who perhaps didn’t, and there are cultures that are very far north that were primarily fur and leather cultures because of climate reasons. But yes, textiles are something that human beings in general share. And many of the key inventions were invented multiple times around the world of ways to spin. The basic invention of how to spin, more than what you can put together by rubbing some fibers on your leg, on your thigh. That’s how spinning sort of starts is a stick with a weight at one end that enables you to feed fiber onto it and set it spinning sort of like a top in the air or sometimes against a ball, and feed the fiber on there and make string and make thread, large quantities of it.

0:04:19.5 Virginia Postrel: And that was invented all over the world. It’s called a drop spindle, and the little weight is called a spindle whorl. And there are thousands and thousands of them in drawers and museums that have been discovered all over the place. So that sort of technology was invented all over the world. Another one that’s even more surprising is indigo dyeing. So indigo is kind of the blue that’s in your blue jeans. In your blue jeans, it’s probably synthesized in a lab. But it was originally developed as a plant dye using many different plants. The key chemical ingredient is found in different plants that are unrelated to each other.

0:05:04.3 Virginia Postrel: So depending on where you were in the world, you would use a different plant. And it’s a very complicated chemical process, because first you have to have the plant and water, and the enzymes, and the plant to create a certain kind of chemical. But then you have to add something else, and then you transform it, and then you get the blue. But the blue precipitates to the bottom and it won’t dye your cloth, so then you have to change it to a different chemical that then dyes your cloth kind of a green as it comes out of the water, and then it changes to blue in the air’s oxygen. So it’s a very complicated process, and it was invented everywhere using different plants.

0:05:46.5 Virginia Postrel: So what we call indigo, comes as the name suggests, from India, but there was woad in Europe, there were forms of indigo in West Africa, there were forms of indigo in South East Asia and Japan, and Guatemala, and the Americas in general. So it’s really something that human beings share. And then there are other inventions that were only made once and spread by trade or conquest or some combination of the two.

0:06:19.8 Aaron Powell: This process of turning thread, weaving it into textiles, seems… So the idea of getting to thread, of I’m going to twist… I’ve got some fibers, I’m going to twist them together, and lo and behold, it turns out, it makes this longer thing that’s stronger, seems like something you could stumble across, that you’re just messing around, and you find that out. Weaving seems more counter‐​intuitive, I suppose. And so I’m curious if we know how that specifically was invented or what the early use cases were for woven fabric. Was it… Did we make clothes or…

0:07:01.0 Virginia Postrel: So we don’t know exactly how was it was invented, because it was invented maybe 10,000 years ago. And one of the things that’s difficult about studying the distant past with textiles is that textiles have a bad habit of rotting and disappearing, and string does as well. So there are only a few places in the world where we have truly ancient textiles, but fortunately, we do have some. So we can kind of trace the likely path. So if you have string, and string is very, very old; a 50,000-year-old string has been discovered, Neanderthal, it’s literally made by Neanderthals. And as you say, that probably came about from people sort of messing around with plant fibers.

0:07:52.7 Virginia Postrel: Once you have string, you start doing things with it. And one of the things you start doing is making fishing nets and things with knots. And probably that is a path to creating something that’s sort of like a plane, [chuckle] if you will, as opposed to a line. The other thing that happens is you have people making baskets. And just recently a very ancient basket was discovered in a cave in Israel, which is the… Has been described in news accounts as the oldest woven basket. So containers may have been the first use case rather than something that is sort of floppy or… But we don’t know for sure.

0:08:45.0 Virginia Postrel: And I suspect… I haven’t seen enough detail. I suspect that that woven basket, like many very ancient forms of woven cloth, like for example in the book I talk about a 6200‐​year‐​old piece of indigo‐​dyed fabric from Peru, are technically not woven, they’re what is called twined, where if you think about weaving and think about like maybe how you did it with construction paper in kindergarten, [chuckle] you lift every other thread, warp thread, and you put something underneath it. Twining, you have two threads going across, and you wrap one above the warp thread and one under it so that you have this kind of continual twisting. And that seems to have been invented first. And in some ways it’s… While I wouldn’t call twining intuitive, it’s a little more intuitive than the idea that you could have this fabric that would be held together just by friction with nothing resembling a knot.

0:09:51.7 Virginia Postrel: And the other thing is, although you don’t have to, it is very helpful to invent something called heddles, which were invented in different parts of the world as well. And those are basically little string loops of… Nowadays, they would be metal probably, on an industrial loom. But it’s… It adds a third dimension to the process. So you put a string loop around each warp thread, those are the ones that are held in tension. And then you can put a stick through selected string loops and lift them all at once, and then put your weft thread, the one that’s going left to right or right to left, through all at once, and that speeds up the process. So this whole invention of weaving is this constant addition of little hacks to the basic idea.

0:10:48.6 Virginia Postrel: And I did learn to weave as part of the process of researching the book, and I got involved in weaving and working… Well, and hand‐​weaving and working with hand‐​weavers skilled here in LA. And weavers to this day are constantly coming up with little things to make their lives easier and repurposing all sorts of weird… [chuckle] Weird office supplies or whatever to make weaving easier. So I think that’s kind of the history of it. Yeah, I heard a talk recently that the… In Southeast Asia, the invention of a pedal to do a lot of this work as opposed to things with your hands might have had to do with taxes being levied in cloth and people needing to produce more cloth to meet their tax burden, and so coming up with a form of speeding up the process.

0:11:52.1 Trevor Burrus: That kind of cumulative innovation, I also find it fascinating where we should… We can marvel at the airplane or something like that, but there’s these things that we take for granted. I think it was Bill Bryson who had a line where he said, “Call me obtuse, but you could stick me on a beach for 1000 years, and I would never look at the sand then think, “Oh, glass!” And I…

0:12:14.3 Virginia Postrel: That’s right. [laughter]

0:12:15.4 Trevor Burrus: And I think that about bread, the first crazy person to eat a lobster, that guy was a bold adventurer, And there’s just a lot of people…

0:12:24.2 Virginia Postrel: Very hungry.

0:12:24.7 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, exactly, very hungry. There’s a lot of people in the story, so it kinda gets to like the difference between culture and civilization, how we accumulate this knowledge, is just a huge part of the story. Like you said about indigo, another one that often is cited for that is cassava. What you need to do to cassava to be able to eat it safely is an astounding process, and how people come up with this is incredible.

0:12:48.4 Virginia Postrel: How did people come up with it and how many people died along the way, yeah. Yeah, and I actually, in the book, I write about indigo and I took an indigo dyeing workshop and talked to the guy there about how did anybody ever come up with this in the first place. And then I did a little experiment in my bathroom with indigo leaves to see if I could kind of recreate the primordial puddle, as I call it, which because people did figure it out all around world. And it got better over time, and there was a lot of trial and error experimentation. The theme of the dye chapter is really the history of dyes shows both the power and limitations of trial and error experimentation without a fundamental scientific understanding of what’s going on, because people got pretty far with just using trial and error experimentation, partly because when you dye things you can tell what the results are.

0:13:50.4 Virginia Postrel: It’s not like medicine where maybe it was what the so‐​called doctor did, we still have this problem, and maybe it was just some random result. With dyeing, you can control things a lot better. But then when you actually start to have chemical science, you get a great leap forward in the 19th century where you can actually synthesize dyes in the lab.

0:14:17.8 Trevor Burrus: On that point, the status element of dye, in particular, Roman purple, where did that come from or how did they get that purple and why was it such a status?

0:14:31.4 Virginia Postrel: Well, those two can, yes… So those two questions are related. There was this ancient purple sometimes called Tyrian purple, because it was associated with the city of Tyre. It was a major dye production site. And it came from several different species of snails, Murex snails, that are found in the Mediterranean area. And they have a gland in them that secretes a purple substance. And I tell this story in the book of the efforts to recreate the process by an archaeologist named Deborah Ruscillo, who’s at Washington University in St. Louis, and she’s an archaeologist who studies what are called faunal remains, which is basically old bones. She’s the kind of person who can tell you by looking at the bones when people were raising sheep just for their milk and meat, and when they started raising them for their wool.

0:15:29.8 Virginia Postrel: And she would see all these giant piles of old shells all around various excavation sites where dyeing used to be done, and she wondered, how many shells, how many snails did it take and that sort of thing. So she decided to recreate it, and she and an assistant first went and they set traps, which are basically like little jugs, clay jugs. They collected snails in a bay off of Crete. They also collected a lot of water and a lot of things that stung. This was the first step on the lesson that this is very hard and unpleasant and somewhat and slightly dangerous.

0:16:11.7 Virginia Postrel: Anyway, they got a lot of shells. They cracked them open, which was a trick in itself, then they started scraping out the meat into little pots of water. And it was an extremely unpleasant process. First of all, it stank to high heavens, and far distanced from them, there were some workers who were trying to eat lunch and they were complaining about it. And back in the day, Tyre was famous as a rich city, but a place nobody wanted to go, because it was so unpleasant, because they didn’t just have little pots of dye like you’d have on your stove, they had these giant pits. Anyway, so they got the dye in the pots. There were flies buzzing around, stinging them, horse flies. They finally got it. They produced a lot of really beautiful colors, including the one that looked like the color of clotted blood, which was the one that was very valuable in ancient Rome, particularly on wool. It makes a very deep, intense color.

0:17:18.3 Virginia Postrel: It uses a lot of snails to make that on wool, which was what, say, a toga would have been made out of. And it is a very long, involved, labor‐​intensive and unpleasant process. And that’s probably why the dye was so expensive, and the prestige came from the expense. And one of the things that is interesting about it is it’s not just a stinky process of dyeing, which is also true of indigo, but unlike indigo, the stink stays, it stays on the cloth. And this is interesting, because it’s unpleasant, but it was a status marker, because that was how you could tell that it was the real deal. This was not some vegetable dye substitute. And Deborah says she has these 20‐​year‐​old samples that she did that have been washed in Tide and are still smelly.

0:18:24.1 Virginia Postrel: So, and there’s ancient Roman poetry, satirical poems, making fun of a rich woman who wears this stinky dye to cover her body odor, and lists the smell of the purple cloth in a long list of very unpleasant smells of various sorts. So it’s a really interesting example. It is an attractive dye, but the status clearly isn’t just from its beauty. It is something that says, “I’m an important person, I have a lot of wealth, and you can tell because my clothes stink.”

0:19:06.6 Aaron Powell: Silk plays a pretty large role in the story that you tell. Maybe start with how silk is produced, because it’s another one of these where if you… Once you kind of know, you’re like, “How did anyone possibly come up with that?”

0:19:21.8 Virginia Postrel: Right. The legend is that the empress or the silk goddess or some legendary person dropped a silk cocoon into a cup of tea and the threads started to come out. So silk is from silkworms, which are the caterpillar of a particular kind of moth, which the technical name of is Bombyx mori, but it’s sometimes just called mulberry silk worms. They are a completely domesticated species that cannot survive in the wild, because human beings have altered them so much that they no longer have the characteristics that would allow them to survive in the wild. Well, so the first step is you have… Well, it’s like anything, which came first, the chicken or the egg? But you have some silkworms, the silkworms need to be fed mulberry leaves, so people feed them this very specific kind of leaf and, in sophisticated silk operations, historically, they would chop the leaves up into small pieces to make them even better for the silkworms to be able to eat.

0:20:33.1 Virginia Postrel: They raise them on bamboo trays. Then when it comes time for the silkworms to spin their cocoons, people give them sticks to spin them on little branches. And everything has to be very temperature controlled, and we’re talking about places that are heated with charcoal burners, that sort of thing, not… Today, it’s all very scientific and computerized and such, but the silkworms spin their cocoons, which are about a little bit smaller than your thumb, little white cocoons. They’ve been bred to be very white, because that makes the silk easier to dye. And right before the silkworms hatch, most of the cocoons are heated to kill the insects inside, so that they don’t emerge and break the single strand that is the silk filament that makes the cocoon.

0:21:43.6 Virginia Postrel: Some of them emerge, because they’ve got to have the next generation, and they need some to lay eggs, make more silkworms. The silk cocoons are put into warm water, which dissolves the kind of sticky substance that holds that long filament together into a little ovoid ball. And somebody, it’s usually a woman, there are different techniques depending on where you are, you could use her finger, in which case her finger’s all day in hot water or chopstick or a little brush, some kind of little thing. Takes a strand off each cocoon, takes several strands, the most, the finest silk, it would be two, and puts them together, joins them and they are reeled, this stage is called reeling, onto a large horizontal reel. And then usually they’re… And then as she comes to the end of a cocoon, she’s got to match it with the next stage, so this is instead of spinning, it’s all coming out in one long filament, which can be very, very long, but eventually it does run out and you need to add on another cocoon.

0:23:05.8 Virginia Postrel: And then the next stage is usually you take a couple of those strands and you twist them together, which is called throwing. And then sometimes you twist those together, depending on how strong versus fine a silk you make. And it’s a very sophisticated, very complicated, very precise process. And this is why silk is luxury. But as you mentioned, in part because it was a luxury, silk is where a lot of innovations occurred originally. This is… The origins of the belt drive were in a silk workshop probably about 2500 years ago, and a belt drive is basically when you have a little wheel and a big wheel and you run a belt around the two so that you can turn the big wheel once and the little wheel turns many times, and this is in all kinds of motors.

0:24:06.0 Virginia Postrel: And it’s in Italy, in the 16th and 17th century, there were a bunch of these big silk throwing factories. They were actually… They took everything from the… Taking one for the cocoons with the reeling all the way to the finished thread in a single site with hundreds of people working 24/7. I asked a historian, “How did they light it?” He said, “With torches.” I said, “Wasn’t that dangerous?” He said, “Yes.” And they had these two‐​story machines, all made of wood, water‐​powered that twisted the silk. It’s amazing. There are reconstructions and restored versions that you can go to in northern Italy. So you have a lot of this sort of thing. It’s not mass, it doesn’t create the Industrial Revolution the way learning how to spin cotton did, but silk does create a lot of innovations through the history of textiles.

0:25:11.0 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I want to get into that ’cause I did not know about this level of mechanization on silk in the 1600s, and…

0:25:17.9 Virginia Postrel: Neither did I. [chuckle]

0:25:21.0 Trevor Burrus: To be honest, if we… Even to this day, we do this with silkworms on some sort of industrial level, which still seems really crazy, if you actually think that there’s huge factories there must be with cultivating worms and mechanized, but the basic worm part can’t be replaced, but…

0:25:35.9 Virginia Postrel: Oh, yeah. Well, people are working on it. They’ve now bio‐​engineered yeast to secrete silk proteins that can be made into thread. It’s not yet at commercial scale, but eventually, there will be vegan silk.

0:25:53.7 Trevor Burrus: There we go. I guess vegans don’t wear silk. I never thought about that. [chuckle]

0:25:56.6 Virginia Postrel: No. No, they don’t. And Stella McCartney is very excited.

0:26:01.4 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, so…

0:26:02.0 Virginia Postrel: I had to… Less literally true. [chuckle]

0:26:05.1 Trevor Burrus: So the Industrial Revolution, this is where we have Deirdre McCloskey’s Great Enrichment and this idea of cotton in particular, so… And that’s… And set the stage first with the nature of cotton production in the 18th century in England, because there was also some laws against certain type of cotton. And then who were these people who start coming up with these absolutely game‐​changing inventions?

0:26:33.4 Virginia Postrel: Yeah, so this… So there are many threads, no pun intended, but they’re unavoidable, in this story. So let’s start with thread. When we think of thread, we think of sewing thread. When we think of yarn, we think of something that’s kind of fat and fluffy and maybe you knit sweaters from it. I use the term… The two terms interchangeably. In the industry, people tend to use the word yarn for anything you make fabric out of. And it takes an enormous amount of yarn to make anything. If you take the denim in a pair of blue jeans, there is six miles of yarn in that fabric. And before the Industrial Revolution, it took a tremendous amount of time to make any amount of yarn. So before the Industrial Revolution, using the fastest cotton spinning skills and technology in the world, which would have been Indian spinners using the charkha, it would have taken about 100 hours to spin enough to make a pair of blue jeans. So 100 hours for one pair of pants is a lot of time, and that doesn’t include the weaving or dyeing, or the preparing the cotton, ginning it, cleaning it, all of that sort of thing.

0:28:07.8 Virginia Postrel: So this is the state of the world before the Industrial Revolution, the late 18th century. You have textiles as a major industry in Britain, as well as other places, including India, and you have… We have records of the production of woollen textiles in Great Britain in the late 18th century, where it took 20–30 spinners to keep one weaver occupied, and they weren’t always able to produce enough. So you have a shortage of thread. So that’s one piece of the puzzle, is regardless of what kind of thread, it could be wool, it could be linen, it could be cotton, it was in short supply, just because it takes so much to make anything, and it was so labor‐​intensive.

0:29:05.1 Virginia Postrel: The other piece of the puzzle is Indian cotton prints, which hit Europe beginning in the 16th century, but really in the 17th century. They were a revolution, because first of all, the cotton cloth itself was this wonderful, lightweight, finely‐​spun cotton cloth. Cotton was known in Europe, but it was not a major fabric. And cotton is difficult to dye. It’s much easier to dye protein fibers than cellulose fibers. And Indian dyers had achieved amazing results on cotton. They had created colors that were color‐​fast, even when washed, and they had also developed printing and painting technologies, so that you could have designs like flowers or whatever, geometric designs, on your cloth, which was not known in Europe.

0:30:10.8 Virginia Postrel: In Europe, if you had a design, it was either woven in, which was extremely complicated and expensive, or it was embroidered, which required silk floss, which was also expensive. So basically, you’re in a world of stripes and checks, which can be easily woven in, or solid colors. Suddenly, you have these Indian cottons. They’re super comfortable, they’re super washable, and they have all these different design possibilities. And Indians, being good business people who had a lot of experience trading with Southeast Asia and developing special Southeast Asian designs for, say, the Malaysian markets, they did the same with Europe. Europeans wanted their textiles to have light‐​colored backgrounds with designs that stood out, as opposed to an all‐​over design which was the traditional Indian way of doing things, so that’s what these entrepreneurs in the Indian textile trade developed.

0:31:16.4 Virginia Postrel: So you have this revolutionary cloth, and one of the reactions to it is, “Oh, no, no, we don’t want that, it’s a threat to our existing industries,” and this took different forms. Now, this is all complicated by the fact that the East Indian companies that were bringing this cloth into Europe, the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company and the French East India Company, were all sort of quasi‐​governmental, so they didn’t want to stamp them out, but on the other hand, they didn’t want to let them in either. And different countries had different approaches, so the Dutch basically had a free market. They let the cloth come in and that’s why, if you want to see good examples, the Rijksmuseum has great things on their website. You can look at them.

0:32:08.3 Virginia Postrel: The British banned the import of Indian cotton prints into the mother country, into Great Britain proper, but they allowed them in the colonies. And so the British textile industry in Britain was making quote unquote cottons that really had linen used as the warp threads, which are the ones that are under tension and need to be really strong, because they weren’t able to produce strong enough cotton thread. So that’s… In France, they treated… Calico is the way we treat… These are called calicoes… The way we treat cocaine. And it was not just the prints themselves, it was any kind of print, even if it wasn’t from India. It was any kind of cotton. They just banned everything and it was criminal…

0:33:03.0 Trevor Burrus: This is very French. It seems very French.

0:33:04.8 Virginia Postrel: It was very French [chuckle] Yeah, it was very French, and that’s because while in Britain, the rival industry was sort of the wool industry and the textile industry developed its own alternatives, in France, the industry that was being protected was really silk and so they wanted to keep out everything. And for 73 years, France treated cotton fabric the way we treat cocaine. You could… And it was very much… Also, I sometimes say maybe it’s the way we treated cocaine in the ‘80s, because it’s not like people stopped wearing them. People were wearing these things to court. It was sort of blatant and then every now and then, there would be a crackdown and they would try to get the traffickers and they would send people to the galleys and they would even execute people who were major traffickers, and sometimes they would just look in people’s windows and haul them off to jail because they had a chair with the wrong kind of print.

0:34:11.5 Virginia Postrel: So this went on. Eventually, partly because of the influence of some early classical liberal writers who argued that this was not just ineffectual but also unjust to punish people in these grievous ways for just buying and selling, it was repealed and replaced with a 25% tax, which was a huge tax, but smuggling continued and once it was in the country, you couldn’t tell the difference between smuggled and un‐​smuggled calicoes. So you’re in this world… So to put the two pieces together, in the British textile industry, and I’m here basically taking the theory that is promulgated by a historian named John Styles. There are different stories of how the Industrial Revolution happened with textiles, but this is my… The one that I think is the most convincing.

0:35:08.8 Virginia Postrel: The British textile industry wanted a piece of the American market. They wanted to be able to sell cottons in the colonies, and this is not just what’s now the US and Canada, but also the Caribbean, so warm climates where they were very much desired. And their substitutes weren’t as popular there, so they wanted a way to spin good cotton thread that could compete with the Indian thread. And that led to ways of looking at mechanization which ultimately… There were a series of innovations that sort of came together that produced these spinning mills in Northern England in the late, say 1780‐​ish, so the late 18th century. The cotton thread was also used for making stockings, which was a big industry, a sort of proto industry, because there were these things called stocking frames that were sort of like a loom but for knitting, and people could make stockings in their homes or small workshops. There was already a pretty good little industry going, a cottage industry, and using cotton was very popular and one of the early uses of cotton thread for that as well.

0:36:46.9 Aaron Powell: What role does gender play in all of this? Because when you look around right now, at least in Western countries, it feels like textiles and yarn and thread are like… Those are the hobbies women are into as we think about it. Knitting and sewing and so on. And we tend to think of these as like the weavers and whatnot, but then I was struck when you mentioned at the beginning like you were excluding leather from all this, but when you look around at the leather industry… I was on the Horween leather website a week or so ago for random reasons, and it’s all these burly dudes with big tools, and so I just wondered is that… Is there something to that? If so, why? And is it universal?

0:37:35.4 Virginia Postrel: It’s complicated, and I tend to think about this history as there’s a warp and a weft, we talk about men’s history and women’s history. You can’t, there’s really just human history, that’s the fabric, and if you take away one or the other, you miss the whole. In looking specifically at textiles, the one thing that seems to be a female activity is spinning. And there are theories about, oh, well, it’s because you can multi‐​task, you can spin and while you’re watching the kids or the sheep or cooking or whatever, and that’s true, except that why wouldn’t male shepherds spin? So I tend to think that it probably has more to do with the fact that little girls develop fine motor coordination earlier than little boys. And especially to be a very good spinner, like these Indians on the charkha, like most women spinning historically, you have to start really early.

0:38:42.4 Virginia Postrel: I talk in the book about Aztec girls being trained to spin starting when they were four, and the various punishments that their mothers used if they didn’t do a good job. And trying to teach a four‐​year‐​old boy to spin, it would be even harder. And you just think about little boys’ handwriting, not that my handwriting is…

0:39:03.4 Trevor Burrus: Aaron is nodding vigorously, ’cause he has two boys and a girl I think…

0:39:08.4 Virginia Postrel: My brother had fabulous handwriting and my handwriting to this day is terrible, so there are individual differences, but I tend to think that that’s the reason. So spinning is historically pretty much universally female. Now, there are men today, including doing traditional, like I took a spinning workshop with Andean Weavers, and my instructor was a man, but that’s because it’s the 21st century, and so he may be doing it in a traditional context, but he’s still a modern person. Weaving, it depends, so in English, there’s an old saying, when Adam delved and Eve span or spun, who then was the gentleman, and this was the division of labor between men and women. Men were digging in the dirt and women were spinning. In China the phrase is men till, women spin.

0:40:15.7 Virginia Postrel: Now in truth, women worked in the fields and tilled too… Women weaved, rather. So in China weaving was female, in Europe, it was heavily male, I say heavily because the guilds generally tried to restrict it to men and they generally failed, but if only because people’s widows and their daughters would weave, but it depends. And there are places in West Africa where women weave on one kind of loom and men weave on a different kind of loom traditionally. So weaving, dyeing, knitting with, especially with something like the stocking frame, those things all vary, they vary with the time and place and the technology.

0:41:11.0 Virginia Postrel: So why do we associate it with women so much? I think it’s just because it has been a larger part of women’s lives than of men’s lives. So it’s not that men didn’t participate in textile production and textile trade. It’s that women did… It was like a smaller percentage of their total lives, and so then when you get into our era, where you’re talking about something that is where these hand crafts are hobbies as opposed to ways of making a living, women are more likely to take it up. I mentioned I’m in a weavers’ guild, which is not a restraint of trade guild, it’s just a club, and we have several active male members, but that’s several in a group of 150–200 people. So it’s a small percentage of our membership, maybe it may be as much as 10%, and that’s pretty typical.

0:42:22.1 Virginia Postrel: On the other hand, if you go to a modern textile industry conference where you’re dealing with industrial production, partly because of where that industrial production takes place today, a lot of the participants will be… It’ll be heavily male.

0:42:36.9 Trevor Burrus: The other interesting thing about that, though, on the industrial side, is if you go to Lowell, Massachusetts, you’ll see the museum of what was I think maybe the biggest textile, or [0:42:48.9] ____ textile producing, one of the biggest for a period of time. And it was almost all worked by women, who, we talk about the pains of low wage sweatshops or something like this, which of course is a product of wealth, but these women, they worked six days a week, and they worked 10 hours, 12 hours a day. But that was a massive liberation compared to farming, which if you think about it, really sucks and so they had a day off…

0:43:25.0 Virginia Postrel: And people forget how bad farming was, and it was very bad for women, it was, sort of talk about the second shift. Well, women worked, especially… Farm women still work, farmers still work hard, but now they have a lot of machines to help them but…

0:43:41.1 Trevor Burrus: And as kids, yeah. How does that story go around the world where it seems like the textile industry is like a leading thing, it kinda goes, it’s part of being a developing nation, which also was part of women’s liberation to some extent.

0:43:53.4 Virginia Postrel: Right, right. Yeah, it’s… In many places that is the story of… Yes, so what you have in the US and in New England, first, and also in Northern England, in the UK, and you also see it in Asia, East Asia, it’s actually different in South Asia, is a lot of teenagers, essentially. So girls, women, what are they… Coming off of farms and going to work in textile mills as a way of getting cash income. And it is a liberating experience in the sense that these are women who were not financially independent of their families in any way before that. They had no income or wealth really of their own. And so they have cash income, which in many cases they give back to their families, or parts of it. But it gives them a sense of liberation, and also these working conditions were bad, they were not pleasant and the wages were not high. And they also become labor activists, which gives them a political role, a public role. Which becomes, as you get closer and closer to the 20th century, becomes more and more a factor in women’s political liberation as well.

0:45:36.6 Virginia Postrel: So this transformation has a big effect on women. It is different in South Asia, in places like Northern India. Even today, if you go into textile mills, they are predominantly male. And that’s because there is a strong cultural… Well, it’s because people are more worried about their women being out of the house than because than they want the money. I mean, people didn’t want their women out of the house anywhere, especially like say in East Asia either, but they wanted the money more. So it’s a tension.

0:46:25.5 Aaron Powell: A common narrative across a lot of different industries, but I think it certainly shows up in particularly clothing now, and maybe it’s like part of the rise of Etsy is part of this too, is that mass production and capitalism has led to a decline in quality. We have fast fashion now instead of really high quality goods. Is that the case in the textile industry? Like are textiles now less well‐​made than they used to be, less robust, fall apart quicker, more disposable?

0:47:03.1 Virginia Postrel: That’s a good question. I don’t think I would say that textiles are less well‐​made. There is much more polyester used, and the polyester is much better than it used to be. The improvements in polyester since the 1970s are extraordinary and not very well remarked, partly because a lot of people, I think, don’t realize that things like fleece and micro‐​fiber are polyester.

0:47:36.8 Trevor Burrus: Bring me a coat of your finest polyester is not something you hear very often, but it’s possible.

0:47:41.1 Virginia Postrel: Right, exactly. And I was in… When I was doing research in India, I went to a sari factory that was all making polyester saris, which are sold, mass market saris, and for poor women would be much easier to take care of. I think that apparel is more poorly made at this moment, because there has been this emphasis on fast fashion and disposable apparel that you just wear a couple of times and then get rid of. But I don’t think it’s because the component textiles are worse. And my friend Adam Minter has a great book called Secondhand, which is about the worldwide second‐​hand trade in goods, including apparel. And one of the things he does point out is that if you go to a place like Goodwill and you talk to somebody who’s been in that business for a length of time, they say that the stuff they get is worse and they have to get rid of more of it because it is not as well‐​made. But it’s not the textiles, it’s the fabrication of them into clothes.

0:48:55.9 Trevor Burrus: So if someone is a good free market believer, what does your story you tell in your book have to say to the person who’s a capitalist free market believer, is it a story that endorses those principles?

0:49:12.6 Virginia Postrel: Well, I think it’s complicated. So yes, I mean, I generally in that category, and if you read the Future and Its Enemies, that’s kind of how I think about the world, and you definitely see that and you definitely see the story of people doing things that are not necessarily expected, that wouldn’t be in anybody’s plan, a central plan. Even in places where it seems like the centralized planning, like Colbert’s France, is doing something good, that is trying to spread best practices in the dye industry, they run into contradictions because they also want to encourage innovation in the dye industry. Well, if you’re only doing the same thing, you’re not going to innovate. So how do you square that circle.

0:50:06.7 Virginia Postrel: It’s complicated. There are aspects of the story that are very much not free‐​market or not classical liberal at all, and some of that is contested nowadays. So for example, you hear the claim that we wouldn’t have had the Industrial Revolution, we wouldn’t have had all this cotton, if it hadn’t been for American slavery, and that, historically, unless we go back in a time machine and do it a different way, we can’t know for sure. I think it’s pretty convincing that we could have had all of those things with a different type of production structure, but it probably sped things up a little bit, because people could move slaves against their will long distances. And so they could settle the cotton frontier faster, than if it had been done with immigration or migration, the way the wheat frontier or the corn frontier was settled.

0:51:23.9 Virginia Postrel: And by the way, slaves were used to raise wheat in Virginia and places like that. So it’s not just a cotton story. So this is all very contested, but I think that, yes, we have this abundance, because… Deirdre is right, because people were allowed to experiment and make money by coming up with new and better ways to make textiles and to make things like dyes that are related to textiles. And the other thing we haven’t talked much about it, that actually plays a fairly large role in the book and it has a complete chapter devoted to it, is trade, exchange, commerce, which whether you fit that into free markets or not, is certainly markets.

0:52:21.9 Virginia Postrel: And the textile trade is hugely influential throughout history, and often at the… Both at the center and the margins of society, that is it’s at the center, in the sense that it’s the wealth‐​generating central activity, economic activity, or after agriculture, the central activity, but often at the margins, because say in China or in Japan, especially in Confucianist societies, it’s considered a lesser activity. And I talk about sumptuary laws and ways of trying to minimize the upper mobility of merchants, that sort of thing, but a lot of innovation comes out of that. And it’s not just directly economic innovation, it’s literacy, it’s bookkeeping, it’s the spread of Arabic numbers, it’s mail service, all these kinds of things that long distance traders need, came out of trading textiles.

0:53:42.7 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.