“Clothing,” St. Clair notes, “would have been one of a suite of skills — including the ability to make shelter and fire — that humans would have needed to thrive in diverse regions.” However, because cloth is harder to preserve, archaeologists have paid less attention to its significance in ancient cultures than to other, less perishable objects such as bronze or iron. Explorers studying Egyptian mummies, for example, hurriedly sliced away the outer wrappings to get to the bodies and treasures inside. “This is unfortunate,” St. Clair writes, because for the ancient Egyptians, “linen was imbued with powerful, even magical, meaning: linen was what made mummies sacred.”
Throughout history, the task of cloth production has frequently fallen to women, who supplemented household incomes or paid taxes through their labor. Women cared for silkworms in China, probably created the Bayeux Tapestry in 11th-century England and today toil by the millions in the garment factories of Bangladesh. St. Clair suggests that because it’s women’s work, the creation of textiles has been devalued, even though cloth is essential to human survival and progress. Sails, for example, whose early development has been traced to sites in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar in the sixth millennia BC, allowed the Vikings to travel long distances. “While it has been estimated that it would take two skilled shipwrights a fortnight to make a longboat,” St. Clair writes, “creating a sail would take two equally skilled women a full year or more, depending on the size required.”
Technological innovations led to remarkable advances in the scale and quality of fabrics. Insufficiently dressed explorers, whether attempting to summit Mount Everest or explore outer space, can die in extreme temperatures or expend precious energy on movement when clad in cumbersome protective gear. Both natural down insulation and synthetic fabrics such as Gore-Tex, “made from a layer of finely stretched Teflon . . . bonded to nylon or polyester,” have made climbing Mount Everest possible.
In the case of space exploration, the Omega suit developed for the first moonwalk was produced in a Playtex factory and was “comprised of some four thousand pieces of fabric and twenty-one distinct layers of material,” including Teflon-coated silica cloth, different types of polyester, heat-resistant fibers and woven stainless steel. Astronaut Michael Collins paid homage to the Playtex workers, noting in his memoir that it was “little old ladies hunched over their glue pots in Worcester, Mass.,” who by their exacting labor kept him alive in space; their work prevented his oxygen from escaping from his suit while he was flying the Apollo 11 mission.
In its exploration of contemporary textile history, “The Golden Thread” sometimes jumps from one seemingly disparate topic to another, such as from slavery to Everest mountaineering, or from the synthetic swimsuits that led to outcries of “technological doping” to the potential for spiders’ webs to become the new silk. Yet each subject offers a fascinating look at the challenges that fabrics aim to overcome, as well as the often-devastating environmental and human effects involved in their production. For example, rayon, although derived from natural wood pulp, requires the harvesting of 120 million trees a year, and it must be processed with harsh chemicals, which can eat through the flesh of workers and in some cases cause lifelong psychosis, disability and even death.
St. Clair is frank about how humans have been exploited in the service of textiles, particularly from the Industrial Revolution onward. The transatlantic slave trade increased dramatically in response to the introduction of the cotton gin, which allowed seeds to be extracted from cotton mechanically. As a result, in South Carolina, cotton exports from 1790 to 1800 went from less than 10,000 pounds to 6.4 million pounds per year. To perform the additional labor, more slaves were trafficked into the region, such that by 1860, 3.2 million people in the American South were enslaved. While this may be a familiar story, St. Clair also discusses how slaves used clothing to distinguish themselves “in a cycle of consumption and display parallel to that of white Americans.” And perhaps even fewer of us know that the United States is still the world’s third-largest producer of cotton, some of which is harvested by prison inmates.
Although St. Clair does explore the history of cloth in ancient Egypt and China, the book largely focuses on the development of fabrics in England and America, with wool yielding to cotton and then synthetics in importance. Absent are discussions of the textiles of Africa and Native and Latin America, which have been dated back thousands of years and have deep cultural and historical significance as well. Nonetheless, “The Golden Thread” spins a rich social history of textiles that also reflects the darker side of technology and the development of capitalism. Fabric may have allowed the human species to thrive and conquer the globe, but as with other technologies that suck up finite resources and are often produced in inhumane contexts, it may also be part of our unraveling.
The Golden Thread
How Fabric Changed History
By Kassia St. Clair
Liveright. 351 pp. $23.95