Virginia Postrel is a California-based journalist who has written four books, including her most recent one, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made The World, (which I highly recommend.) In this episode, Virginia talks about why the history of fabric and civilization is a “story of innovation,” the mechanized Italian silk mills that predated the Industrial Revolution by two centuries, cotton’s history and dominance in today’s clothing, advances in synthetic fabrics, and the tragic life of Wallace Carothers, the almost-unknown inventor of nylon. (Recorded September 23, 2022.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics and today’s a little bit of a diversion, but it’s all about innovation. I’m pleased to welcome my guest, Virginia postrel. She is the author of fabric of civilization. How textiles made the world, Virginia. Welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Virginia Postrel 0:24
Thank you very much. It’s great to be with you. And I
Robert Bryce 0:27
did warn you. I’m sorry. Can you pull your microphone just a little closer to your mouth? Yeah, we’re in front there. Just a temper. How’s
Virginia Postrel 0:33
that? Oh, much more glitter. Yeah. Okay. So hi, Iverson, your postrel. I am, as Robert says, the author most recently of the fabric of civilization. This is my fourth book. My first book, which some of you may be familiar with was called the future and its enemies. And it’s very much about innovation. It’s getting close to 25 years old, but still quite relevant. My second book was called the substance of style, and was about the look and feel of people places and things and the economic value created by that and why that came out. In 2003. And 2013, I published a book called The Power of glamour, which is an analysis of glamour as a form of rhetoric, persuasion, that takes many different forms. It’s not just fashion, it’s not just movies, it could be cars, it could be the idea of technology, or the idea of the future. And how that plays out in culture, politics, economics, history in history. I write for Bloomberg opinion. I’ve been a columnist and sort of writer for a long time, very long time. And I am a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and philosophy at Chapman University in Orange, California.
Robert Bryce 2:04
Gotcha. And one of your colleagues, there is my friend of yours, Joel Kotkin who, yes, he’s
Virginia Postrel 2:09
not with the Smith Institute, but he is at Chapman, and yes, to give you some idea of how old I am and how old Joel is. I first knew Joel when I was a rookie, very young reporter at Ink Magazine from 1984 to 86. And when I was the editor of reason magazine in the 90s, and actually before I was the editor, when I was on the staff he wrote for us, and so we go way back. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but ya know, for a long time,
Robert Bryce 2:39
good. Well, Joseph, Joseph, he’s remarkably prolific. And he’s been on the podcast a couple times. But this isn’t about Joel. It’s about you. It’s about your book. And who wait, now here, I’ve got a wasn’t quite I thought I was fully prepared. Clearly, I’m not. But here I this is I bought your book and I bought it on my Kindle. And I have now ordered it on the paper copy. Because as I was reading it, I thought, you know, the Kindle is okay. But I love books, right? I’ve written a few myself. And because of the texture and everything in the book, I realized, well, and my wife wants to read it. And I thought Lauren wants to read it. And we both love fabric. And so we’ve now so you’re getting your money’s worth from me as the podcast who is not only about the Kindle version, but the hardcover version so I encourage
Virginia Postrel 3:26
everyone to do it. I should tell people that unless it changed this morning, that Kindle version is on sale for 399 which is like super deal.
Robert Bryce 3:40
I’m sure I paid more than that. But yeah,
Virginia Postrel 3:42
but at that deal, even if you have the hardback or the paperback, it’s worth buying so you can search it and I did this with all my books I bought I actually paid money for my own books to have them on Kindle so that we’re searchable even though it like you I actually like to read physical books.
Robert Bryce 4:00
Yeah, well, first I just have to say I loved this book. I mean I I’m not flattering you or two since we’re going to talk about textiles blowing smoke up your dress or anything else here I just thought it was amazingly well written and I love fabric as well I’ve done and the things you wrote about how you wrote about it. I thought were just beautifully written and well done. So congratulations. First I want to just
Unknown Speaker 4:22
thanks very much.
Robert Bryce 4:24
So tell us about the hieroglyphics at my saying it now this is the bright the beginning of your book at Knossos is that right? The
Virginia Postrel 4:32
I think the que is pronounced Canosa. Okay,
Robert Bryce 4:36
here, you read this. It’s right at the beginning of you said kenosis was a textile superpower. Like many, many people before and since the pioneering archaeologist who had founded had overlooked the central role of textiles in the history of technology, commerce and civilization itself. And you’re you found that the higher hieroglyphics there, the writing was all about the textiles that they were making, which was really an amazing discovery. Read by itself and that after that I thought, Okay, I’m all in here.
Virginia Postrel 5:05
Yeah, this was a really interesting I met this woman called Marie Louisa nosh, who is an expert in Linear B tablets. That’s how she she’s a historian. She’s an ancient historian. And she is that’s her her field of expertise. But then she learned as she went along that two thirds of these tablets are about textile production. So then she became very interested in ancient textiles, and actually was a co founder of what’s called the Center for textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, and I met her and that’s how I learned about this, but it’s very interesting because Arthur Evans, who was this pioneering archaeologist who discovered the Greeks, the civilization on the island of Crete, which predated the ancient Greeks, he, he felt he deciphered some of these tablets, and he and a lot of there is something that’s like an alphabet, but they’re also symbolic things like you finding Egyptian hieroglyphics and, and he figured out, you know, this one means a pod, and this one means sort of, and there was this one that he thought meant a tower, it was like a little, little rectangle with little things, little pointy things on it. And he actually got it upside down, because it didn’t mean a tower, it meant a textile. And this was figured out later in the context, and it shows he was living in, you know, in England in the 19th century, where textiles were a huge industry and yet he is so focused on what we think of as this, you know, World of stone and, and military might and temples and he doesn’t think about metal, right? Which metal Yeah, right. And, and he doesn’t think about textiles, which ancient people thought a lot about textiles actually, about because they rotted away, we tend to forget how prevalent they were and how important they were, whether it was in trade or in, you know, cultural things like religious activities, or even in I talk about some about the possible roots of mathematical early Greek mathematical theory. So part of what this book is doing is it’s sort of restoring textiles to the human story. And also then by using textiles, we can see a lot of things about various aspects of innovation, various aspects of, you know, historical patterns, cultural exchange, conquest, trade, all of the things that make up human history, slavery in the American slavery in the American South
Robert Bryce 7:59
industrial revolution. So the Silk Road, all these things. I just thought the way You wove it together was just, I mean, really quite beautifully done. And particularly, I thought, well, this is the story of innovation and from plant breeding to dyes, etc. But I want to read the part this is the beginning of your book, because you put so many of these just well so well written, we repeat threadbare cliches, whole cloth hanging by a thread dyed in the wool. We catch airline shuttles weave through traffic, follow comment threads, we speak of lifespans and spin offs and never wonder why drawing out fibers and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language, surrounded by textiles were largely oblivious to their existence, and to the knowledge and efforts embodied in every scrap of fabric yet the story of Textiles is the story of human ingenuity. I want to keep going here in Turkey said textiles let us trace progress and interactions of practical techniques and scientific theory the cultivation of plants and breeding of animals, the spread of mechanical innovations and measurement of standard measurement standards, the recording and replication of patterns and manipulation of chemicals. We can watch knowledge spread from one place to another sometimes in written form, but more often through human contact or the exchange of good it’s just beautifully written. I mean, well had a girl I mean, I thought Damn, I had a so good I wish I’d written but tell me Okay, so Well first things first. We this goes out on audio, some people only listen on audio, others watch it on YouTube, a lot more people are watching it on YouTube, but you’re wearing a fabric there that looks like it’s a tie dye or something. This isn’t actually
Virginia Postrel 9:35
so this is not actually an old that you print. And so this is a but it’s an emulation of a tie dye. So nowadays a lot of things that you’ll find me and I just bought this and um, you know, this one doesn’t have a story behind it. I think I got it. Banana Republic or something. I do have I do have shirts that have stories behind them but but this is An example of an imitation of a complex tie dye kind of patterning, which is something that you find in many different cultures, you know, we associate it with kind of the, the hippy, Grateful Dead kind of tie dyes, but you find various ways of creating patterning by blocking off certain parts, before you die in many different cultures. And it’s tends to be actually quite a precise art, where people devote a great deal of time to the preparation of the cloth before or in some cases, even tying off the threads, then you dye the threads, and then you re bring them out and you weave them. And the pattern has been put there in the dye. There’s a common version of that is called II caught, which is a version I really like. Yeah,
Robert Bryce 10:56
sure. Well, so it was there. I have my own history of textiles and weaving. But was there a moment when you realized, okay, this is a book I have to write Was there some moment where you thought, you know, or that you had had some experience with textiles as a child or something I, I read a little bit about your inspiration, but delve into that if you would
Virginia Postrel 11:15
so. So it was a collection of a lot of different things. I have this long standing interest in innovation, I have a long standing interest in economic history. Over a period of quite a really probably more than a decade, I would hear a paper here I would. There’s a story in the book about a mother a video also on my YouTube channel about Calico prohibition in France for 73 years. France treated cotton print fabrics the way we treat cocaine. And that was just I heard somebody give a talk about that. And I was like, wow, how did I never hear about this is so wild. Probably where it really coalesced, was when I went to conference in 2014. At the textile Society of America. That’s where I first heard about kenosis. And these tablets and several other papers. And I thought there’s just so much interesting here. First, I wrote a long article, feature article. And that kind of kicked it off. And then where did you Where did you publish that? I published that in the online magazine eon at which is, you know, it reads it got a great response, including from an editor who was like this would be a good book. And I was like, Well, I’m not ready to write a book right at this particular moment in time, but I’ll get back to you. And then a few years later, we had I did do a proposal. And he by that time had left the publisher but actually he had was at Basic Books. And that’s where I ended up although we did shop the book around yeah.
Robert Bryce 12:55
But it was it was published now it’s two years old. It was November 2020. It was published so almost exactly 10 years ago, and I first heard about it. When we met last summer I think at the breakthrough Institute. I read your bio and I thought fabric of civilization. I immediately thought this is a book I want to read. I thought this was interesting. And then I downloaded it that day. And then I believe I introduced myself and said hey, I want to have you on the podcast. So now here we are, however many many months later. Well I also have to get this one so do you have a favorite fabric? Are you a cotton? I’m all about cotton. I don’t wear I don’t like synthetic fabrics. I don’t I don’t much even like wool. I mean I wear some that I don’t silica but I’m all about cotton. What is there something
Unknown Speaker 13:33
about what about you?
Virginia Postrel 13:34
Okay, I hate Well, I have very, very sensitive skin. I can’t wear even like cashmere, even fancy. But I do like dress and this dress you’re wearing is cotton is cotton. Yeah, so I do wear a lot of cotton. I’d also like silk but you know, it’s not necessarily an everyday fabric. But I would say those are my two favorite I, I think I’m not an anti synthetic person, and particularly not as much as I was when I was younger partly because synthetics have improved a lot polyester in particular. But mostly I would say I probably wear cotton. The majority of the time
Robert Bryce 14:16
do you do you also talk about owning a loom? And do you so do you do you weave? Do you do any of that you have time for that or
Virginia Postrel 14:24
I don’t have as much time as I would like for it. i So I learned to weave. While I was doing the research for the book. It was not something that inspired the book. I came to a point fairly early in my research where being a somewhat spatially challenged individual I thought, I am never I keep I can read as many descriptions of looms as I want but I’m not really understanding how they work. Get your fingers in there. So I went online and I found what I now know to be the Southern California Fornia handweavers Guild pay Ah, there’s a page on there where it says a list of plate, people who teach weaving in the LA area where I live. And I found a woman who lives near me and had a few lessons with her in her house. And, you know, and after three lessons, I knew everything I knew I needed for the book, but she invited me to come to this annual event called WEF that the festival that the guild puts on every year. And I went and I kind of basically, I got hooked on and I really liked the idea of weaving, I don’t have as much time to do it as I would like, and setting up a loom for a new batch of weaving takes a lot of time and effort. But, but I do enjoy it. And there and I have different kinds of looms. I mean, I have a loom for weaving bands and belts called an ankle loom, you know, things like that, as well as, right.
Robert Bryce 15:51
And you went to several different textile makers. And did you have you wrote about Guatemala and what you wrote about Guatemala? I think it was quite interesting. I’ve been there a couple times. Was there a favorite among those, we’ll get back to the book on some of those things. But to me, fabric is such a in Texas was such a personal thing, right? Because very
Virginia Postrel 16:10
well. So it depends on whether you mean as a consumer or as a sort of researcher, or watch. I had a wonderful time in Guatemala, and really enjoy their textiles, although I don’t think a lot of their traditional clothing is kind of heavy. It’s all cotton. So I like that about it. So I also went to Peru, and traditional Peruvian textiles are amazing. But they’re all alpaca and I, or wool, so I don’t like them. Like I don’t like the way they feel like I like the way they look. I also went to India. And in India, I went to both contemporary factories, and I did a workshop on traditional printmaking, which is, you know, the dyes and prints in India are a big part of the the heritage and the history. So I liked all that the most amazing things I saw that I have a short video on YouTube about this are these 16th 17th century Italian silk, they’re, it’s called Silk throwing Mills, but where they made silk threads. So this is before the Industrial Revolution. But people built these giant, you know, two or three story machines that ran on water power and twisted, you know, hundreds of silk bobbins at a time, and they were running 24/7 During the silk is a seasonal product. So it didn’t run all year long. And it’s just extraordinary. I mean, you can’t at some of the places I visited our recreations and some are there was one place that actually was operating till the 30s. And
Robert Bryce 18:00
so describe that you mentioned going to Italy tell me about where was this, this, this ancient Silk spinning
Unknown Speaker 18:07
or spill, right. So
Virginia Postrel 18:08
and this is it’s basically in the, in the foot foot hills of the Alps and the Piedmont region. There are different towns there, I went to three different places that are kind of scattered across an East West sort of region in Piedmont. So it’s in the parts of Italy, where there was good water power. And, and it’s still the, you know, part of the industrial heartland of Italy, because these early factories established a kind of way of life that continues to this day, they were very precise. They were they were very mechanically and ingenious. And so that kind of it was pre industrial revolution, but it sort of jumpstarted that type of production in in that area of Italy.
Robert Bryce 19:03
I read that and I thought that was really interesting. And you pointed out this is fully 200 years before what we think of as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but you’re gonna have mechanics, you’re gonna have other special specialty tradesmen that are working for the factories, and then of course, all the other, you know, food vendors and other people that are doing service for the people working in the factory. Well, so I’ll just relate a couple of things that to me, one of the reasons why I’m so enthusiastic. So I’ve lived on Navajo land for a couple of years.
Virginia Postrel 19:29
Oh, yeah. Right. One of the faults of the book was somebody on Amazon. There’s nothing about Navajo weaving in this and that’s just because there can’t be everything.
Robert Bryce 19:39
But I’ve read it a Hogan for a year or more and the landlady she was she would spin wool and wet you know use it with her hand and then she had a loom and so I’ve been a big fan of you can see I’ve never heard rugby I can see behind and I Dazzler from both that and ganado anatomy and then so the other in fact I have two representatives. The pillows are made aid from a Lauren, my wife sewed them from fabric we bought in baru in India, those are block print fabrics from him. Yeah. So two examples of my predilection for fabrics but the you know, both were formative but the the the the visit to the factory in ballroom was just amazing to see these huge you know, I think they’re 10 meter long pieces of fabric and the block printing was just incredible.
Virginia Postrel 20:27
Yeah, I mean that has been called the fabric that changed the world those Indian block prints because before the trade with India started. Europeans didn’t really have prints i There are some exceptions, but they’re sort of Banner temporary banners and churches but basically, in Europe, patterning was done with weaving. So you would have stripes and plaids. If it was very expensive, you could have you know, brocades, that was extremely, you know, very fancy process. And there were certain things in between the kinds of patterns that you can make on a loom by varying which
Robert Bryce 21:14
sort of a bit rose, but not this resist process that there were the
Virginia Postrel 21:19
best you didn’t have block prints, you didn’t have prints. And also, the Indian dyers had figured out how to die on cotton, which is not easy, it’s actually harder to dye on cellulose fibers than on protein fibers like wool or silk. So they they had figured out how to dye really well on cotton, and to make it so that it would wouldn’t fade in the wash. And it was a very trial and error kind of process that they had developed. So when these prints with these patterns, and these color fast dyes hit Europe, and also they were cotton, and they were lightweight, there was a revelation and it really kinds of reactions, it’s set off. Set off protectionism is set off, as I said, for 73 years.
And all cotton cloth imports. And they didn’t just ban it in a kind of civil way. It was criminal offense. Like with Coke, cocaine is the best analogy because everything that happens with cocaine happens with these prints and that period. At so you had that. But you also had people trying to figure out like, Well, how could we spin cotton? Our spinners aren’t good enough to spend these sort of strong cotton threads and in England, how can we emulate these Indian cotton’s? And that led to trying to do it mechanically, which sets off the Industrial Revolution. There’s also many ways a great deal with the history of British colonialism which I don’t get in into in the book. But that is another aspect of, of what, you know, the desirability of getting cotton textiles from India helps jumpstart that as well. Right?
Robert Bryce 23:31
Well, it’s remarkable that these industries, men in a facility we went to I mean, we really did just stumble on to it. We drove to buy real, we didn’t know where we’re going and a guy rides up on a motorcycle and says, What are you doing here? Well, we’re looking for BluPrint van and he will follow me and it turns out his whole family has this BluPrint family and yeah, lock printing operation. It’s right in the middle of town. And we saw we went into this really kind of a bunker building and it was just stacked Florida you know, mid seat, you know, mid height on with these just incredible fabrics. And so we bought a bunch and brought them back and Lauren, so diverse skirts and pillows. Just been remarkable, but that the point that I’m getting to is how ancient that technique is now yeah, this goes back how many centuries would that be now that they’ve been doing this?
Virginia Postrel 24:13
Oh, I don’t even know when that starts. I mean it it must be it’s probably 1000 years or close to it. It’s it was by the time Europeans started trading with India was highly developed. And that and the European trade with India starts in the really in the 15th century with with the Portuguese and then it becomes a big deal. Late 16th Mostly 17th centuries when it really becomes a big deal. But that’s just the trade with Europe before that they were exporting to Southeast Asia to you know, so there was a huge Indian trade and these these kinds of prints had to, you know, to their East as well, they had so they not only had highly developed textile techniques that highly developed trading techniques and you know, merchant families and all that sort of thing too.
Robert Bryce 25:17
And again, this is cotton fiber or their
Virginia Postrel 25:19
cotton cotton. They also silk but but cotton is the big one,
Robert Bryce 25:25
right? And that’s all we bought, was it? Well, we bought a little a few things. We’re still but almost all cotton but which brings me to the section on cotton, which I think was really remarkable. I’m going to read this part again because I thought it was so well done here. You say you wrote from Mexico south to Ecuador cotton was one of the treasures of the New World. Native peoples use finely woven cotton cloth for tribute trade goods and ceremonial objects. Cotton sales powered the ocean going balsa rafts that traded along the Pacific coast of Latin America, cotton bedding patted the cloth and leather armor of Aztec and Inca warriors. And this the part that I think is really quite amazing cotton furnish the chords for the quickies, on which the Incas kept records encoded in knots. When the Incas first faced the Spanish in battle, their cotton tents extended for three and a half miles. Quote, so many tents were visible that it truly frightened us wrote a Spanish Chronicle, we never thought that Indians could maintain such a magnificent magnificent estate, nor have so many tents. So this is this, this ability to produce Textiles is pre colonial in the in, in the Americas, and that Spaniards are looking at all their tents and saying, holy crap, we might be in trouble.
Virginia Postrel 26:37
Yeah, however, they had horses and steel. So that was their advantage. But yes, I? Well, there there’s a number of things going on that are developed in in the chapters. One, which I talked about early in the book is that what we one thing we forget is what an important military asset textiles were, and still are actually a lot of the cutting edge textile research today is funded by the military, it’s about, you know, Barry, you know, developing fabrics that can have certain protective qualities or, you know, mean, you don’t have to carry batteries, or all these kinds of things. But, but when you’re in the era of sales, the production of textiles is a huge, real like, and it took longer to make a Viking sale than to make a Viking ship.
Unknown Speaker 27:36
Yeah, I was gonna use that. Yeah, of course, tents.
Virginia Postrel 27:39
Even today, it’s a major military in the military still uses tense. But that was a big deal as well. So that’s one thing. And then as you point out, textiles were really big deal in Latin American, in those cultures particularly. Well, the ankin culture is probably like the highest developed textile but but also the Maya, also the Aztecs and the Aztecs, levied, who conquered many other peoples in what is now Mexico, they live a very heavy tributes in textiles, as well as other things on on their conquered people. So they were a very, very big deal. And then the cotton in the new world for weird genetic reasons that they discussed, was better than the cotton in the old world. So it was better than that. Cotton in India or the cotton in Africa or the Levant, it because it had more genes that people could play with. And so
Robert Bryce 28:47
the, the fibers were longer and stronger, right was
Virginia Postrel 28:49
longer and stronger and more abundant. So cotton, there are four domesticated cotton species, or there there were two in the old world and two in the new all of them come originally from Africa, before people. So how cotton got from the Old World to the New World is a mystery because there are lots of cotton species. There’s around 50 Cotton species in the world, but most of them have no fiber, most of them. The seed is like, like a peach. It has maybe. So this mutation happens in Africa, you know, 10s of 1000s of years ago, when human beings show up, they domesticated and they domesticated in Africa, probably around what’s now you is and then they’re domesticated in the Yucatan and in Peru. And because somehow this African sea got to the Yucatan. We don’t know how you know, hurricane or something, and it crossbred Add with one of these native cotton’s that didn’t have any, any fiber, it ended up with twice as many genes. And so then when human beings showed up, they had more genetic material to play with. Now, of course, obviously, they don’t know what genes are, but it’s trial and error. So in the Americas, they were able to develop more abundant cotton, and particularly in Peru, that’s what we now know is pima cotton, or Sea Island cotton. That’s the it’s called gossypium, Barbra Desi as the official name. And that’s the really long fiber, cotton, luxurious cotton. And it’s about 10% of the world’s commercial cotton produce. And then the one that came from the Yucatan, which is called gossypium. hirsutum is the one that’s like 90% of the world’s cotton today. So once this, this Latin American cotton was discovered by Europeans, it just pretty much over time, like pushed out all the other cotton.
Robert Bryce 31:03
Right? But then there was then the improvements in genetics then in the US, and you point out the gradual growth in cotton. And I think you said at one, that there was a fourfold increase over a period of 60 years and so on. But then I like this other part, because, you know, I like numbers. I wanted to ask, so are you trained as an economist historian, would you? You went to school, I’m assuming, Oh, these are do? Well, what’s your background? So no.
Virginia Postrel 31:29
So I was actually a major in English literature, specializing in the Renaissance. But I took economics every term when I was in college. And my husband is PhD economist. And I’ve hung around economists have been an economics writer, journalist for a long time. So I know a lot of economists at Chapman, I actually teach in a program that integrates economics and the humanities. So I co teach with an economist.
Robert Bryce 32:02
What do you what do you consider? Well, I think of myself as a reporter, right? I
Virginia Postrel 32:05
don’t write, I hesitate to call myself a reporter because I do reporting. But it’s not. I have too much respect for people who do it full time. I mean, I have been a reporter in my life, I started out as a journalist, a normal, you know, beat reporter kind of journalist, business journalist specifically. But then, in my mid 20s, when I went to work at reason magazine, and then eventually was the editor of reason magazine. And so that took me more into the opinion policy, word policy analysis, and then in, and in my later books, I also wandered into sort of more sociological stuff. So I want to my one of my great skills is to be able to read academic literature of various kinds, and translated and talk to people who do.
Robert Bryce 33:03
God bless you.
Virginia Postrel 33:05
All right, so people who do research of various kinds and and turn it into, you know, find what’s interesting and translate it for that. Not really the general public, but the curious, educated public, that isn’t specialists.
Robert Bryce 33:23
Sure. Well, so how’s the book done? I know, it’s now out in paperback. You have a ton of reviews on Amazon, did you? How many have you sold? Or do you know those numbers?
Virginia Postrel 33:32
I haven’t, you know, there, as you probably know, there’s a lag. So I don’t know exactly. I’m guessing that it’s probably at this point around the order of 20,000. From all formats, including, there’s an audio book, British and all that. But, you know, don’t hold me to it. But it’s, it’s that order of magnitude. So it’s by, you know, it’s successful. By the lights of, you know, publishing puts me in the upper I think 3% or something, but it’s not a best seller that continues to sell. I think it’ll sell for a long, long time, because it’s not something that’s gonna get out of date. And, yeah, so I had this interesting experience of the book came out during COVID Thank God, I got everything done before everything shut down because I couldn’t have gone and done reporting. I couldn’t have it Alba libraries were even close. And there’s a lot that’s not on the internet. But anyway, so my publicity was doing lots and lots of zoom talks. podcast but also talks to, you know, fiber arts group stocks, to schools, all that kind of thing,
Robert Bryce 34:57
right. So just to remind you about my guest Virginia posttrial She’s the author of fabric of civilization how textiles made the world you can find her v posttrial.com. She’s also has a substack v posttrial.substack.com. I recommend the book I thought it was just fabulous. I really really liked it. You have also this great stuff about and I love numbers and I love you know how you you explain some of the the labor and the you know these quantities. So, you right consider a twin bedsheet with a modest thread count of 250 weaving, it requires about 29 miles of thread, enough to extend from downtown San Francisco to the Stanford University campus. Where from Kyoto to Osaka, queen size, she takes about 37 miles which would stretch from the Washington Monument to Baltimore, or from the Eiffel Tower to Fontainebleau. And then you go on and you have these these comparisons on jeans. And the amount of yarn required six miles, and how long it would take with a spinning wheel, or in the Bronze Age, something like 37 days of spinning to to produce that quantity of material. And then you have sales here as well, which goes back to the discussion about seagoing ships and so on the amount of yarn required 60 miles, and how long that would take to produce. I mean, I’d never thought about it in those terms. And that was one of the reasons why I thought your book was just so remarkable is that it’s just a way of seeing the world like it will my book on electricity look at the world through the lens of electricity. He looked at the world through the lens of textiles and brought in all these things that I had no idea about. So here’s the question was there. I responded to Wallace Carruthers, the inventor of it. Yeah. I was a fan of nylon. From the time I was a kid, I thought, well, this stuff is amazing. And I still think it’s amazing. I love nylon rope. Was there one of these inventors the you talked about plant geneticists and people are the chemists, dyes and nylon, any ones that are your favorite or one that stands out in terms of who touched you or that makes his most interesting story?
Virginia Postrel 37:05
Well, Wallace Carruthers is a wonderful and really sad story. It is wonderful because He’s the inventor of the inventor of nylon. And, and the, also the inventor, his first big invention was actually neoprene. But I don’t tell that story. But there is a picture of him because there’s, and he was he was this brilliant chemist, who kind of came from nowhere. And it was teaching it he was teaching at Harvard. But how he got to Harvard was he sort of came from nowhere. It was a long story, which I didn’t go into, but came out of the Midwest and this. And he, he was teaching at Harvard. And DuPont wanted to start a research laboratory. So this was in the late 20s. And they kept asking him, they wanted to recruit somebody had recommended him and they wanted to recruit him. And he said, No, because he suffered from terrible depression. And he would kind of disappear from whatever he was doing for long periods of time and, you know, be depressed and be drunk, and then go back and work. But so he told them, Look, I have this problem. I didn’t go into total detail. But he told them, I have these issues that make me more suitable for this academic setting than I would be an industry. But they were very determined. And they did finally come back. And they made him a really good offer. And he had in the meantime, come up with just a purely scientific puzzle that he was interested in, which was the question of what are these, there were these really big seeming molecules that were things like proteins and starches that had these very big molecular weights that were like, much bigger than anybody could account for. And in fact, most people, most chemists thought that it wasn’t really one molecule. It was some artifact. But he wanted to figure out what they were, which is polymers. And he so he went to DuPont to do they said you can research anything you want. It doesn’t have to be practical. And so he wants to figure out polymers. And he did. And he figured out that there were these long chain molecules and that in fact, it was a single molecule where things repeat and this is the basic science that we need to basically have our material world that we have. And then when the Great Depression came along, after a while his boss said, Look, Wallace, I know we told you, you could do whatever you want, but we got to come up with some products here and why don’t You work on this type of polymer that’s called aramid. Because wool is that. And so he worked on that. And out of that came nylon, which was the first the first synthetic fiber. And, uh, but he killed himself before it actually made the market because of his terrible depression. So it’s a really, he’s this really wonderful, really, really important person and the people who worked with him, loved him and thought highly of him. But he was just haunted by depression throughout his entire life. And he didn’t help it by met self medicating with alcohol, which actually makes depression worse. And so then he killed himself and you, you sort of think, what else could have happened? So that was a very powerful story and something that is, you know, close to our time me, you know, it’s 30, surely 100 years now, but But you know, it’s not like, well, I’m William Park, and who kind of with the first die was fantastic, fantastic story, because he was a teenager when he developed that, you know, but a lot of the people who did important things, we don’t even know their names because it happened so long ago.
Robert Bryce 41:19
Well, the nylon, you pointed out that it was fabricated from benzene, which is a derivative. It’s common in petrochemical and petroleum, but it would I guess, then it was being derived from coal. And you wrote that Carruthers didn’t live to see the success of nylon or the world changing ripple effects of his work. On April 29 1937, his lifelong depression finally proved unendurable. Early that morning, he checked into a hotel took out the cyanide capsule he carried since graduate school, mix the poison in a glass of lemon juice and killed himself. He was 41 years old. Yeah, it is amazing. Because I can remember as a, as a kid, even you know, I remember it to this day that looking at those little filaments and thinking, wow, this is so cool. And this is so incredibly strong. How is this possible? And it was, it still leaves me a maze, because I look at this thin rope. And I think this is crazy strong for the the but it’s because those filaments are, I think you point out are similar in like silk, and that they can make them so long, and they’re annualize the key to the strength.
Virginia Postrel 42:20
Yeah, and unlike silk, there is no theoretical limit. I mean, because still comes from a cocoon, and the cocoon is only so big. So even with silk, you have to eventually sort of stick the different filaments together, which is part of the skill that made those Italian factories. We talked about earlier work. But yeah, so it’s amazing. And the other thing is, although dial on, of course, is very, very important in textiles, you mentioned rope being another thing, which not to textile, the first commercial application of it was for toothbrush bristles. So this was the kind of thing we don’t even think about today that people used to brush their teeth, with wooden toothbrushes with bristles that came from bores, right from animal bristles, and the bristles would fall out and they would break and they would get caught in your teeth. And, you know, this idea of the standardized kind of sanitary nylon toothbrush is something we owe to Wallace Carruthers as well.
Robert Bryce 43:26
And it’s not that I mean, it’s not that long ago, it’s not that long ago that was born in 1920. So this is not
Virginia Postrel 43:33
in her lifetime, you know, within her teen years, it would have happened. Yeah,
Robert Bryce 43:37
right. Well, and I thought the structure of the book was interesting as well, and how you talk about the weft weave, and then you talk about fabric, and then you talk about finishing and finishes. And this was one thing that I know a little bit about this. But I thought this is in the latter part of the book, you talk about finishing finishing, and you talk about metal organic frameworks. And I thought this was that I recognized that for that term, because I’d heard it used in for fuel tanks. Right. Yeah, it was an idea that would be used for what it was a decarbonized corn husks or something. There was an idea that these are going to be able to store more natural gas. I think it was in these tanks. I haven’t seen it be commercialized yet. But talk about that part, because that was Well, I think it was just interesting to the it brought back to well, how does this relate to me and I right, I don’t really like these non iron shirts, you know, I? Oh, yeah, they’re easier to manage. Right. And I don’t like the iron. But there’s something about the hand of it. That’s yeah, a little creepy, you know, and so what I rather have a few wrinkles are this non iron fabric that is feels weird, but it’s because of the finish that’s applied to the top of the cotton, right? So talk about that and then weave weave in the metal organic frameworks, what it what are they and what how is this a new approach in the finish and fabrics?
Virginia Postrel 44:55
Yeah, so I don’t talk a lot in the book about finishing. Although it is a pro That final final process of textile finishing is a part that goes back a long way in other ways. So our phrase on tenterhooks comes from stress, they used to wet wool, pounded and do what was called fooling with certain kinds of mud that had certain chemicals, and then finish it, and then wash it and stretch it out and then trim it and that was the stretching out was the tenterhooks, which are kind of scary things. But anyway, to get to your more contemporary question, so a lot of the progress that that consumers may have noticed or not, in their clothes in the past, say 20, or 30 years, comes from various forms of finishing, the no wrinkle, stuff being but also anti stain. And this is the application of various kinds of chemicals to the finished product to imbue it with certain
Robert Bryce 46:07
non strength non stain because
Virginia Postrel 46:09
I’m certain kinds of qualities that people want. So that’s why you don’t have to do laundry nearly as much as people 40 years ago, for the site and an ironing and that, but people today are looking for better ways of finishing, some of them are looking for more environmentally friendly ways. And I talked about a company in Boston that’s using silk basically, but they’re like breaking it apart and taking it down to its basic sort of chemicals to to create a kind of fin various finishes. And then I talk about this guy at Cornell, who works on metal organic frameworks, which he calls his favorite molecule. And I’m gonna garble the science terribly. But basically, you picture a ring with different sort of balls made of of these metal, organic compounds, the metals are the ball. And, and it’s a thing that we’re a molecule where you can put something in the middle. And again, I’m like,
Robert Bryce 47:24
Virginia Postrel 47:26
you can put something in the middle, and it’ll hold it. And so his idea, and he’s very much and explicitly in the book, a basic researcher, he is fascinated in, you know, how the basic research is not trying to think is it camera is it commercialized. But he’s also interested in working with cotton, because he thinks that’s the challenge is, don’t try to come up with a new fiber don’t, you know, let’s work with the thing that people use. And so he’s trying to figure out ways where you could put into these metal organic frameworks. Molecules that would have various properties that you would create a structure that you could then essentially lay across the fabric, that also the other thing about metal organic frameworks is you can make them whatever size you want, it’s sort of, it’s sort of like a polymer strand. Like we were talking with nylon, but it’s in two dimensions. So it’s, it’s a plane instead of a strand. And so you could create a framework that you could lay across the textile of however, you know, however many 1000s Or her 10s of 1000s of yards you wanted, and it would repel water, or it would be antibacterial, or, you know, whatever quality would making it no iron is difficult, but but you don’t have these various properties that you want in your textile. And because this would be at Tiny of a nano level, what’s that it’s just one molecule thick, essentially, you wouldn’t notice it as a person wearing it wouldn’t feel like it,
Robert Bryce 49:08
right. And you also mentioned the idea that it can maybe be refilled or replenished,
Virginia Postrel 49:14
could potentially be replenished. Because if if you have if you put something in it, that over time is dispersed, where every time you wash it or depend on what it is, then you might be able to have a way where you retreated and refill wearing and this is very much the cutting edge. I mean, this is you know this is not coming to a US clothing store near you anytime soon. But what I was doing in that last chapter, which begins with Carruthers is looking at contemporary innovation. And interestingly what I found is different from Carruthers time are different from earlier periods. What happens today A is people get interested in some scientific problem. And then they discover that the thing they’re interested in can be applied to textiles. And because textiles are so pervasive, then they realize, Wow, if I applied to textiles, I would make a big deal in the world and so that they so they don’t start out with the textiles and then try to apply the science they start out with a science and then say, Wow, textiles really are everywhere. And if I apply my scientific interests to textiles, I could change the world.
Robert Bryce 50:36
Sure, their fabrics, you won’t wear them. You mentioned wool. Yeah, well,
Unknown Speaker 50:39
I don’t wear Well, no polyester.
Virginia Postrel 50:41
I wear polyester. Not a lot, but I do and a lot of things nowadays have our blends,
Robert Bryce 50:48
which I don’t like I
Unknown Speaker 50:50
just don’t Yeah, well, and also t
Robert Bryce 50:51
shirt, cotton poly blend. I know if I read it, maybe that just reinforces it. But I tend the hand of it. I’m just kind of like me, I don’t, I don’t like it as much.
Virginia Postrel 51:01
But I would say the only fiber that I don’t wear at all of the big four or big five if you include polyester, it is wool. Although I don’t, linen is problematic. I although I’m actually wearing some mix linen and cotton pants at the moment, but but linen can be very wrinkly. Right? It linen tends to be one of two things, either it’s it tends to wrinkle fast, or it tends to have little scratchy things in it. Yeah, depends on the nicer kinds of linen and often rankle although, again, finishes have made that better.
Robert Bryce 51:46
You know, you mentioned woolen as you were saying that I was thinking you know that for I don’t know how many decades or even centuries that soldiers, athletes, they’re wearing wool outfits and I’m buying him that must have just been awful, you know, dance around in a wool in a wool uniform in the summertime, and carrying a rifle and a bunch of bivouac stuff and I just think oh, man, that must have just been dreadful.
Virginia Postrel 52:07
Yeah, yeah. And the other thing is, of course, wool compared to you may diss polyester, but it’s better for various technical fabrics. You know, if you were in the cold in the weather in the rain, wool, it starts out okay, but over time it becomes laden, and it becomes a problem. Oh, I
Robert Bryce 52:30
know. And these new and some of these, as you were pointing out these new lighter weight fabrics, will Gortex obviously, and you know, the mountaineering industry and you know, I think about, you know, the old mountaineers right in the 20s, or when they’re doing their serious mountaineering started with the late 1800s. Even, they’re climbing up there, and these will outfits and they’re getting snowed on,
Virginia Postrel 52:51
usually wore Seleucus Baselayers. Right. Yeah. Because it’s not as you know, it’s not as good as the polyester, you know, highly engineered stuff we have today, but it has some of those properties. So I actually wrote an article about how polyester went from the, you know, sort of leisure suit disco 1970s, ik, polyester to this high performance material. I did it, I don’t know, maybe six months ago, or have not even so it’s on works in progress.co, which is a publication out of, of England that I think your listeners would probably be very interested in not just my article, but the general range of things that they cover.
Robert Bryce 53:43
Interesting. So what about the mean, we talked about the people that were you thought were interesting. Anything that surprised you when you were doing this? I mean, that’s one of the things that well, you know, people ask me about, well, this written vector relates to fabric, but going what surprised me about the research that I did, and for the question power, when I went to India was just the level of poverty, I had no experience for the level of poverty there that that surprised me. But that’s a general question in doing this, and how long did it take you to write the book?
Virginia Postrel 54:15
It took about two and a half years. From the time I got a contract, you know, so I was officially doing a book to the time the manuscript was submitted. And one year of that was essentially the only thing I did a year and a half. I was working on it around other things as well.
Robert Bryce 54:38
Right? It was it was there. I’ll ask that question. But was there something that surprised you in these differently? You traveled a fair amount you’d looked at a lot you looked at different a lot of technologies, a lot of innovators, a lot of people anything that stood out in terms of surprise.
Virginia Postrel 54:52
Well, we’ve we’ve touched on a few things already that surprised me. That the Italian self throwing Mills probably surprised me the most. But
Robert Bryce 55:03
that they were the Industrial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution,
Virginia Postrel 55:07
Unknown Speaker 55:07
it was really so and it was. So instead of right, and that’s
Virginia Postrel 55:11
why it’s doesn’t change the world is because it’s just this, you know, this thin layer of society, it’s just the luxury,
Robert Bryce 55:18
right? And that, and that was in a relatively confined area in one section in Italy and wasn’t wasn’t transatlantic, then as well, it
Virginia Postrel 55:27
wasn’t transatlantic, although there is an industrial espionage story that I tell where it did make it to England, through through Fs, sneaky sneakiness. And that probably helped fuel the Industrial Revolution as well. But, but that really surprised me. And it’s partly just the scale. I mean, it’s not just the idea that they had factories before the Industrial Revolution. That’s amazing enough, but that surprised me the the strides that have been made in textile archaeology and the, you know, once people started thinking, Hey, we should pay attention to textiles and archaeology. The fact that they’re 6200 year old cloth from Peru that’s dyed with Indigo. I mean, that was amazing. And, and they’re surprised
Robert Bryce 56:21
me, I’m interrupting you, I asked you, but I thought that it was in the beginning of the book, you you, Doctor, you report on the fact that some of these cutting devices actually had fiber remnants on that, and that they could recover them and figure them out? And yes, actually, that was cool,
Virginia Postrel 56:37
is that one of the things that was amazing about that, so between the time that I submitted the manuscript, so it was like December of 2019. And the time that I revise the manuscript, which I don’t remember, you know, you have to wait for the editor. And so it was, let’s say, March, but it might even been earlier. The earliest thing in the book went from 20 or 30,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago, because that research that you’re referring to, which is where they identify this little piece of string, and it’s clearly when you look at under microscope, it is not some random vine, it has been twisted, and then it has been plied. So two pieces have been twisted together, that was made by Neanderthals, and it was found by looking at a cutting tool, you know, it was like, embedded in it in a tool. So, you know, these people are discovering things all the time. And
Robert Bryce 57:40
our history and the history expanded just in the time you’re right and the time,
Virginia Postrel 57:43
like a three month period, I mean, it was like, between the time I publish the wrote the thought it was done. And then the time that I was revising it, you know, mainly in response to editors, comments, I wasn’t, so that that’s happening all the time, there’s new discoveries being made. So that’s was pretty, pretty amazing. But it’s hard, much harder, obviously. Of course, cloth is much more recent, its trainer 10,000 years old, not 50. And it wasn’t made by Neanderthals, but, but still people are finding more discoveries all the time. And then that was pretty remarkable. And just the the Indigo is fascinating. So nowadays, indigo, we know mostly as the blue and blue jeans. And it is done now synthetically. But that same chemical was found in plants all around the world, different plants that aren’t even related to each other. It’s a very complicated process to make indigo dye because, well I go into it, but you have to like make it and then you have to break it down. And then you have to put the whatever you’re dying in and it comes out green and turns it turns blue. And as it oxidizes very complicated, but it was figured out independently in in India, where we get the word Indigo in Europe, where it was called something called woad and all different parts of Africa and Southeast Asia and Japan
Unknown Speaker 59:28
Robert Bryce 59:30
discovered several things independently,
Virginia Postrel 59:32
independently, and in Peru and the Americas. So and not only discovered independently, but the plants are not related to each other. They have the same chemical in them, but they’re, you know, completely different plants. But somehow people discovered that they could make this blue and that’s really, you know, it kind of shows you the power of observation and trial and error and and also the pursuit of beauty and You know, why do you want things to be blue? When, however they come off the plant or animal would be just fine functionally? Surely you want something more?
Robert Bryce 1:00:10
Sure. And you in the book, I’ll read that. Just another short passage here, you said, this is right, I think in the final paragraphs of the book, hidden in every piece of fabric or the actions of curious, clever and desiring men and women past and present, known and unknown. from every corner of the globe, this heritage does not belong to a single nation, race or culture, or to a single time or place, the story of Textiles is not a male story or a female story, not a European, African, Asian, or American story. It is all of these cumulative and shared a human story, a tapestry woven from countless brilliant threads. That’s just great stuff right there. I think it’s really good. So let me ask you a few. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour Again, my guest is Virginia postrel. She’s written this great book, called the fabric of civilization, I recommended highly fabric of civilization, how textiles made the world it was published in 2020. You can find her at v posttrial.com. Or on substack V. posttrial.substack.com. Are you working on another book now?
Virginia Postrel 1:01:10
Not yet, I have a few irons in the fire ideas that I think might be interesting down the road. But I haven’t yet settled on a topic. You know, when you write a book, I’m sure you know this. You have to. It’s not a short term project. There’s the whole time you.
Robert Bryce 1:01:27
Look, I hesitated to ask because it’s like, Well, you do another one we just finished.
Virginia Postrel 1:01:32
But it’s not just that, you have to find something that you’re willing to live with for, let’s say, a minimum of five years, even if you write the book really fast. There’s all the time that spent doing things like this. And so you have to be really enthusiastic about the subject. And there are lots of things that I write articles about that I wouldn’t write a book about, because I’m interested in them at the article length, not at your life, and
Robert Bryce 1:01:58
you don’t want to be married to it for that long. There’s no misery like a book deadline. Well, so what are you reading? Now? There’s two last questions for you. I asked these of all my guests. They introduce themselves. I asked what they’re reading and then I’ll ask another one. But what what books on the top of your shell on top of your list now? Are you reading on Kindle you what’s what’s on the list?
Virginia Postrel 1:02:20
So I’m teaching a class at Chapman called ambition and the meanings of success, which is one of these classes that integrates economics and the humanities. So at the moment, the book on the top of my shelf is Willa catheters, the song of the lark, which is one of the books that we I mean, I’ve read it multiple times. But it’s what we’re reading in class. At the moment, so that’s, that’s what I’m reading. I just just got the book super abundance, which I’m sure some of you have
Unknown Speaker 1:02:54
heard of Marian Tupiza. book, but I haven’t really dived.
Robert Bryce 1:03:00
I need to have him on the podcast. I’ve had a list for a long time. I haven’t done it yet. But yes, go
Virginia Postrel 1:03:04
ahead. So I’m about to dive in to that. And I just got another book that somebody sent me and I can’t remember the name of it as its forthcoming as something like how we build or something. It’s about. It’s about building things.
Robert Bryce 1:03:22
Gotcha. And so last question, then Virginia, what gives you hope? There are a lot of challenges in the world today. There are a lot of things that Yeah, I mean, where to begin in terms of things that look challenging or risky, or you know, that are big hurdles facing is what makes you optimistic as you look at the world today?
Virginia Postrel 1:03:40
Well, I think what makes me optimistic, and you’re absolutely right is partly, especially after writing this book, I have developed a longer term perspective. So there are lots of things in the short term that worry me greatly. And in the medium term, and some of them are the kinds of things that could stop everything and things are getting kind of scary with the Russians. But yeah, but I have a great deal of hope around what’s happening today, scientifically around biology, particularly synthetic biology, I’m really interested in that. I think that that is a field that is both super interesting. And has great potential for solving a lot of problems and increasing prosperity, reducing poverty, but also decrease but doing so in ways that potentially decrease environmental impact. So whether it partly because of writing a book on textiles, I have gotten really interested in materials. I’ve always had some interest in it, but but so that’s an area and I guess the other thing is This is just thinking about how, how human beings have so much potential for creativity and self improvement and curiosity. Not everybody, but there’s a lot out there and
Robert Bryce 1:05:18
when you have what you document documented in this
Virginia Postrel 1:05:20
book and and the more people sort of get to part the more individuals feel open to participating in that I think the the more we can unleash that potential and so I have have have hope in that area to what is a scary time.
Robert Bryce 1:05:41
Well, we can agree on that. And we’ll probably we’ll stop right there. My Virginia poster. Thanks million for being on the power hungry podcast. It’s been great. I recommend highly. Her new book fabric of civilization how textiles made the world I will say I loved it, and my wife Lauren is going to were ordered to hardcopy she’s going to read it. You can find Virginia is worth V posttrial.com and v posttrial.substack.com. Virginia. Thanks again. Thank you. It’s been great. And thanks to all of you in podcast land. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast until then, see ya.