Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Textiles, language, and technology

I happened across this interesting post this morning:

…. textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.

This is a post by Virginia Postrel, who, it says, is “an author, columnist and speaker whose work focuses on the intersection of culture and commerce.” She clearly also thinks about language:

We drag out heirloom metaphors – ‘on tenterhooks’, ‘tow-headed’, ‘frazzled’ – with no idea that we’re talking about fabric and fibres. We repeat threadbare clichés: ‘whole cloth’, ‘hanging by a thread’, ‘dyed in the wool’. We catch airline shuttles, weave through traffic, follow comment threads. We talk of lifespans and spin‑offs and never wonder why drawing out fibres and twirling them into thread looms so large in our language. The story of technology is in fact the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.

All very interesting! Doesn’t that make you think of the Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett? I didn’t like that one as much as I liked the Lymond series. Or at least, I liked the high points of the Lymond series much more than the Niccolo series as a whole. But the issues with dyes and alum and so on were worked out in such detail and so believably in the Niccolo series, not to mention, well, the intersection of culture and commerce, I guess.

Whether they were captives in ancient Crete, orphans in the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti, widows in South India or country wives in Georgian England, women through the centuries spent their lives spinning, especially after water wheels freed up time previously devoted to grinding grain. Turning fibre into thread was a time-consuming, highly skilled craft, requiring dexterity and care. Even after the spread of the spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, the finest, most consistent yarn, as well as strong warp threads in general, still came from the most ancient of techniques: drop spinning, using a hooked or notched stick with a weight as a flywheel.

The whole article is worth reading if you happen to have time. If you’re a writer, this is also the sort of thing that, if it’s in the back of your mind, is liable to make your worldbuilding feel just that little bit deeper, even if you don’t specifically set out to make spinning or weaving or other textile-related crafts into an important thread in your novel.

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6 Comments Textiles, language, and technology

  1. SarahZ

    That’s a really interesting article – some of that is going to be useful at work. I particularly liked the bit about how, as a society, we become more blasé about the most advanced technologies.

  2. Rachel

    Yes, I didn’t print off the whole article, but I think I need to. And I think it’s true we become blase about whatever cool stuff our society has, no matter how super cool it may be.

  3. Elaine T

    I remember some years ago speaking to someone who worked in the non-glamorous side of the media who showed me around. i was amazed at how much there was going on unseen. The people and technology required amazed me. It was layers and layers of stuff I’d never thought about.

    Not long after and partially due to Dunnett I read a non-fiction book GOLD & SPICES by Favier, about the rise of commerce. One of the many things that struck me was the lack of layers. Fabrics, dyes, raw good, other things that we would think of as basic, unexciting commodities were crucially important.
    It really brought home to me what a wealthy world we live in, and how large an industrial base we need to support our lives, that we can brush off those items as ‘meh.’

  4. Rachel

    Elaine, no kidding! Also, maybe I’ll look up Gold and Spices It sounds interesting, and I need some nonfiction to read right now anyway.

  5. Elaine T

    If you’re interested, I had the title at my fingertips because I’m purging bookshelves of things I probably won’t ever reread. I’d be happy to send it to a good home.

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