You won't read Virginia Postrel's The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World in one sitting. If you're like me, you won't even read one chapter in a sitting but you will panic when you can't find where you last set down this book. It's that good. If you've been bugged by the idea that fabrics are a woman's thing, not very important, it's time for an attitude adjustment.
From chapters on fiber, thread, cloth and dye to those on traders, consumers and innovators, this book will enlighten, surprise and transform your appreciation of all things fabric even among those of us most addicted to it.
I was struck by the role of consumers. Postrel writes:
"Again and again, textile consumers remind us that cloth is more than just stuff. It is desire and identity, status and community, experience and memory embodied in visual, tactile form."
Wars have been fought over textiles. Peoples have been enslaved over textiles. Wealth and power have been reordered by textiles.
"Textile consumers change the world," Postrel writes.
So how do you consume fabric? My first response: In quantity every chance I get everywhere I go. I have mailed home boxes of fabric from Asia and the Philippines. I have traveled to Europe, India, Japan and Palestine with near empty suitcases so I could fill them with fabric for the flights home.
German vintage fabric
My dear friend, Elisabeth, brought me this vintage blue and white German fabric a few years ago. Her mother, now a grandmother, purchased it to make something for her home when she was a young woman, but she could never cut it up. Indigo and white always make my heart sing. This fabric calls to something deep in my being, perhaps something from my distant German heritage about which I know very little. A truly amazing gift. What might it mean that this fabric now lives on the other side of the Atlantic?
Gorgeous woven yardage made by a Burmese refugee woman displaced to Thailand along its western border with Burma.
When I had the opportunity to travel to Thailand with my husband for a Rotary International meeting, we decided to search out a community along the Thai/Burma border where friends travel annually to work with Burmese refugees. We visited a center where refugee women were making bags from the stunning fabrics they weave in a rainbow of colors.
When I've shown these fabrics to friends, they think they are from Central America. Postrel writes of how similar yet unique weaving traditions have developed around the world and how trade has influenced materials, colors and patterns used. What might it mean that this fabric now lives on the other side of the Pacific?
Brilliant screen-printed canvas from Bathurst Island, Australia.
On a trip to Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory, my travel advisor recommended I visit Bathurst Island. I spent two days on the island meeting Aboriginal Islanders who are artists, including those who worked at a center for those with disabilities where they produced screen-printed fabrics for home dec and clothing and more. When I see U.S. quilters creating Zentangles, I am reminded of the Bathurst Islanders' patterns.
I have shared a few textiles from other nations that have grabbed my attention when traveling. Each inspires my quiltmaking in some way. Each makes the drawers of fabric in my studio alive with color, pattern and texture.
I don't know that the textile consumer in me has changed the world but I know consuming a vast array of textiles from a range of traditions has changed me. Take a walk through your stash remembering textile consumers rule for good or bad. Carry that thought as you head out on your next road trip wherever it may take you. And don't forget to brake for quilt shops and fabric stores.