Looking through the loom

‘The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History’ by Kassia St. Clair

3 minute read
An intimate history you never knew. (Image courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation.)
An intimate history you never knew. (Image courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation.)

Hot on the heels of her first book, The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair returns with another award-winning and riveting chronicle of something we (and our forebears) live with daily but rarely think about. The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History gathers amazing tales about textiles.

From birth to death

The book explores a huge swath of time, with 13 vivid looks at fabric, something so commonplace that we pretty much take it for granted. The author posits that “we are surrounded by cloth … swaddled in it at birth,” enshrouded in it at death. We sleep enclosed in it, “and when we wake, we clothe ourselves in it to face the world and know who we are to be that day.”

St. Clair believes that the examination and study of fabric is often demeaned and “ghettoized. Even when it is the principal focus . . . it is the appearance and desirability of the end product [that is] being discussed, rather than the constituent materials and the people who fashion them.” The Golden Thread opens with five pithy essays (like “Threads and the Body” and “Weaving Words”) that set up the frame on which—Scheherazade-like—the author will weave her textile tales.

Mummies, Vikings, queens

First is “Fibers in the Cave: The Origins of Weaving,” which begins 30,000 years ago in the Neolithic age. Like the other 12 chapters, it’s illuminated with a delicately drawn icon, which also illustrates subtitled sections that begin with a well-chosen quote or poem. This approachable way of organizing a tremendous amount of information makes the book’s scope and historicity consistently manageable.

St. Clair moves on to explore times and places like “Dead Man’s Shrouds: Wrapping and Unwrapping Egyptian Mummies,” “Gifts and Horses: Silk in Ancient China,” and “Surf Dragons: The Viking’s Woolen Sails.” There are chapters on Medieval England (“King’s Ransom: Wool in Medieval England”) and the Elizabethan era (“Diamonds and the Ruff: Lace and Luxury.”)

St. Clair then moves across the Atlantic to consider “Solomon’s Coats: Cotton, America, and Trade” and into the early 20th century with “Layering in Extremis: Clothing to Conquer Everest and the South Pole.”

DuPont, astronauts, athletes, spiders

In “Workers in the Factory: Rayon’s Dark Past,” the author delves into the invention of this manmade fabric (created by DuPont) and then heads into the darker territory of its dangerous manufacture and the difficulties created by a fabric culture that has now made textiles disposable.

St. Clair also explores the skies above us, writing about astronauts, the fabrics they wore, and the people who made them in “Under Pressure: Suits Suitable for Space.” She dives into “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Record-Breaking Sports Fabrics,” an in-depth look at performance swim fabrics, including the hotly contested polyurethane suits of the 2008 Olympics.

The author finishes with “The Golden Cape: Harnessing Spider Silk,” examining the vision, artistry, and biotechnology involved in creating something new from something ancient—a wave of fabric-makers creating garments made entirely of silk spun by spiders.

Storytelling and scholarship

Exploring what many consider an esoteric “niche” field, St. Clair is that rare author who can successfully merge storytelling and scholarship. Sixty of the book’s final pages contain a helpful textile glossary, extended footnotes, an index, and a 19-page bibliography—ready for the reader who wants to pursue them. Casual readers and scholars alike will find themselves both engaged and satisfied.

The Golden Thread—a UK Sunday Times Book of the Year—is equally rewarding whether you settle in for a big, long read or decide to weave in and out chapter by chapter. No matter what era or textile or story you might think most interesting, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll find a thread leading you into new and fascinating territory.

What, When, Where

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History. By Kassia St. Clair. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation (a division of W.W Norton & Company), 2019. 368 pages, hardcover. Get it here.

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