Book Review of

The Fabric of Civilization:
How Textiles Made the World

by Virginia Postrel; 
Basic Books, 2020;  $17.99 U.S., $22.99 Canada
[Complete book review text
by Stanley Bulbach prior to censorship
by the American Tapestry Alliance]
This book covers the millennia of developments of the various technologies that comprise textiles and their components.  The author lays out a clear and persuasive case as to why textiles are in many ways principal to the development of civilization itself.
By the end of the book the author concludes:  “Hidden in every piece of fabric are the actions of curious, clever, and desiring men and women, past and present, known and unknown, from every corner of the globe.”  Virginia Postrel offers this view as a professionally achieved and widely-respected author in the greater world beyond fiber art’s restricted circles.
She is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and has been a columnist for the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.  Her book contributes an “outsider’s” perspective on how our fiber art is not only the expressiveness and utility of textiles, but also how its development has been crucial to the existence of the civilized world in which we all live.
Postrel asserts that “we suffer textile amnesia because we enjoy textile abundance” which “exacts a price, obscuring essential components of the human heritage, hiding much of how we got here and who we are.”  She highlights that, “. . . the study of textiles is the story of human ingenuity.”
Her book serves a feast of technical knowledge about fibers, then thread, then cloth and dyes.  This book is clearly a perfect gift to give to friends who wonder why we fiber artists work in such a demanding, but economically and professionally unviable art field.
Popular literacy grew as a business tool rather than something exclusive to ruling classes.  Similarly, the author details how often scarce coinage had textiles — easier and safer to transport — be an official medium of exchange.  “Bills of exchange” replaced payment cash with credits and debits, increasing the amount of value in circulation, as well as the “velocity” with which transactions could occur.  Negotiable bills of exchange were “to become the foundation of modern commercial banking.”
This book appears at a crucial time for today’s fiber art support organizations confronting the onset of the 21st Century and major generational changes.  Our organizations need financial support to operate and to address our multiple deficiencies of diversity regarding race, economic status, gender, and age.  Where is that funding to come from when the field excludes advocacy for professional and economic opportunity?  As economic conditions become more challenging for most people, how can fiber and textiles attract more diversity from those who cannot afford the expense and time our field requires as a hobby?
Over decades key fiber support organizations have lost much membership and even sought consultation on how to improve diversity, while promoting donation dependency for our field.  The most recent detailed ATA membership survey reported 72% of the membership interested in selling their art.  Around the same time advocacy for collecting and supporting collectors was removed from ATA’s founding Mission Statement!
Advocacy for professional and economic opportunity is enjoyed by the rest of the art world, but uniquely absent for fiber artists.  Considering that this is a “story of the world’s most influential commodity,” why must fiber art and its artists be only self-funded and charity dependent?
This wonderful book illuminates how fiber and textiles are historically inseparable from commerce and economics.  Postrel again nails it:  “Every scrap of cloth, I now realize, represents the solution to innumerable difficult problems.  Many are technical or scientific . . . ,” citing what is commonly discussed in our field.  But she breaks new ground when writing, that “some of the trickiest [problems], however, are social:  How do you finance a crop of silkworms or cotton, a new spinning mill, or a long-distance caravan?”
“Hidden in every piece of fabric are the actions of curious, clever, and desiring men and women, past and present, known and unknown, from every corner of the globe.”
Virginia Postrel concludes: “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 the countless brilliant threads.”
Tapestry Artists, I highly recommend Postrel’s wonderful book!
Stanley Bulbach, Ph.D (Kevorkian Institute of Near Eastern Studies, New York University) has worked in the field of fiber art since the late 1970s.  Over the decades he has written extensively on the history of the fiber art field’s challenges in diversity, research standards, accountability, and economic and professional opportunity.

Note Bene:
In early 2022 the American Tapestry Alliance expressed interest in publishing a book review of Virginia Postrel's important 2020 book — The Fabric of Civilization:  How Textiles Made the World  in the official ATA newsletter, Tapestry Topics.  On March 3rd, ATA censored out 30% of the submitted text and would not consider standard alternatives to address its editorial concerns.  Finally, in a professional attempt to resolve the issue diplomatically, the reviewer's required permission for ATA to use and publish the opinion piece was withheld,
On April 27th, ATA emailed an announcement to the entire membership that a new PDF issue of Tapestry Topics was available to download immediately.  In that issue ATA published and used the heavily censored opinion piece without the legally and ethically required reviewer's permission.
ATA governance was then notified in writing that its violation of intellectual property rights was illegal, unethical, and damaging.  A standard apology with clarification in the newsletter was requested; ATA refused to respond.  At some later point ATA finally removed the review from the PDF version of Tapestry Topics in its archives.  Unfortunately ATA still fails to apologize or explain to the membership the way it improperly used and published the review.
The uncensored book review posted above restores the 30% that the ATA governance has not wanted its membership to see and discuss.    Less . . .
For Further Discussion:

The title of Virginia Postrel's riveting book — The Fabric of Civilizations — is crystal clear.  It focuses unambiguously on the field of fiber and textiles not as solely comprised of individuals working as isolated hobbyists and enthusiasts, but as individuals working over time within a vast interwoven network of human social activity that has been driving the evolution of "civilization" over the past millennia:

  • The review included Postrel's words on "the actions of curious, clever, and desiring men and women, past and present, known and unknown, from every corner of the globe.” 
  • And her words on how "It is all of these, cumulative and shared — a human story, a tapestry woven from the countless brilliant threads." 
  • And her words that “some of the trickiest [problems], however, are social:  How do you finance a crop of silkworms or cotton, a new spinning mill, or a long-distance caravan?”
For professionally trained historians, the history of fiber and textiles seems inseparable from its extensive historical anatomy of guilds, trade organizations, industries, unions, social movements, and their achievements.
Upon what specific grounds did ATA hack off 30% of the opinion piece?  ATA's sole claim was that "as the book didn't speak to fibre [sic] arts organizations, a discussion of their role could be misleading for readers."
How could citing the role of support organizations, historic and contemporary, possibly threaten ATA as misleading for its readers?  The review repeatedly quoted Postrel exploring key concerns such as how to design, finance, and administer the field.  How can ATA find that to be different from asking how support organizations can conserve and fortify the fiber and textile arts in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution?
After WWII fiber and textile skills almost completely disappeared from public school curricula and the public's awareness.  In the second half of the last century supportive volunteer and non-profit fiber and textile organizations arose in response, particularly in the form of weaving guilds.  But as helpful as the guild and textile society system tries to be, it focuses increasingly on being an enjoyable, but expensive and time-consuming hobby.  Support organizations now focus primarily on personal enjoyment for the greatly shrinking population of those who can still afford the time and costs while the field itself has increasingly poorer economic and professional opportunity.
An example of the field's increased branding primarily as a hobby was Interweave Press's 2004 outreach strategy to its advertisers:  "Women of the Boomer Generation, a vast group, are moving into the years of self-fulfillment with more disposable income than ever.  These women are also part of the great craft revival of the 1960s and 1970s and are eager to reconnect to the craft."
Interweave's market strategy focused on the incoming tide of Boomer Generation retirees with free time and retirement funds.  (A year later Interweave Press sold itself profitably to Aspire Media, a hobbyist publication firm whose board was comprised of Wall Street investors.)
One of the principal beneficiaries of that "great craft revival" movement was the American Tapestry Alliance itself.  The ATA broke new ground in 1990 with a founding Mission Statement dedicating support for both hobbyism and professional aspects of the field.
In its own founding Mission Statement the ATA specifically included support for collecting and collectors as well as references to "professional."  However, in the past decade ATA governance removed those specific dedications and all inclusions of "professional" from its official Mission Statement and does not want to discuss those disappearances with its membership.
Similarly, this past decade ATA convened official "Think Tanks" to advise its Five Year Plan.  One of those entities, the Committee on Promotion, Marketing and Advocacy, developed and presented official recommendations to ATA governance regarding professional interests.  ATA governance dismissed them without explanation or notice to membership.
Likewise, the last available membership survey actually asking members about specific interest in selling some of their art work recorded a whopping 72% responding in the positive.  But ATA writes that membership no longer has such interest in supporting better economic and professional opportunity.  ATA will not share any survey documentation supporting the reversal of membership interest it now claims.
ATA's documented claim for censoring 30% of the book review seems to be self-evidently baseless.  It seems likely that ATA governance censored the opinion piece as part of the policy to alter the founding Mission Statement unilaterally and to ignore membership input.  The lack of accountability seems to be exacerbated by ATA's policy of not sharing informative board meeting minutes.
Tragically, ATA's official newsletter itself seems to be suffering the consequences of such ATA policy,  Previously strongly promoted as one of ATA's most valuable membership benefits, Tapestry Topics now begs for more volunteers to contribute writing and production support.  Last year the newsletter downsized from a quarterly to a triennial, adding valid questions about volunteer mismanagement to all the problems.
The contemporary field of fiber and textile arts was already facing increasingly difficult challenges prior to the economic and social disruption of the pandemic.  The problems are not only how to finance the support organizations, but also how to start reversing the field's multiple major deficiencies of membership diversity, such as racial and ethnic, gender, age, and economic status.  By the onset of the pandemic the Handweavers Guild of American had lost about two thirds of its 1990 membership.  This year the Textile Society of America reached out to a consultancy to attempt to explore its lacks of diversity and loss of board members. 
And this year a survey by the College Art Association warned that financial insecurity was its membership's most pressing concern.  The decades-long tuition crisis and the decrease in post-graduation employment opportunity continues.  Inflation now decreases what retirees are repeatedly asked to contribute to hobbyism.  If our broad field of fiber and textile art seeks to attract populations who thus far can't afford our field, how can perpetuating poor economic and professional opportunity achieve that?
Virgina Postrel's seminal book shares extremely valuable insights on how organizing and social efforts have always transformed our field of fiber and textile arts not only aesthetically and technologically, but also economically.  This is what our field — support organizations and individuals together — desperately needs to explore collaboratively and constructively.  This book can certainly guide our fiber support organizations in confronting and mitigating our field’s serious challenges.  Enjoy Virginia Postrel's wonderful book and please alert as many people as possible about it.