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

Fabrics. For most of us, these woven and knitted materials are essential to daily life. But it’s easy to take fabrics for granted. This impressive and fascinating book by design historian Kassia St Clair ensures that you’ll never look at fabrics the same way again.

This isn’t a comprehensive history of fabric, nor is it a visual guide. It’s an exploration of the essential role of fabrics in human history and culture, through chapters focusing on particular kinds of cloth. For example, linen (via Ancient Egyptian mummies), cotton (slavery on American plantations) and wool (Viking and Medieval eras). There is a wide chronological focus from ancient times until the present day. We look at spacesuits, mountaineering gear, the latest swimsuit technology and even spider silk. It’s a more challenging book to read than The Secret Lives of Colour because the information is more in depth and there are bits about economics and trade which, if your brain is like mine, are not easy to understand. I completely didn’t get the explanations about how materials are turned into threads and then how the fabrics are woven. That’s where some diagrams might have been useful.

I really liked this book. For me, the most interesting aspects were how the fabrics were entwined with history and that this has allowed societies to progress. Without the ingenious development of new fabrics, or new ways of processing them, so many important historical events would not have happened. However, there is always a price to pay. Information about the working conditions of the people who made these fabrics and the environmental effects of production is placed alongside the positive outcomes. I felt that the author should have explored the ethics of silk production, since a chapter is devoted to this material and another to the trading routes, but maybe the point is that readers can make up their own minds about it.

First published in 2018 by John Murray.

6 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History’ by Kassia St Clair”

  1. This sounds an interesting book. I live in the borough of Oldham, once cotton spinnings capital of the world. There were 320 cotton mills here at the turn of the 20th century. Apparently our very damp atmosphere was ideal for the processing of cotton as it didn’t dry out. The mills may have in the main gone, though quite a few still stand, unfortunately the damp climate remains ? Then there’s ICI who I think developed dyes for textiles at one time. I’ll have a look for this book, it sounds good.

    1. Fascinating to hear there were so many mills, it shows how much the economy has changed. I didn’t know that damp atmospheres are great for cotton growing! It’s an interesting read, would recommend 🙂
      PS. Thought I had replied to your comment already but WordPress was playing up.

  2. Wow what an interesting read! This is what I don’t get – books like these would’ve been so much better if they had diagrams or pictures to help illustrate some of the descriptions. Sometimes if it intrigued me enough I’d Google for some pix But that world take up time. Great review as always, NS! ❤️

    1. Thanks Jee 😀
      The book was very cheap for a hardback and maybe one reason was they didn’t have illustrations. If I was really curious I could google, but I don’t like to break the flow of reading to look things up that I’m reading about.

    1. Thanks! 🙂
      It’s not exactly an easy read but I found it very informative and I liked the time span from ancient times to modern day.

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