How Fabric Changed History by Kassia St. Clair
Review by Olivia Terry, Regional History Librarian
Upholding to my love of fashion and dress history, I selected The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair for my book review. I grew up loving clothing, and even more, the history stitched into its seams.
This book examines the textiles that have made up centuries of clothing, starting with a couple of linen fibers discovered in a cave in the Republic of Georgia, dating back to 34,000 years ago.
St. Clair breaks down the saga of cloth in thirteen fascinating chapters, spanning centuries, continents, and different cultural implications. My favorite chapters explored the battle over lace production in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, and enslaved people’s personal relationship with clothing and cotton in the American South.
St. Clair does a wonderful job balancing micro- with macro-examination of cloth, starting from the harvesting of raw materials, to weaving the resources into textiles, and finally to major cultural events shaped by the fabric produced. From the woolen sails used on Viking ships to the space suits used to put a man on the moon, St. Clair argues that fabric has a tremendous effect on historical events that appear seemingly unrelated to the craft.
The book is especially relevant to today, as it explores the invention of synthetic fabrics and the humanitarian and environmental repercussions of fast fashion. On her chapter on cotton, St. Clair declares an outstanding statement, writing “transmuting cotton into useable fabric is …wasteful: a single pair of jeans requires 11,000 liters of water.”
St. Clair weaves a fabulous tale for anyone interested in learning more about the clothes on their back, and for history lovers in general!