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Provocative books

My Take | August 14, 2023 | By: Janet Preus

My sister, who is an author, ran across a book that she thought would interest me. That turned out to be quite an understatement. The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel may sound a bit bombastic, but Postrel has done such thorough research, and she lays out her argument with such clarity that her claims about the importance of textiles historically make perfect sense. 

Among the topics discussed at some length are dyes. This chapter, in particular, is a nice fit for our feature, which is an interview with Alden Wicker whose book, To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back, lays out a case for eliminating a swath of chemicals often used in textiles for aesthetics and a range of functionalities. 

Postrel’s book, released in 2020, focuses more on industrial development, trade and the economic impact textiles have had—literally for centuries. But she also makes note of how the business of textiles was possible because there were workers (including some enslaved people) available to take on what was a smelly, dirty and difficult job. 

In her chapter titled “Dye,” Postrel says, “In our eco-conscious age, many people assume that preindustrial life was environmentally benign. But, as we’ve seen [in this book] dyeing has always been a mess, dependent on large supplies of water, fuel, and stinky ingredients. … For millennia, the primary strategy for avoiding the negative side effects has been to make sure dyeing is done somewhere else—the other side of town or the other side of the world.”

Wicker’s book, released just this summer, maintains that many of the chemicals required to make apparel with the desired functionalities are simply too dangerous and should no longer be used. To their credit, many in the textile and apparel industry are voluntarily switching to safer and healthier options, particularly as more and better options are increasingly becoming available.

Nevertheless, this is not a simple (much less inexpensive) task, and those who are willing to try more sustainable and healthy new options should get a lot of credit for doing so. It’s one of the reasons I run stories that relate to sustainability often, even when the story is not specifically about the high-tech end of the textiles spectrum. In my view, “emerging technologies” that offer the industry more sustainable options may not be as glamorous as some new technologies, but they are certainly important. 

Historically, innovators were trying new ingredients and processes all the time, and for the very same reasons that we do so today: to find something more effective, economical and safer. Why? Because textiles “made the world” and were so important they were even used as money. 

Referencing the environmentally laudable success story of fabric supplier Swisstex in California, Postrel says, “Creating colorful textiles with minimal side effects is increasingly possible. But it requires precise controls, advanced technology, and constant improvement. You don’t get it by thinking like a nature child. You get it by thinking like a Swiss engineer. Environmentally benign dye technology isn’t a lost art. It’s something we’re still inventing.”

Janet Preus is senior editor of Textile Technology Source. She can be reached at

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