Book Review – The Golden Thread

It’s been tough for me to focus on non-fiction reading this year, but The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair was an exception. It traces the story of textiles from their beginnings tens of thousands of years ago and follows them as they travel around the world and beyond. It’s written to be an approachable and entertaining exploration of a topic that could easily get technical and boring.

The Golden Thread

by Kassia St. Clair

The chapters make a tour through the natural fibers we know and love, as well as synthetics and those still mostly out of reach, like spider silk. It’s not a comprehensive history of each fiber, but stories that illustrate how deeply textiles have impacted our lives for thousands of years.

I was particularly struck with how much of men’s history is enabled by the work of the hands of thousands of unseen women. For example, I’ve never considered that the Vikings could never have sailed as far as they did without the women spinning and weaving the wool for their sails. Also, wool sails? How fascinating.

Making the textiles, and particularly the technically challenging sails, would have required more effort than making the ship itself. While it is estimated that it would take two skilled shipwrights a fortnight to make a longboat, creating a sail would take two equally skilled women a full year or more, depending on the size required.

Women were behind the success of the first space suits, too. Only the seamstresses at Playtex had the skill to manufacture garments with 1/64″ precision – on your basic Singer sewing machine, no less.

The sheer quantities of textiles produced in ancient times also boggles the mind.

Women in farming households (in China) produced silk that was used to pay annual taxes. In 1118, for example, a total of 3.9 million bolts of silk were produced for taxation purposes.

Not only is that some significant yardage, that’s a LOT of wealth being created by women’s work.

Another section mentions the thousands of loom weights discovered in the ruins of Gordion, home to the legendary King Midas. This suggests that close to 100 looms were in use, mostly likely by women, when the citadel burned down in the 7th century BC. How much wealth did they produce for the king?

While not exactly surprising that women’s labor is hidden in the background of history, I appreciated the chance to think through the topic from a different angle. The storytelling quality of this book made it an easy and enjoyable read. It brought to life both the artisans and everyday people who have made these fabrics throughout history. The author also does a good job of explaining tricky technical details in an understandable way.

Unfortunately, she touches only briefly on the darker side of textile production. Slavery gets a brief mention, as does the exploitation of poor workers and POC in other countries. And while China’s silk and Egypt’s linen are featured, much of the rest of the book focuses heavily on European and American textiles. I personally would have appreciated a bit more exploration of these difficult topics, though I suspect it would deter more casual readers.

Overall, I enjoyed the chance to geek out over textiles and learn some fascinating new tidbits. I look forward to checking out her other book, The Secret Lives of Color.

Have you read The Golden Thread? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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