By  on October 31, 2011

NEW YORK — There are few things in the world that truly transcend all aspects of life and society, but in her new book “Textiles: The Whole Story” (Thames & Hudson Inc.), Beverly Gordon makes a strong case that fabrics are in fact our life.

From the Stone Age, when humans first learned to make cordage or thread, to 21st century “smart fabrics” that can regulate body temperature or measure the wearer’s pulse, the book makes the case that textiles have and continue to play a special role in human existence. Due out this month, the 340-page tome, which includes 380 illustrations, analyzes seemingly every aspect of human growth and lifestyle in which textiles have played a role. Each chapter features an in-depth look at a wide range of issues, from “Textiles in Human Consciousness” and “The Social Meanings of Textiles” to “Money, Trade, Status and Control” and “Expressing Meaning, Messages and Beauty.”

Gordon, a professor of textiles and apparel design in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, also draws on her academic background and hands-on experience in spinning silk from silkworm cocoons, weaving cloth and creating natural dyes in discussing areas such as the science, business, history, anthropology and craft of textiles. She discusses how her time visiting the last textile mills in New England in the early Seventies, standing among “acres of spinning and knitting equipment,” led her to explore labor history.

“Because of their economic value, textiles have deeply affected the course of world trade and the history of nations and cultures,” Gordon writes. “Cloth literally functioned as the backbone of many national and global economies” over the centuries. She cites examples such as the Chinese silk trade of antiquity and its impact of spreading religions and cultural exchanges into different parts of the world, and how one type of fabric — chintz or printed cotton — first found in India, became a ploy in colonialism and ultimately the slave trade.

Gordon also traces the U.S. textile industry’s saga, from the 19th century mills of New England to the move down South in the early 20th century for cheaper labor to the import era that saw Asian countries, led by China, become the world leaders in textile production.

The book also notes the way certain expressions in the English language have their roots from the textile industry. These include: “cut from the same cloth,” that sameness of personality phrase derived from a time when cloth was cut to order; “dyed-in-the-wool,” often used today to connote dedication that comes from deeply dyed wool; “to cotton to,” meaning to be attracted to something, stemming from the electrically charged cotton dust or lint in the air from weaving machines, and the proverbial “roll out the red carpet,” the colloquialism stemming from a practice in ancient times of placing a red fabric, which was expensive to produce, under a someone’s feet to show their importance that has become the ultimate in celebrity acknowledgment.

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