What are you wearing? History, complexity and a lot of art.

FABRIC: The hidden history of the material world, by Victoria Finlay

“What are you wearing?” This is a question that usually invokes designers, brands and trends. Little consideration is given to the materiality of what we wear. The textiles in our lives tend to operate with invaluable fanfare – often serving as an artistic intermediary. In her latest book, Victoria Finlay pays homage to them.

Fabric: the hidden history of the material worldunveils the stories behind the materials – exalting them as builders of civilizations, instruments of progress and keepers of sacred tradition. Just as she did in “Color: A Natural History of the Palette”, Finlay offers an exhaustive exploration that covers the breadth of the globe over the centuries. It’s a tall order, sure, but it delivers on its promises, and does so with deft cultural awareness. Moreover, she writes about these materials with such wonder – such reverence – that one can’t help but believe in the “hidden magic” that she says is woven into every fiber.

Finlay’s writing is technical, historical and deeply personal. Like a skilled weaver, she takes many disparate threads and constructs a compelling narrative that is as informative as it is emotionally engaging. Part historical investigation, part memoir and part travelogue, “Fabric” follows Finlay as she uncovers the secrets behind each material’s history – all written as she mourned the death of her parents.

Finlay begins her explorations in Papua, New Guinea, where she unravels the mysteries of Maisin’s barkcloth, and ends in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where she discovers the community’s rich quilting tradition. Each of the book’s 11 chapters focuses on a different fabric: wool, linen, silk. The complex history of cotton is particularly remarkable, spanning continents and bearing the tangled legacies of colonialism, industrial progress, slavery and modern capitalism. But rather than providing a didactic history lesson, the author re-examines his own understanding of worn historical narratives. Here, and throughout the book, Finlay takes the reader on a journey of personal discovery – acting as a curious but knowledgeable guide rather than a detached instructor. When talking about synthetic – or, as she calls them, “imagined” – fabrics, Finlay examines some of them in her own closet and finds that “these relatively new, often problematic and sometimes hard-to-love fabrics can also, at best, be beautiful. ”

Finlay opens with a brief vocabulary lesson intended to orient the reader; however, some of the technicalities that follow might confuse those unfamiliar with looms and weaving structures. Perhaps this book is best suited – and, indeed, written for – those who already have a basic understanding and appreciation of the textile arts. The ‘fabric’ is sure to intrigue fans of fashion history, as it chronicles trends that reflected developments in textile trade and technology: the Indian pashmina shawls that dominated 19th century European fashion , the lavish silk dragon robes of China’s Qing dynasty, and the nylon stockings that rocked 1940s America. fascinating parts of the book, and ultimately the most accessible.

The ‘fabric’ comes at a time when alarming textile waste statistics have sparked calls for sustainability within the fashion industry, sparking renewed interest in the origins of our clothes. A call to action for more ethical practices runs throughout the book and is made explicit in “A Note for the Future”, which follows the epilogue. Finlay writes: “Imagine: a world where we buy our fabrics and clothes, while we increasingly buy our food, knowing where it comes from. Know who made them and where. And knowing how much they cost the earth.

Raissa Bretaña is a New York-based fashion historian and faculty member of the Department of Art History at the Fashion Institute of Technology.


The hidden history of the material world

By Victoria Finlay

Illustrated. 528 p. Pegasus. $32.

Sharon D. Cole