Victoria Finlay spins us round the globe, weaving stories of our relationship with cloth and asking how and why people through the ages have made it, worn it, invented it, and made symbols out of it. And sometimes why they have fought for it.
The textiles in our lives tend to operate with inappreciable fanfare — often serving as artistic intermediary. In her latest book, Victoria Finlay gives them their due ... Just as she did in Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Finlay provides an exhaustive exploration that spans the breadth of the globe over the course of centuries. It’s a tall order, to be sure — but she delivers, and does so with deft cultural consciousness. Additionally, she writes of these materials with such wonderment — such reverence — that one cannot help believing in the 'hidden magic' she insists is spun into each fiber ... Finlay’s writing is at once technical, historical and deeply personal. Like a skilled weaver, she takes many disparate threads and constructs a compelling narrative as informative as it is emotionally engaging. Part historical survey, part memoir and part travelogue, Fabric follows Finlay as she discovers the secrets behind each material’s history — all written as she mourned the deaths of her parents ... rather than providing a didactic history lesson, the author re-examines her own understanding of well-worn historical narratives. Here, and throughout the book, Finlay takes the reader on a journey of personal discovery — acting as a curious yet knowledgeable guide rather than a detached instructor ... Finlay opens with a brief vocabulary lesson meant to orient the reader; however, some of the technicalities that follow could perplex those unfamiliar with looms and weave structures. Perhaps this book is best suited to — and, indeed, written for — those who already have a baseline understanding of and appreciation for the textile arts. Fabric is sure to intrigue the fashion history enthusiast, chronicling as it does the trends that mirrored developments in textile trade and technology...These moments — where fabric is given life through worn experience — are the most fascinating portions of the book, and ultimately the most accessible.
Each chapter focuses on a different fabric, which inevitably creates a patchwork effect. (And patchy: the chapters on Pacific barkcloth and sackcloth feel long.) But the travelogue element is richly justified, because this is a highly personal and tactile book ... There is less on ethical abuses than you might expect ... The technologies of spinning and weaving are fascinating ... Subtle, compendious and rich, if this was just a cultural history of fabric it would be a fine piece of work. But Finlay weaves another story into the book: she is grieving for her mother. Sometimes the joins between the two narratives feel a little raw — but cleverly so. More often the book acquires an extra dimension; the effect that springs to mind is the strange iridescence of that twin-coloured silk you sometimes find as the lining of a suit jacket. (And I discover in a footnote that this fabric is called dupion because it is made using two silkworm cocoons that have become entangled in the spinning; the book is full of emotionally resonant facts like that) ... This book recovers that relatively silenced or at least sidelined history. It is an emotive and serious work of what you might call history on the distaff side.
... as much a memoir about family and the deaths of Finlay’s parents as it is a travelogue and exploration into the origins of fabric, as the author movingly entwines stories of grief and the history of textiles ... Her lively prose also incorporates well-known tales, such as Theseus using a ball of thread to find his way out of the labyrinth, with lesser-known facts, such as how the word 'clue' is 'from an Old English term for a ball of yarn that can be unwound to show the right path' ... Despite its historical bent, Fabric reads nothing like a dry school textbook and Finlay deftly mixes conventional tales of the past with personal recollections – including her encounters with those who are preserving textile traditions ... Community is the recurring motif, as Finlay juxtaposes how the world of textiles has driven societies apart and brought them together. She stitches the literal and figurative beauty and horror into a patchwork of fascinating revelations to terrific effect.