How Textiles Revolutionised Technology (Thanks, Athêna Erganê!)

Mattei Athena at Louvre. Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor.

Mattei Athena at Louvre. Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor.

Panathênaia is just around the corner, so I’ve thought about sharing this most interesting piece about one of Athêna’s primary provinces — weaving. Few of us in the industrialised world have been around long enough to recognise just how important weaving is to human civilisation, but it remains, to this day, a most important technological breakthrough. Read on to know more about it below:

The story of technology is in fact the story of textiles. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.

Most conspicuously, the Industrial Revolution started with the spinning jenny, the water frame, and the thread-producing mills in northern England that installed them. Before railroads or automobiles or steel mills, fortunes were made in textile technology.

As late as the 1970s, textiles still enjoyed the aura of science. Since then, however, we’ve stopped thinking of them as a technical achievement. In today’s popular imagination, fabric entirely belongs to the frivolous world of fashion. Even in the pages of Vogue, ‘wearable technology’ means electronic gadgets awkwardly tricked out as accessories, not the soft stuff you wear against your skin – no matter how much brainpower went into producing it. When we imagine economic progress, we no longer think about cloth, or even the machines that make it.

The ancient Greeks worshiped Athena as the goddess of technē, the artifice of civilisation. She was the giver and protector of olive trees, of ships and of weaving (without which there would be no sails). When she and Odysseus scheme, they ‘weave a plan’. To weave is to devise, to invent – to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements. Fabric and fabricate share a common Latin root, fabrica: ‘something skillfully produced’. Text and textile are similarly related, from the verb texere, to weave. Cloth-making is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. To spin tales (or yarns) is to exercise imagination. Even more than weaving, spinning mounds of tiny fibres into usable threads turns nothing into something, chaos into order.

Read the rest here.

Hail, Mistress of Crafts, Athêna the Worker!

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