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!


Old Gods and New Looks

My friend and I were talking about hot guys quantum physics when he brought up this idea about how even the Olympioi might not be exempt from changing fashion trends. They may be eternal, deathless powers, but who says they can’t change their wardrobe every thousand years or so?

There’s Hêphaistos, for example. We all know that the God of smithcraft and metalwork was seen by the ancient Greeks as a sooty, unattractive* cripple thrown down from Olympos by his own mum, but if he’s been able to help us invent printers and computers and iPads (by Hermês’ request, I assume), why can’t he reinvent his own image? Why, I’m sure being married to Aphroditê for all these years has taught him something about looking good.

The old fugly, lame Hêphaistos just before he got married to Aphroditê...

The old fugly, lame Hêphaistos just before he got married to Aphroditê…

Hêphaistos after getting married to the Goddess of beauty for thousands of years.

Hêphaistos after being married to the Goddess of beauty for thousands of years.

Who says technology can't be sexy, eh?

Who says technology can’t be sexy, eh?

In our conversation, my friend goes on to say:

Technology nowadays is increasingly becoming more aware of how it looks, how it feels and in the broad sense, how it operates and is operated in the human world. Industrial design never used to be a “thing” or a field prior to the early 1900’s. But it became clearer over time how necessary it was for technology and products not to just work, but to be usable by many people. The whole point of industrial design is to streamline the form and function of a product, always with the thought that it’s humans who will finally end up using the product. An good example would be the evolution of Apple products, one of the few companies who are very particular with the design of their products:



You can see it going from the clunkier products to its current incredibly minimal and sleek design. It lost its wires and the computer tower, compressing most of it inside behind the monitor. Aesthetics is keeping in mind that how you are communicates a message, and that this message is going to be received by human beings, now.

Now, I don’t own any Apple products and neither does he, so this isn’t me trying to sell you Apple on a devotional blog. If you think about it, though, Apple changing itself from fugly to fabulous could be exactly how the God of techies changed from hobo to hunk.

[*Despite the subjective nature of human beauty, I’ve decided to work with the more popular ‘Western’ ideas of attractiveness in this post.]

Hail You, Guardian of the Road!

Because ordering paperback can be extremely expensive (and frustrating!) for me, I decided to finally try out Kindle today. I can’t believe I’ve been a Neanderthal all this time, not knowing this beautiful magic.

Well, what better way to be thankful (and auspicious) than to have a Hermes devotional as my first purchase. It is super. Thank you, Lord, for the Internet and all these neat things!