Dying for a new dress? In this era of fast fashion, a striking new book reveals how low-cost clothes can mean a high price for humanity and the planet
FABRIC: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE MATERIAL WORLD by Victoria Finlay (Profile £25, 528pp)
Since Adam and Eve grabbed fig leaves to clothe themselves, we have relied on the natural world to provide us with food, shelter and clothing —and the damage to that world, and to people, is still being done.
Look around your room — at cotton curtains, silk and velvet cushions, woollen rugs — and ask yourself if you know where in the material world it all comes from.
As for clothes… swathed in a pashmina shawl as I write this, I realise I have never considered its exact origin or journey.
Now Victoria Finlay provides a closely woven warp and weft of answers to questions we never thought to ask, and the pictures in her intricate tapestry are dazzling. An intrepid traveller whose best-selling books already explored the magical worlds of colour and of jewels, she now turns her infinitely curious mind to fabric.
Her globetrotting quest (and we’re given five useful maps) for those stories requires delving into history, geography, geo-politics, mechanics, chemistry, trade, religion, magic, anthropology, mythology, fairytale and also all-round human ingenuity — especially when there is money to be made.
Victoria Finlay provides a closely woven warp and weft of answers to questions we never thought to ask, and the pictures in her intricate tapestry are dazzling. An intrepid traveller whose best-selling books already explored the magical worlds of colour and of jewels, she now turns her infinitely curious mind to fabric (stock image)
As part of her hands-on research, Finlay has a go at the art of bashing bark to make cloth in Papua New Guinea, spinning in Guatemala (rather a fail there) and piecing together patchwork in Alabama. There’s something in this wonderfully packed haberdasher’s shop for every reader.
But there’s a personal story, too, all the more touching for being restrained. The initial idea for this book met with the approval of Finlay’s ‘healthy, vibrant mother’, who died unexpectedly just months later, to be followed soon afterwards by her father.
All plans had to be put on hold as the grieving daughter felt ‘lost and fractured into small pieces’. Those ‘pieces’ eventually became the elements of the patchwork she and her mother had promised themselves they would one day create together — and combine to turn the beautifully written narrative of this book into a larger patchwork of healing.
Her journey begins with her quest to travel to where barkcloth is made. But there’s a huge snag: access. Bizarrely, the remote Omie tribe in Papua New Guinea ‘had a website and email address, an art administrator and a history of overseas exhibitions’ — but they don’t reply to letters, emails or phone calls.
Then Finlay is warned that someone who travels there regularly takes ‘15 bodyguards’. Then it seems impossible to get there by air. Then it’s cyclone season. So she researches the Congo, but tribal fighting had escalated there, so that wouldn’t work.
By now (just 32 pages in) this unadventurous reader was wishing the intrepid author would put her woolly slippers on and give up.
But finally the elders from another tribe in Papua New Guinea, the Maisin, say yes, so off she goes, minus 15 bodyguards but with one woman friend, a photographer. Scary? No, the Maisin are lovely and their painted barkcloth beautiful.
Finlay’s adventures, vividly recounted, make enthralling reading — but with a sobering subtext tolling out the ongoing logging damage to the mighty forests. From barkcloth we travel on through the equally fascinating stories of cotton, wool, tweed, pashmina, sackcloth, linen, silk and (finally) man-made fabrics, such as nylon, that were the accidental or deliberate discoveries of scientists and changed our lives.
We follow trade routes, feel anguish at the unimaginable hardships of history, meet some of the extraordinary personalities who developed production methods as well as the ‘ordinary’ men and women who are makers.
And always we are coolly invited by Finlay (with a parallel career working for an environmental charity) to reflect on the damage to the natural world that often accompanies the craving for cloth. One notorious example is the ruthless exploitation of farmers by the mighty U.S. chemical firm Monsanto.
Finlay points out that the wool industry (especially merino wool) is often cruel — with live sheep transported around the world often in appalling conditions and unwanted lambs slaughtered and thrown overboard. Fertilisers and pesticides used to produce cotton in India can cause cancer in the workers.
Buddhist ceremonial scarves, like so many of our own cheaper garments, pollute land and sea because the silk they used to be made from rotted naturally, whereas the nylon or polyester of today lasts … and lasts. It can also endanger wildlife. Man-made fabrics are useful, of course, but Finlay warns, ‘making and disposing of them is hurting the earth.’
My own wardrobe contains blouses and dresses made from pure silk. But I have never paused to feel grateful to little creatures whose life of laborious munching ended up on my back.
With her customary mix of intelligence and emotional insight, Finlay comments: ‘[The silkworm] begins to weave its future with small, deliberate actions that, deep inside, it has always known how to make.
And then, after days of darkness and stillness and turning in on itself, it is ready to be reborn as a different kind of being altogether. Other natural fabrics … come from a crop, a growth event, a haircut. But silk? Silk is a miracle.’
Finlay’s ultimate message is that just as with food, in the ideal world we will know where our fabrics and clothes came from, ‘who made them and where’.
This book is equally an inspiration and an education.