May 27, 2010

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield

The cities between Kabul and Chang'an are famous to us, and saw wealth in the first millenium CE, because of the trade routes between East and West, also between Tibet and India. They were ecologically fragile, with scant or unreliable water supplies and terrible weather. But there were dozens of kingdoms, cultures, entire religions that rose or survived in this web of cities connected by traders. (Perhaps it's an example of island biogeography for ideas.) Also, cloth and paper -- and the religious trading societies seem to have been widely literate -- survive pretty well in dry cold salty territory.

Whitfield summarizes the general history, and the kinds of records we have and the history of those records, in the first chapters. Each subsequent chapter is a biography or pseudo-biography of someone with a reasonably characteristic life, one era to the next, over 250 years from 750 CE to 1000 CE. None of these lives are easy, given the combination of marginal ecological existence and the tides of conquest running in all directions, but that makes them exciting to read about.

There are wonderful pictures, of the objects and wall-paintings that survive, or at least survived long enough to be photographed. (Whitfield works at the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which links web access to collections all over the world. She argues that Aurel Stein was more responsible for saving some of the artifacts of Dunhuang from destruction or smuggling than not.)

Interesting early 'bio-signature': illiterate persons putting a forefinger down under their name, and the positions of the joints marked on the contract.

The long story of life on a hard trade route reminded me of two other books that I don't seem to have mentioned. The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, describes the astoundingly well-preserved mummies and fabric salt-frozen into the edge of the Tarim Basin desert as the last water dried up about 1000 BCE. One of the points of contention is where the mummified civilization came from, and who, if anyone, are their descendants now. Whitfield describes rather a lot of the small civilizations of 1000 CE as being of unknown origin, even down to 'East or West?', although I suppose we have a better guess at their descendants. Wayland Barber is also an experimental archaeologist, someone who understands the evidence by figuring out how to use or reproduce it; her specialty is fiber and cloth, still important in Whitfield's period; the "Silk Road", after all.

Or, considering ecology more than trade, Eagle Dreams, by Stephen Bodio: what it's like to hunt with a golden eagle in Mongolia. There was a lot of romanticism in that book, about how tough the steppe-dwellers are compared to lowland dwellers. Certainly they are. They're also clearly at the top of a food-chain with a narrow base; Bodio describes his confusion at looking at grazing-grounds that seemed to be made of rocks only, no grass. Consuming a higher proportion of what's available probably crowds out more of the creatures that could live there if humans didn't. Bodio seemed to assume it was ecologically virtuous (or at least, defensible despite its carnivorous, aggressive, gunpowder-happy style) because the absolute consumption seemed lower. I suspect absolute consumption is actually pretty high, because it takes a lot -- of calories, to start with -- just to survive there; it's comfort that's low. On the other hand, it's (a version of) a system that did co-exist with large wild animals for hundreds of years, so can be at least locally reasonably sustainable. (One is not socially allowed to keep a hunting eagle for more than a few years, which is an impressive social stricture given how hard they are to catch and train.) On the third hand, I don't know that the steppe pastoralists have been a local lifestyle on a historical timespan.

Whitfield's period overlaps Tibet's time as an expansionist military empire, which still confuses me. How did they support the manpower? Did the expansionism export young men and import NPP? How is this related to comfort vs. consumption, as in the Mongolian example? It fits ibn Khaldun's theory of conquerers-from-the-desert becoming soft, conquerable city people, sort of.

Find in a Library:

Life Along the Silk Road

The Mummies of Urumchi

Eagle Dreams

So wrote clew.

April 12, 2009

The Triumph of Individual Style, Carla Mason Mathis and Helen Villa Connor

This is the best book or essay I've ever seen arguing that you can dress to make any body beautiful. They do not merely argue that you can make any body look more like 'the' desirable body; they reproduce art of the last several hundred years in which (female) bodies in wide variety, stunning array, are depicted with attention and admiration, and then they translate some of that art into reasonably-modern clothing. Dozens of features are picked out with examples of how to camouflage or highlight them -- *each* is to be either hidden or flaunted; high bosom hidden, large tummy flaunted, etc etc. Clothing would be a lot less dull and depressing if everyone thought this way.

The line drawings by the authors are noticeably 1980s, that being when the book was written, but the clothes are of such a mad variety of cut that few of them are hopelessly dated; you can think, Oh, not that belt in this decade, but the waistband works.

They get more general, analyzing bodies by asymmetry, scale, texture, proportion, as well as the usual bosom-waist-hips combination; and they have color chips in a wide range, covering a great number of the unexpected undertones we can have (eight varieties of melanin, is it?). I think the reader is supposed to clip out her colors, so if you're buying it used, check those pages. The examples are mostly Anglo-Norman, but the art includes 'ethnographic' as well as 'fine', so most backgrounds occur at least once.

Hat tip to PatternReview, where I'm sure I saw this recommended.

Find in a Library: The Triumph of Individual Style

So wrote clew.

January 03, 2009

The Retting of Flax and Hemp, Paul W. Allen

There's a New World flax that makes a pretty cottage garden flower, with pale blue flowers on long tough stems. Tying bundles of these stems to the downspout in winter does not turn them into recognizable flax, alas. But then I didn't know what I was looking for -- this little leaflet has line-drawings of how the stems should be coming apart when the fiber is ready to be freed.

It's a microbial process, of course, eating away everything but the final desirable fiber; no wonder linen is so long-lasting when we get it free.

There are lots of tactics, or were, when it was more done, depending on whether the area was warm or cool, well-watered or frosty or only dewy when the crop came in. Some made it whitest, some strongest. Some required a lot of labor and some more labor than that.

The leaflet was reprinted by the Caber Press, which specializes in reissuing reference works for `material culture', q.v.; there's an 1895 report on hemp culture, if you want to start at the beginning.

You could also get the original Industrial Fermentations, The Chemical Catalog Company, 1926; or U.S.D.A. bulletins 1185 and 669. Maybe.

So wrote clew.

May 01, 2005

Tatting Patterns, Julia E. Sanders

I don't know if the real author is even known; this is a reprint of a 1915 book (The Priscilla Tatting Book No. 2.)

So this drops from the apogee of real, painstaking, handicraft - the end of the world of unspeakably bored rich women and unspeakably underpaid poor ones - and it was not selling itself with the claim that the designs were easy. I think this is excellent, as easy fine craft designs are usually hideous adaptations of designs that might have looked good in a rougher medium.

On the other hand, this really isn't written for someone learning to tat. There are photographs of all the projects, with many closeups, and I found the directions clear, but they aren't complete algorithms: you do need to look at the pictures and think about what you're doing.

I did finish one collar, one of the simple patterns; my work is wobbly but it's wearable.

pentagon collar

The really glorious collar, not this one, is a sort of basketwork with ferns growing out of it, which looks particularly hard to adapt on the fly. This could be tricky. Either my neck is not the expected 1915 size, which is possible, or I got my gauge wrong in the work I did, which is probable, or I'm not willing to wear my collars as tight as they did then, which is pretty much a dead cert.

Detail for other enthusiasts; the pentagons round the edge are done in slightly heavier thread than the fagoting filling in the crescents, and they're also done in needle tatting, which makes them denser than the original pattern had.

ISBN: 0486235548

So wrote clew.

November 20, 2004

Jacquard's Web, James Essinger

Bruce Sterling divides technology into string and glue, doesn't he? String is older. Information technology was first a child of string (some children were lost).

Most people who care already know that the Jacquard loom used punch cards to store the amazingly complex patterns of fashionable brocade and damask cloth; Essinger can only stretch that out into a few chapters, mostly related to the economic importance of cloth, because not a lot is known about Jacquard's life and what is mostly comes before his inventing. The rest of the book is about the currently-more-interesting descent of computing, of which Jacquard's looms were parents twice: once to part of Babbage's machines, d.s.p., again to telegraphic paper tape, most fruitfully to Hollerith's punchcards. Hollerith was related to a weaver/industrialist who used Jacquard looms.

Quite a lot of this book is devoted to the history of I.B.M., descended mostly from Hollerith's company but also some others, including one that made cheese-slicers... Remington Rand is a more suitable example, since it was a powerful maker of typewriters partly from its experience in making sewing-machines, which required speed, precision and enough reliability to run without a dedicated maintenance team. It's not actually very surprising that clothing should have several times impelled a technological leap. It's a tempting use of capital, since so much money is spent on it at all times, and the standards are high; really good handwork is still better at some things than what machines can do. If the next industrial revolution is 'mass customization', it will probably start in clothes again. I hope so, because it's an offense to aesthetics that so many people have so many clothes that don't really fit.

I wonder if Hollerith's cards were the first time data lived naturally in a database. It's an error-inviting pain to fill out even a two-dimensional table by hand, let alone a deeper one.

It's a pity that information never went from cloth back into the machines; I imagine it as long-term storage: punch the cards until the design is right, weave a reference sample, and when the cards wear out unweave the sample through a machine that generates cards from cloth: then save the first weaving from those cards as the new reference. This wouldn't be a good idea, since punching more cards from cards is easy.

I also wonder where Jacquard got the idea for punched cards. (Or where one Falcon, who built the first but worse punchcard loom got it, if Jacquard got the idea from Falcon.) I have a Theory, actually; bobbin-lace patterns. Bobbin-lace was as expensive and slow to make as brocade, and the patterns changed with fashion much faster than one person could make up a suit of lace. Complicated patterns require pinholes punched into stiff card, which give a skilled lacemaker enough direction to make up the pattern. Middlemen made up many many cards corresponding to small pieces of a fashionable pattern and handed them out to lacemakers as they picked up the finished pieces from the last pattern. It would have been important that the patterns lined up well to be invisibly sewn together, although the threads did not weave from one piece into the next. I think there must have been a lot of these cards around, especially in a town as devoted to luxury clothing as Lyons was. It's still a big intellectual jump to switch from a human feeling with a pin to know where thread-crossing should go, to a machine that always crosses in the same places feeling a card to decide whether a crossing should happen; but it would explain why sheaves of punched cards 'looked like' information storage.

Online glossaries give 'lace cards' as a synonym for punchcards, but they also sometimes suggest that that only refers to a card with all possible holes punched out, giving it a resemblance to simple lace. On the other hand, that resemblance would provide an easy false etymology.

I can't find an online picture of how the early automatic lacemaking machines work, although Nottingham has a promising history of mostly-Nottingham lace machine inventions; the Jacquard idea came in after decades of improving knitting-frames to approximate the action of lace-twisting.

ISBN: 0192805770

December 17, 2003

Elegance, Kathleen Tessaro

This is loosely in the Bridget Jones genre - young upwardly-mobile woman makes a fool of herself, learns not to, gets love of adorable rich young man. The hook is a (real) book of advice, called Elegance, by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, which book Tessaro liked and her heroine reconstructs herself by.

I quite liked the resolution to the heroine's psychologically painful upbringing; her parents have gotten better, and she loves them more easily now. The friends are also better than mirrors for the heroine's development. I'm afraid the love-interests aren't.

I am enchanted to discover that Dariaux's book is reviewed on, which is itself a brilliant website, a gorgeously dense database-driven site that clearly works very well even for any not-computer-enthusiast users. I have a longstanding peeve with the "more whitespace!" theory of helpfiles, textbooks and instructions, and PatternReview blows that theory out of the water. If you present a lot of data in a way that illustrates its underlying logic, the presentation itself starts to explain things to the newcomer; and the ability to scan and compare is invaluable to the expert. Go, admire, do likewise; or learn from the review of Dariaux a sensible, comfortable set of rules for where zippers should go in clothes.

The bits of Dariaux quoted in Tessaro are against comfort; it's nice to see the other half of the argument.

ISBN 0-06-052225-9

July 02, 2003

Dress in Detail, Rosemary Crill, Verity Wilson, Anna Jackson, Charlotte Horlyck, R

Close details of amazing clothes from the Victoria & Albert Museum's amazing collection. Corners and closures and embellishment in color photos large enough to show the dimples of blindstitching; and the whole garments are shown only in smallish, lightweight, almost schematic line drawings. This is graphically nice and perhaps an efficient use of color photos; better yet, it is like my memory of some beautiful things: I can know, by reconstruction, that such-a-building was large, symmetrical, etc.; I do know by sensuous memory what the molding on the mantel looked like.

The material in the V&A is not a even sample: as the introduction says,

Historically, the arbitrary division of artefacts into either ethnography or art means, for example, that there are not many garments in the V&A from the continent of Africa and none at all from Oceania. (p. 8)

There are more gold-encrusted coats from Serbia/Bosnia/Greece than seem at all likely - the materials alone are ruinously expensive; I didn't realize that even the aristocracy there was really that rich. I probably underestimate both how much London centralized wealth as the nineteenth century drew on, and how much wealth can be forced out of poor peasants.

What's most impressive - and maybe invisible to most people in a T-shirt and jeans life - is the amount of work that went into, alternately, making tough rigid materials into garments people could move in; or into making garments even more rigid so they could fill space and control the wearer for impressive display. Smocking and narrow, narrow godets - both, incidentally, more stitch-intensive than anything we now do for work clothes - let people move. Technically impressive, without elastic or much knit fabric or mechanical sewing. Also, most clothes lasted long enough to be modified for size or fashion or repair, or needed to be wholly or partially unsewn and resewn for basic washing. Even a low-tech society clearly put a lot of thought into some of these problems; there are gussets in the gussets, in their armholes, and they aren't on the same grain of the cloth.

Heavily couched gold braid seems to have been the universal favorite for making clothes grander - no, I lie, aristocratic Japan was too perfectly refined; some examples of beige-on-beige gauze here are ungilded lilies (how does that drawcord move? The threads of the gauze don't seem to be broken; p. 76). Padding and quilting and dense embroidery stiffen up the commoners, for weddings or against freezing wind, or both. (Siberian marriage coat made of sixty tanned salmon skins; p. 128.)

Some items illustrate books I've blogged. A gauze-and-sequins bodice on p. 98 was called the "Queen of Oudh's costume", but probaby belonged to "a young dancer". Sold by models for the Warreners of In Times of Peril, I expect. P. 166 has an ornate, special-occasions labourer's smock from southern England, illustrating at least one 'traditional craft' from George Sturt's journals; maybe illustrating the traditional delights of the agricultural fairs he describes, which were rare enough for dress clothes but too indigenous for citified suits. (It's between a denim dress and a drover's coat, for anyone else who's been wondering.) The jacket of the Yellow-Hat abbot (p. 116) ought to remind me of history, but actually reminds me of Talbot Mundy.

Back to T-shirts: why don't ours fit? We don't plan to keep them through our seven ages; we can mail-order them; and yet, only a few of us get ones that pretty well match our neck, chest, and waist measurements; let alone having shoulder-seams the right length. I'm pretty sure we'd look better, and it seems doable. Maybe the point of the ubiquitous baggy garments is actually to disguise the body; everything not Lycra is swaddling.

ISBN: 0810965550

See also Historical Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries, by Avril Hart, Susan North, Richard Davis (Photographer); ISBN: 0810966085.