Textiles as Tension Technology

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Read here an essay about fabric, or textiles, as a tension technology. For reading bout fabric as tensegrity, see fabric.


Buckminster Fuller was profoundly inspired by the textile wizardry of Anni Albans when they met at Black Mountain College. He spoke of her inspiration often, along with Kenneth Snelson. Snelson's long research into tensegrity led him to conclude that it was a form of weaving, "weave truncated polyhedra" to be exact. Snelson wrote a technical treatise comparing weaving and tensegrity, see weaving. He wrote, "Weaving in its familiar planar patterns has existed since the beginning of civilization... by using strips of hide or reeds and passing them rhythmically over and under one another, it was possible to produce material useful for all sorts of things... Weaving and tensegrity share the same grounding principle." [3]

Essay: Textiles are the Original Tension-based High Technology

Fabric was high-tech in the ancient world, and it was a tension technology. Our preoccupation with metal is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The words weaving, spinning, thread pulling, warp and woof sound old world, while cables, wire and stainless stell sound new. But call cloth, wool, cotton and linen "tension-harnessing technologies", and you begin to grasp their importance. The truest high technologies are tension structures harnessed by humanity, and textiles were the first of their kind. Either a sail boat catching a Westerly off the coast of Africa, sails billowing their ropes taut and stays straining, or a satin and linen gown pulled drawn lovingly around a woman's curves by the weight of a hidden hoop: both are exquisite applications of tension technologies, rendered in textile.

Iron was rare and purely compression in a textile-centered world

Iron was a "poor relation" to cloth in the ancient world, according to the historian Braudel. It was difficult to form, forge and mold, and was very expensive. "In Homer's time, the bit in the mouth of a horse cost more than the animal itself." Iron remained rare as spice and was condemned to play a marginal role until the dawn of the industrial revolution and the advent of the steam engine [1]. Iron and metal-working were not the darlings of venture capital in days of yore; artisans, inventors and investors bypassed metal. They tended to focus their creative energies, including artistic creation, continual innovation, commodity trading, industrialized production and encouragement of mass consumption on textile manufacturing.

The history of textile technology is mostly of anonymous inventors. It took centuries to perfect the art of textile manufacture. Some techniques needed: how to forge a tensile lattice-work from botanical filaments; how to do the same from animal hairs. (The difference between plant and animal root is preserved in Orthodox Jewish law, forbidding the weaving of animal and botanical sources into one garment. This weave was reserved for Temple-serving priests alone. [2])

Textile technological innovation lies at the heart of many other inventions

Textile techniques spawned other industries. The print revolution does not begin with Guttenberg, as Guttenberg needed paper to feed into his press. Paper in turn required old rags for raw material. Rag pickers only after the 13th century found enough rags to begin a paper industry as before that time flax and hemp cultivation were rare, and cloth and rope did not exist in any large quantities. The textile loom was the inspiration for programmable computing, its punch cards being an early method of controlling an automated process by symbols.

Textile trade and marketing were the first global businesses. Humanity slowly perfected cloth within mostly fixed zones of production, huge geographical areas defined by lack rather than surfeit. For most of civilized time Europe lacked wool, cotton, silk; China lacked cotton; India and Islam lacked light wool; Africa lacked everything. Trade developed to close all these gaps, as surely as air is pulled into a vacuum. And consumer demand was then stimulated to increase trade. By 1700 demand became seasonal as fashion fueled a continual innovation cycle. After 1850 hygiene drove demand as well, and underwear became common.

Links and References

[1] Braudel, F. Capitalism and Civilization vol I p.382

[2] For more information on Jewish separation of animal and botanical fibers, see shatnez.

[3] http://www.kennethsnelson.net/icons/struc.htm, a frame site; the relevant page is http://www.kennethsnelson.net/new_structure/structure5_new.htm