Posts Tagged ‘cotton’

Asking Questions

January 28, 2019

My copy of Wonderland, already flagged and tagged

Creating art usually starts with a question. What if I mixed these colors? What if I sewed these fabrics together? What if a stranger came to town with a mysterious gift? Then you bring out the paints, or the scissors, or sit at the computer and let the rest of the project flow logically from that question. Turns out writing history is the same. You start with a question, assemble your supplies – in this case, the documents, photographs, and artifacts of the era you’re studying – and let the story flow logically from the facts. Except that the interpretation of the facts is colored by the way you ask the question. Steven Johnson asked a question about fashion, recreation, entertainment, and the unknown masses and came up with a different take on history. The first chapter of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World is called Fashion and Shopping. I’m not thin or rich enough to be a fashionista, but I certainly have experienced the benefits of retail therapy, especially at a quilt shop. How wonderful, then, to read Johnson’s discussion of the effect of cotton on Europe. Not only was cotton a revelation in texture to people accustomed to wool and linen, but the results of the dying techniques developed in India were irresistible. “When Vasco da Gama brought back a cargo full of textiles in 1498 from his landmark expedition around the Cape of Good Hope, he gave Europeans their first real experience of the vivid patterns and almost sensual textures of calico and chintz.” The next line is even better: “As fabrics, calico and chintz first made their way into the routine habits of Europeans through the gateway drug of interior decorating.”

My first thought on reading these paragraphs was about my next stories and novels. I could build my grand civilizations not on the bones of conquered peoples, but on the imagination of interior designers. My planets could be ruled not by emperors, but by fabric artists. Storytellers could be the most highly regarded in the population. The economies could work because they already have worked here. I’ve just begun the book and have already flagged a dozen pages with notes-to-self on world-building. All of which proves that asking questions is always valuable, and asking odd questions is even better.

Luck and wisdom!