The aptly named TEXTILES: THE WHOLE STORY is the best book I've ever read on the subject. I was drawn to the book when I saw it at the library by my passion for quilting. Part scholarly book, part coffee table book, part textbook, this highly illustrated work is a non-chronological social and cultural history of textiles from their origins through contemporary times. Defining textiles in the broadest possible way--including rope, string, basketry, even fiber optic cable!, Beverly Gordon discusses their making and manufacture; fabric metaphors in language; how their uses have helped human beings survive; how they appear in every significant life event from birth to death around the world, imparting to each event social, spiritual, and cultural meaning; their connection with money, trade, status, and control; the "messages" they impart; and the spiritual and healing significance of making, wearing, and giving away cloth. This material could have been dry as dust, but the author's self-described "conviction and excitement about the meaning and power of textiles" are contagious, her writing is clear and un-academic, and her apparently encyclopedic knowledge of world cultures and how textiles are used in them provides a truly global perspective on a part of our daily life that we generally take completely for granted.
Here's a typical rich thought from her book: "Textile-making has a magical quality--it is a creative or generative process, associated with the life force--and the process can be comforting. It is an almost hypnotic, healing activity; engaging with the repetitive, rhythmic steps of sewing, knitting, weaving, and similar techniques create a sense of peace or calm. The action...is strengthened by the sensual pleasure of handling the thread or yarn, and watching a new form grow beneath one's hands."(less)