Danielle C. Skeehan. The Fabric of Empire: Material and Lffiterary Cultures of the Global Atlantic, 1650-1850. John Hopkins Press, 2020. $54.95 USD. 184pp including images and index. ISBN: 9781421439686.
By Samuel McLean
The Fabric of Empire is a series of case studies that places text and textiles next to each other to demonstrate their through intricacies and interactions. Danielle C. Skeehan juxtaposes clothing with text to clearly and convincingly show the relationship between these two source types. An additional and very important point of Skeehan’s work is to emphasise that the burgeoning field of the Atlantic World must also be expanded to include India and Asia, given the very important connections between Britain and those regions began in the early modern period.
The book begins with a discussion of the legal struggles of Guatemalan weavers to have their work recognized as creative output in the same sense as an author’s books. This opening example underscores the common thread of “text/ile” that has been woven throughout this book by Skeehan.
The first section is titled “The Empire’s New Clothes: British Publics and Imperial Politics 1650-1720.” The first chapter examine Virginia Ferrar’s use of an English translation of Mercator’s atlas to create a written text endorsing the creation of a silk industry in Virginia. The second chapter looks at the protest against the importation of Indian calico fabrics in the early 18th century. These are absolutely fascinating side by side; in the first Ferrar assumed the Algonquin women would become part of the silk industry—their participation almost taken for granted. This comes across as economic naivete. In the second chapter, Skeehan describes how authors like Daniel Defoe created “workers” named after the tools of those involved in the manufacture of fabrics, and gave them voice to complain about imported fabrics—the shock of economic reality of relatively inexpensive Indian fabric—which was in fact banned under the Calico acts and therefore was re-exported to the American colonies.
The next two chapters focus on American case studies, beginning with a look at domestic manufacture, rejection of English manufacture and the American Revolution. Again, there is that connection between production of fabric and political discourse. Building on the previous chapter, “The Republic of Homespun” examines the publications that involved the rhetoric language of fabric production, showing that there were “paper poems” written on behalf of mills in the 1770s. The next chapter “Materializing the Black Atlantic” flips things on their head—and gives voice to the non-white population. It looks at how their production of fabric also gave them voice, whether in embroidered text on clothes, or the introduction of African/Creole styles and patterns into European fashion by Indigenous, Black, and mixed-race dressmakers and seamstresses. I was very much surprised by the discussion of fabric created for the West African market as part of the trade in enslaved peoples—I had not before considered that English fabrics might be part of the payment. Even more fascinating was that these fabrics were (sometimes) taken apart, and the components re-used in the creation of West African fabrics.
The next section remains in the US, beginning with “Oriental America, Silk Geographies in the Era of the Early Republic”, but it comes to back to silk—in this case the American appetite for Chinese silks during the first half of the nineteenth century. In particular this chapter highlights needlework and the creation of samplers—a very different type of construction than the garments previously mentioned—and it seems akin akin to Virginia Ferrar’s use of the Mercator for her text. The final case study looks at the Americas as a whole, beginning with the story of the ‘Lieutenant Nun’ Catalina de Erauso, both with their experiences in Spanish obrajes (which included the production of rags and paper) and the use of unfree labour in the creation of Spanish and Incan fabrics in South America. This section recalls Virginia Ferrar’s assumptions about an American silk industry, as Incan weavers continued to create fabric. Later the story of the ‘Lieutenant Nun’ became very popular in US newspapers from the 1840 and later, when the US printing industry was heavily dependent on the output of enslaved peoples on cotton plantations. Skeehan argues that the story of the Lieutenant Nun was used to justify the invasion of Spanish-held territories for the expansion of American economies that couldn’t function without enslaved individuals.
The final section circles back to the ideas of collective authorship, mentioning Marx, Zapatistas, and again returning to the efforts of the Mayan weaver’s movement in Guatemala. At this point, the statement that “Textiles are the Books that the Colony Was Not Able to Burn” has been very effectively proved, but the reader will be left with a very many questions. So much so, for example, that I reached out to the author to ask about the possible influence of late seventeenth century Chinoiserie on the American colonies and whether it had an impact on the period she described. However, Skeehan ends each chapter with a summary of her larger point, and this was very useful for bringing me back into the chapter itself. It strikes me that this book could be very good for undergraduate or even senior high school classes as it is clearly written, clearly structured and yet not pandering to over-simplification in the least. The author beautifully restrains the scope of her observations to what can shown in the somewhat limited space available. The Fabric of Empire is an object lesson in how to use a small number of case studies to to make a limited number of excellent points. I predict this book will be the starting point for a number of young scholars who will take up this field in the future.
Dr. Sam McLean is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His PhD thesis examined the relationship between military institutional development and state development following regime change, specifically between the Royal Navy and the English/British state from the Restoration in 1660, to the replacement of the Articles of War in 1749. Sam organizes and writes for Global Maritime History and is a Councillor for the Canadian Nautical Research Society. He can be found on Twitter at @Canadian_Errant. Samuel’s Blog on this Site is “From the Gunroom” although he is currently blogging about the ADM 8 Database Project.