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Worn by Sofi Thanhauser
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Worn by Sofi Thanhauser
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Jan 25, 2022 | ISBN 9780593413906 | 794 Minutes

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  • Jan 25, 2022 | ISBN 9780593413906

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A New Yorker Best Book of the Year

“Meticulous…eye-opening…Much of Worn is really about labor inequity…[and how] the pedestrian objects that fill our daily lives can carry a heavy historical and ecological legacy.”

“We learn that, if we were a bit more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising insights into human history…a deep and sustained inquiry into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years, as well as into the material conditions and social consequences of their production…Read this book. As an argument against the horrors of fast fashion and the social and environmental disasters it provokes, it is powerful and persuasive.”
The Washington Post

“This is a must-read for anyone who takes fashion seriously.”
Glamour, “The First Great Books of 2022”

“A project epic in the depth and scope of its research…Thanhauser’s thesis, one which she proves repeatedly, is that the story of fabric is “charged with political meaning”…Worn is both a historical examination, and a clarion call to wake up to the human rights abuses of the textile industry…leavened by the author’s passion for her subject, and her ability to weave its many strands together like a beautiful piece of fabric.”

“Thanhauser convincingly argues that getting dressed is a political act. Worn is also, unavoidably, about women: their place in the home and the value of their labour. It is an incredibly well-reported account of how fashion, far from being trivial, has shaped human history.”
The New Statesman

“This expansive history documents the transformation of clothing manufacture from a handmade practice, rich with personal significance, to a mass-production industry…elegantly chronicling how textile production came to be defined by worker exploitation, misogyny, environmental devastation, and colonialism.”
The New Yorker, “Briefly Noted”
“Luminous…Thanhauser emphasizes the experience of workers, usually women, who are enmeshed in lucrative global industries linked to textiles and clothing…A knowledgeable and fascinating book…that bulges at the seams with finely spun descriptions of the people and places she encounters.”
The Economist

“Through the prism of five fabrics and five corresponding stories…Thanhauser lifts the veil on the ethics, or lack thereof, of the fashion industry.”
“In this delightful and fascinating book, Thanhauser…weaves a social history of clothing.”
The Globe and Mail, “26 New Books Coming Out…to Brighten Up the Darkest Season”

“Thanhauser’s approach to exposing a system gone so horribly wrong is to synthesise the existing literature, add fresh insights drawn from her own fieldwork, and deliver the findings in a richly evocative narrative powered, but never overwhelmed, by a sense of righteous anger…None of this is logistically or morally simple, and the great virtue of Thanhauser’s analysis is how alive she is to the difficulty of making these networks legible.”
The Guardian
“Now and then in the life of a book reviewer, a book comes along that makes you glad to be one…With admirable concision and formidable scholarship, [Thanhauser]…makes you realise…the history of clothes is a history of death, sickness, exploitation and destruction of land…[and]…how we choose the harms we demonise.”
The Oldie

“Fashion and designer clothes are not the main subject of this provocative book. Thanhauser, an artist and a teacher at the Pratt Institute in New York, examines the effect of clothes on our environment, politics and even our ethics…admirable, meticulously researched… [and] makes us pay attention.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Sofi Thanhauser’s record of clothing dives deeper than just the origins of popular materials and textiles. It tells the story of the people and makers whose lives have been directly impacted by the clothing industry, both positively and negatively.”
Veranda, “The 22 Most-Anticipated Books of the New Year”

“This riveting behind-the-scenes story of the clothes on our backs is a must-read for clotheshorses everywhere. Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly details the industry’s worth of labor that went into Andy Sachs’s bargain-bin sweater? Add in some climate journalism, a deep dive into modern history, and a crash course on workers’ rights, and you’ve got this book in a nutshell.”
Harper’s Bazaar, “Best New Books of 2022”

“An engaging rundown of the ways humanity has strived to cover its collective butt.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A vivid account of how linens, cottons, silks, synthetics, and wools have been manufactured and traded from prehistoric times to the present…You’ll never look at a label the same way again.”
The New Criterion

“A masterpiece of investigative reporting and a riveting adventure story, Worn is both panoramic and richly particular. Thanhauser is the best of guides: humane, engaging, generous with historical anecdote and always able to reveal the telling detail. She shows how the cost of fashion far exceeds any retail price tag, and how the revival of venerable traditions might yet lead us to a sustainable future.”
—Geraldine Brooks, The New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Chord

“Sofi Thanhauser’s history of cloth is not just about clothing: it is about ethics, workers’ rights, women’s progress, climate justice. It is the about the fabric of who we are. And as told in Worn, it also makes an absolutely gripping read!”
—Peggy Orenstein, New York Times bestselling author of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex

“A fascinating read, laying out how our increasingly careless use and discarding of clothing has come to damage our planet. Sofi Thanhauser has carried out a remarkable mass of research on clothes and the fibers they are made from. She has stitched it all together in a clear and engaging style that invites one to keep reading, and to start mending our ways.”
—Elizabeth Wayland Barber, author of Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years

“The story of what we wear is the story of who we are, and Worn offers a riveting, provocative, and eye-opening account. One cannot make sense of our modern world without this book.”
—Brian Christian, bestselling author of Algorithms to Live By and The Alignment Problem

“A must-read. . . Sofi Thanhauser tracks the ingenuity, creativity and human cost of textile production across centuries and cultures in a book which combines remarkable research with heartfelt care.”
—Clare Hunter, author of Threads of Life

“A captivating and deeply researched study of the five main fabrics from which clothing is made…Interweaving eye-popping statistics; immersive descriptions; and vivid profiles of historical figures, Thanhauser unearths the secret life of fabrics with skill and precision. Readers won’t look at their wardrobes the same way again.” 
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Thanhauser confronts the economic impact and environmental damage wreaked by cloth manufacturers throughout history. She considers various materials—linen, cotton, silk, synthetics, and wool—and reports on their origins, uses, and global marketing, effectively combining scrupulous research, interviews, examples drawn from history, literature, pop culture, numerous anecdotes, and engaging commentary . . . fresh and thoughtful.”

Author Q&A

Your research for the book took you all around the globe. Tell us about some of the places you traveled to research WORN.
That’s right! This book brought me to Honduras, England, India, China, Vietnam, West Texas, Navajo Country, Wyoming, New York State, Lowell MA. In China, India, and Vietnam, I spent a lot of time in factories: spinning, weaving, knitting, dying factories. A lot of things looked different in each place, and a lot looked the same. For instance, no matter what country I was in, the factory floor was mainly populated with women, while the owners and managers who gave me the tours and sat for interviews were nearly always men.
Throughout history, clothmaking has largely been the responsibility of women. How have the value of women’s labor and women’s wages been shaped by cloth production?
In a preindustrial context, one of women’s primary economic functions in many, many cultures, was the production of fabric. When fabric making was industrialized, it brought about massive changes in the way that women’s labor looked. For one thing, making fabric at home was compatible with raising children: in fact, some anthropologists believe that is why it was often assigned to women in the first place. Obviously, making fabric in a factory is not compatible with small children: there are swift moving parts, and gears that can rip a scalp off. Of course, that didn’t stop children from being one of the mainstays of the early textile factor’s labor force, alongside children.
What is an example of a localized clothmaking tradition that has been lost to the centralization/mass production of clothing?
There are so many—hundreds—of highly skilled and ancient textile traditions that are in mortal peril. Quechua Backstrap weaving in the Peruvian Andes, Jalq’a weavings in Bolivia, Alindi weaving in Somalia, to name just a few. Closer to home, there are also industrial histories that are threatened with being forgotten. The cast iron machinery used in the US and Britain during the late 19th century and early 20th century: the shuttle looms and spinning frames that transformed fabric making globally, are themselves in danger of being destroyed because museum funding for preserving this type of artifact is absent. This would mean the lost of a huge archive of industrial design. 
Tell us about your love for thrifting. What can you learn from perusing a thrift store? Most prized thrift find?
My love of thrift stores began in late high school, just as I became aware of a whole realm of goods that were much higher calibre than those available to me in TJ Maxx. I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard which has a very wealthy summer population. So the dumptique—a free store in my town next to the landfill—would be regularly populated with extremely nice old things that summer people had discarded. And this was how I realized that thrift store shopping was ultimately the only way to get clothes as nice as the ones I wanted. Beginning to get my clothing from thrift stores also corresponded to a moment in my career as a teenager when it suddenly felt possible to dress in a way that demonstrated I had ideas that extended outside of the mainstream ones, without receding into total unintelligibility.
The thrift store is a massive archive, and in it you can learn the history of postwar American global power. The history of the Cold War is there, the history of NAFTA is there, the history of the rise and fall of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union is there, the story of the rise of China is there. It’s incredibly rich.
It would be very impossible to name my favorite thrifting find but very high in the running would be a pair of corduroys with a matching boiled wool coat that was made by the company Woodland Waders, which produced really durable workwear for women on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1980s and 1990s.
What is your #1 tip for fashion lovers hoping to become more conscious consumers?
Educate yourself about the source of your clothing, right down to the fiber. Clothing brands like to brag about the one or two phases of production that they can feel good about: that the garment is made of organic cotton, for instance, or that it is vegan. But where and how the fiber was produced matters, and so does where and how the fiber was spun, woven, knit, dyed, and sewn. The more we become aware of the complexity of the system, the less likely we will be to accept claims from brands that are just marketing copy, and the more likely we will be to formulate demands that actually get to the issues of workers rights and environmental health, and to seek out new and better ways of making.
Are there any hopeful/inspiring trends you’ve seen in how contemporary clothing is being made/consumed?
The models I’m most excited about use technology to empower people to be artisans. When wool carding was first mechanized, it was a service people purchased: you could bring your wool and have it mechanically carded. It was still your wool, and you could spin and dye and weave it, or sell it, as you liked, but one of the most arduous jobs had been taken care of. Machines aren’t inherently bad, but I like it when they are used to allow the artisan and producer to have a creative life, rather than use to build up big pyramidal wealth structures. The small mills that process wool for people who have small flocks, allowing them to spin their own wool, and the Microspin model in India: this strikes me as a continuation of that model.
Has your relationship with clothing changed since researching and writing WORN? If so, how?
It has and it hasn’t. I still love thrifting, I still love learning about cool small producers, I still love getting dressed. One thing that I think has changed is that I have let go of some of my anger. The issues that I deal with in WORN made me very, very angry for many years. The process of researching, writing, and editing this book gave me a process with which to transform this anger into a set of actions, and now I kind of feel like I have said what I needed to say, and I can allow the research that I did to go live its own life in the world, and hopefully make some mark on what I see as the massive, collective project that is reforming the way we make clothes.

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