Yesterday’s snow walk through Highland Park was largely on the Main Street since the local businesses had made it a point to have the sidewalks shoveled. We walked into Ten Thousand Villages to ogle their collection of beautiful and unaffordable handicraft from around the world. I was admiring this set of scarves. The fabric looked warm and felt soft to the touch. To think that they are but warp and weft of proteins and fiber, but so is everything else.
Everything that is made up is fabric. In its earliest use the word fabric meant building or edifice. It also denoted the skill and contrivance to produce artifice. In a famous speech in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Prospero’s likens the great globe itself to the baseless fabric of his vision that will dissolve, fade and leave not a rack behind. The baselessness of the fabric indicates Prospero’s moment of great despair in products of human endeavor that are ultimately insubstantial. This may have had a bigger etymological impact than we realize on the current day usage of fabric as verb. Now, the only context in which fabricating is used to indicate manufacture is lies. Lies, in essence, are insubstantial. In fact, Shakespeare hones in on exactly this sense of the usage in The Winter’s Tale when Camillo the counselor finds himself unable to shake the fabric of the king’s folly. As a jealous husband and a powerful king, Leontes’ fabric of folly is grand and held upright by a foundation of faith *. In this instance, Shakespeare brings together fabric as edifice with the fabrication of folly. That the notion of building and manufacturing should be etymologically and philosophically linked to the idea of folly is not so surprising; it is a reminder that all things manufactured are ultimately subject to time and decay. In this sense, folly is the foolishness of presumption or a matter of false faith. Prospero realizes this and Camillo finds that Leontes does not. In the modern usage fabrication is folly and severed from the idea of useful productivity. The industrial revolution took better care of allaying our misgivings about how much we can manufacture and how long we may presume for it to last.
While the verb has come to exclusively denote falsehood, the noun largely only refers to cloth or textile. This attribution of meaning dates back to the eighteenth century when textile turned the engine of industry along with iron founding. Cloth became the synecdoche for fabric and fabric has become the metaphor for life.
Swear his thought over
By each particular star in heaven and
By all their influences, you may as well
Forbid the sea for to obey the moon
As or by oath remove or counsel shake
The fabric of his folly, whose foundation
Is piled upon his faith and will continue
The standing of his body.