Curating Proteins and Fibers

“The process of removing these feathers is called plucking, they are not drawn out, but are cut close to the skin. The object is to get the feather immediately after it is grown, before it can be soiled or damaged in any way. At that time the quill is still full of blood. Drawing it out would be very painful to the bird, and might injure the wing so that the next feather that grew would be defective. The stumps of the feathers are allowed tore main until they are dead and dry, when they are drawn out easily. In South Africa the Kafirs draw the stumps out with their teeth. In about six or seven months after the stumps are removed, the new plumes are grown and the process of plucking is repeated.” John H. Robinson, Our Domestic Birds: Elementary Lessons in Aviculture (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1913), 237.

No 6
Exploring Fibers: Materiality through Theory and Practice
How can examining the historical development of fields focused on materials and materiality provide us with valuable understandings about fibers?

The study of fibers touches on many disciplines, offering fascinating opportunities to explore the intersection of theory and practice. During our July reading group session, we delved into the material aspects of fibers, drawing insights from historical analysis. Through a selection of readings, we sought to uncover the nuanced relationship between materials and materiality.

Our exploration started with Bernadette Bensoude-Vincent's "The Construction of a Discipline: Materials Science in the United States.” The narrative revealed the emergence of materials science as a goal-oriented field, catalyzed by the Cold War context and government support. The group argued that the reading had not provided a counterpoint to the narrative, and we kept wondering how the historical context affected materials research in other regions during  the conflict, the USSR, for instance. We were also intrigued by the incentives that triggered materials sciences to include organic and natural materials. Given that materials science was a newly developing field in the 1950s, the first generation of materials scientists came from many different  disciplines, although metallurgy played a key role.The discipline did not start exploring natural materials until 1990..

The theoretical dimensions of architectural materiality were presented by Antoine Picon’s introduction to The Materiality of Architecture. This reading expands on the intricate interplay between materials, materiality, and matter in the realm of architecture. Our conversations focused on the conceptual boundaries between materials as functional entities and matter as a broader abstract construction, dissociated from everyday use. The proximity of Picon’s ideas to new materialism theories stimulated our reflections on assessing material behavior and lead to discussion on  whether materials could be understood as having agency or how they can present limits on their uses for human intentions.

Transitioning from theoretical to tangible, we delved into Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s exploration of ostrich feathers in Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. This reading unveiled the intricate global trade network of ostrich feathers, shedding light on the detailed relationships between these specialized fibers and human culture and economy. The reading presented an intricate balance between the local and global scales of trade. However, the animal part of the story was overlooked, as the production of feathers  is directly related to animals’ reproduction and management thereof, which is part of the material aspect of producing and using animal fibers.

The readings and discussions inspired us to pose questions in search of a way of inquiring about fibers by embracing their materiality; hence, we asked:

  • How does context shape expectations of fiber performance?
  • How do metaphor and language contribute to the study of fiber, such as fiber habits, and how do they lead to discussions about fiber structure and material memory?
  • In what way do fibers themselves symbolize metaphors for life?
  • By examining fibers, particularly natural ones, can we redefine the human-nature relationship as collaborative rather than exploitative?
  • How have terms like tenacity, fineness, and lousiness gained quantifiable significance throughout the history of fiber science and other materials sciences?
  • How can we discuss materiality and substances without veering into figurative language that detracts from the precise contextual understanding?

Isabela Dornelas



Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. “The Construction of a Discipline: Materials Science in the United States.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 31, no. 2 (2001): 223–48.

Picon, Antoine. “Introduction: Matter, Materials, Materiality.” In The Materiality of Architecture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 1–20.

Stein, Sarah Abrevaya. Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.


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