Curating Proteins and Fibers

Chemical structure of cotton fiber, 2021.


No 11
Structures, Scaffolding, and Organization: Writing about Fibers
How worthwhile is it to reclaim the concept of “structure” to historicize fibers?

Our reading group has been a forum for encountering and researching the historical contexts of fibers and proteins. as part of this journey, we have generated a lexicon that captures the historical diversity of the ways in which scientists and practitioners have conceptualized fibers and proteins.

In this session we explored David Parry’s chapter “Determination of Structural Information from the Amino Acid Sequences of Fibrous Proteins,” published in 1979, alongside the contemporary text “Internal Structure of Fibers,” by Dieter Veit, released in 2023. Both scientific texts that reflect different historical moments in the understanding of fibers.

While Parry investigates the relationship between a fibrous protein’s amino acid sequence and its structure, revealing how a protein’s properties are shaped by its molecular composition, Veit’s text expands this understanding, demonstrating how modern technologies such as spinning and chemical after-treatment have enhanced our ability to visualize and manipulate the internal structure of fibers in more detail.

Despite the 40-year passage of time between the two texts, the group noticed a scientific consistency in how the authors regarded fibers: they are the material definition of organization.

Considering the literal nature of fibers, we discussed approaching them through concepts such as “structure” and “scaffolding,” aligning the writing with materiality, an essential analytical category for our group. Simultaneously, we questioned how to use the concept of “structure” in relation to proteins and fibers, given its widespread use in Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology and the more abstract approach of Marxist academics. Although important, these canons do not reflect the interests of our group, which focuses on the history of understanding the materiality of proteins and fibers. Nevertheless the discussion left us curious about the significance of fibers for shaping our language and how we write the histories of these things.

In light of these reflections, questions arose for the group:

1. How can we reclaim the word “structure” to write historically about proteins and fibers and maintain a focus on materiality?

2. With which canons and disciplines will we be in dialogue by adopting the concept of structure, and how will this influence our analysis?

This collective effort reflects our commitment to understanding and reinterpreting fibers and proteins not just as material entities, but also as dynamic historical concepts, deeply rooted in various academic traditions.

Isabela Dornelas

Parry, David. “Determination of Structural Information from the Amino Acid Sequences of Fibrous Proteins.” In Fibrous Proteins: Scientific, Industrual and Medical Aspects (New York: Academic Press, 1979): 393–427.

Veit, Dieter. “Internal Structure of Fibers.” In Fibers: History, Production, Properties, Market (Cham: Springer Nature, 2023): 63–90.


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