Category Archives: Miscellaneous

The Golden Thread is BBC Radio 4′s Book of the Week. Plus: Color Factory; two novelists who wrote their own crimes; and cape-wearing spiders

GOLDEN THREADThe strings have been cut and, at last, ‘The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History’ is out in the wild. I began this book precisely two years ago. The pitch was submitted a couple of weeks before the publication of ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’, and by the time the latter was on shop shelves in late October 2016, I was hip-deep in tales of linen, silk, cotton, rayon, nylon and wool.

Writing ‘The Golden Thread’ has been an incredible challenge, not least in plucking out thirteen tales from the many millions worthy of the telling. To give you some idea of this vastness, I can say that during the course of my research I discussed the mating habits of spiders with the staff at London Zoo; the production of GM silk with a biotech start-up in San Francisco; running harnesses for use in outer space with a NASA subcontractor; and the finer points of swimsuit design with Rebecca Adlington. I also pored over books and articles in textile archives, museums and libraries, drank countless cups of coffee and doubted whether I’d ever be able to do justice to so rich and varied a topic.

Thankfully, the reaction so far has been incredible. “Beautifully wrought”, according to Nature; “charming, absorbing and quietly feminist” (The Sunday Times), “fascinating” (The Spectator), “marvellous” (Dad, who hasn’t read it yet, but who….might). It also got shout outs on Women’s Hour [from 29 mins in], Adrian Chiles on 5Live [from around 2.16.30], BBC London, BBC Scotland, and, wonder of wonders, was selected as this week’s Book of the Week on Radio 4.

Just as with ‘The Secret Lives,’ a huge number of people were involved in taking ‘Golden Thread.doc’, and turning it into ‘The Golden Thread’, an object worthy of bookshelves. Tremendous thank yous to Georgina, for editing; James, who designed it; Ruth, for the index; Yassine, Emma, Kate and everyone at John Murray. For a fuller but almost certainly incomplete list, please see the Acknowledgements page.

Below are a selection of things that caught my eye over the past few weeks as well as some of the pieces that I’ve worked on. Enjoy. Continue reading

The Secret Lives in paperback. Plus: eye-bending colours; Facebook’s nadir; and bricks-and-mortar shops in a digital age


It won’t shock you to hear that I spend a lot of my time thinking about colours. Bright ones, pallid ones, extinct ones, ugly ones: come one, come all. This interest, of course, led me to write The Secret Lives of Colour — an extended paperback version of which is coming out in September [below, left]. But my interest didn’t end there, of course. I still profile individual shades for Elle Decoration in a column of sorts that I have been writing now for five years! Early in the year I held forth on Vantablack and the VBx2 coating used at the Winter Olymptics in Seoul for both CNN  and Marketplace. In the past few months I’ve also explored the beauty and power of colour names; Werner’s Nomenclature, a reference book used by Darwin aboard HMS Beagle; the Forbes pigment collection at Harvard art museums [paywall]; and Pantone’s  Ultra Violet. And finally: later this month, Color Factory, an interactive exhibit, will open in New York after a wildly successful stay in San Francisco last year. And I’m thrilled to say that I was asked to collaborate on part of the space.

isbn9781473630833But of course there’s always more to think about and more to learn. Although it’s a couple of years old now, I recently re-discovered (and still love) this Crayon chronology. On a more serious note, this excellent article in Bloomberg looked at the chemist searching for a bright, stable red: a colour that could be worth a billion dollars. While this trend-focused one from the Guardian shows that black, for many years a fashion stalwart, is losing ground to brighter hues in the era of Instagram. An assessment, incidentally, that the Pantone Institute, agrees with. So powerful is the effect, they argue, that it’s beginning to shape not only high-street trends and spending habits but retails spaces, restaurants and museums. Perhaps my favourite find, however, is the mind-melting work of David Novick, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas, an example of which is reproduced above. He enjoys creating images, or illusions, which show how easily we can be deceived by colours. In the image above, for example, the circular dots, although we perceive them as four different tints, are actually the same colour: RGB 250, 219, 172.

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Color Factory


Last year, Color Factory, a pop-up art experience based in San Francisco, caused a sensation: a one-month run was extended to seven; tickets sold out; Instagram was awash with saturated images taken inside the space. Based on this success, they are setting up shop in New York!

This would be exciting enough – since I missed out on tickets for their initial run – but even more thrilling is that they asked me to collaborate with them on an exhibit. Reader, I said yes.

Tickets are one sale here and you can find out more about what to expect from the all-new, New York line-up here. They’ve also created a special (and free) color-walk at the Cooper Hewitt, with a palette inspired by the neighbourhood. See you there!

Meet Dirty John. Plus Stranger Things 2, Savitri Devi and The Secret Lives of Color


Last week The Secret Lives of Color was published (minus 2,663 ‘u’s) by Penguin in America. It’s had a warm welcome: it was one of the New York Times’ New & Noteworthies, was tranformed into a Buzzfeed listicle and garnered praise from Gretchen Rubin, the podcaster and author, who I spoke to about my slatternly work habits. It’s also come out in German, Spanish and Romanian, with many more exquisite translations to follow.

As any writer will confirm, writing a book is only half the battle: I owe a great debt of thanks to all those at John Murray, Penguin and elsewhere for their hard work winkling out the typos, making it into an object to be proud of, and of course making sure people actually hear about and buy it. Thank you also to everyone on Instagram for all their gorgeous photos: keep ‘em coming!

I too can report that I’ve been working hard (hence the time lag between this post and the one before). Most of my time has been spent working on my second book. It’s so nearly finished I can almost taste the celebratory cocktail I’ll be drinking once the manuscript is handed in. I’ve also been busy moving about and staying with friends and relatives while our flat is being redecorated (it’s going to be much more colourful, for a start); one weekend was spent in Istanbul, my first visit to the city, which I loved; and I’ve been doing some freelance writing to fill up all that, er, spare time.

Below, as ever, are a selection of thing that have caught my eye over the past few weeks along with a sprinkling of stuff from me. Enjoy. Continue reading

Book of the Week. Plus: Wonder Woman, intelligent spider webs and the rich red food of Juneteenth

714lCCv9XSLWonderful news: ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ will be BBC Radio 4′s book of the week beginning on Monday morning at 9.45. This caps off a very busy few months for the book: the Dutch edition was chosen as De Wereld Draait’s book of the month, which promptly propelled it into the bestseller charts, and the Spanish, American and German editions all now have covers and publication dates. It has been incredibly heartening to see the book doing so well out in the wild, particularly since I am once again hacking through a forest of research and drafts for a new project. This is the stage when my email inbox becomes an intimidatingly overgrown tangle, my social life withers and my conversation turns monoculture: preemptive apologies to everyone who comes into contact with me over the next five months, here’s hoping the fruits are worth the labour!

Here are a selection of the pieces that caught my eye this month. Enjoy

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How office cultures crush women’s ambitions. Plus: Zoroastrianism, The Handmaiden, and dining and diving


Over the past fortnight I’ve been reading two books simultaneously. The first is “The Silk Roads”, in preparation for an interview with the historian Peter Frankopan for Always Take Notes, and the second is Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” in anticipation of the release of the TV series. Although they are of course very different, both turn on dominant world views, how rigid and unassailable they can seem, and under what circumstances they become plastic, either suddenly shattering or gradually remolding into something else entirely.

Another thing they have in common is a preoccupation with power. In both, the effects of its shifting from one group to another are distorting and disturbing, rippling through societies like magnets waved over iron filings. Reading the news as compulsively as I have found myself doing over the past six months, it is hard not to feel that the magnets of our own age are entering an active phase.

It is comforting, then, that both were utterly absorbing and instructive. Like all writers it is my hope that reading well will enrich my own writing — it was partly to keep a record of the interesting things that I was reading month to month that I began sending out this newsletter. Telling stories is my job, too. And I aim to tell them as well as I can, to make them as interesting and comprehensible and as true as I can, because as a reader I know that the best ones can at the same time help straighten tangles of events and act as a balm for the rush and confusion. Stories were there right at the beginning, and will surely be there right at the end too, just before the lights go out.

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The Language of Tetchy Fruit Bats. Plus: 52 Places to Visit this Year, the Significance of Kit Colours and Ancient, Leopard-Sized Otters

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After a turbulent start to the year, welcome to what I hope may be a calmer February.

The changes haven’t all been alarming though. First off, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve now signed my second book deal with John Murray, the publishers that brought ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ to vivid life. This time I’ll be telling stories about fabrics both ancient and as yet unrealised. Those who follow me on Instagram will know that I’m currently researching spiders and spider silk; I spent a fascinating morning 10 days ago talking to the wonderful staff at London Zoo about some of their eight-legged charges.

Another project I’m working on has also taken a leap forwards. Always Take Notes, a series of live events and podcast that I am hosting with Simon Akam, now has a shiny new website. We’ve recorded three episodes, which are being edited down by our wonderful producers, Olivia Crellin and Ed Kiernan, and will be released in the next month. Our next live Q&A will be with Stig Abell, the editor of the TLS and former managing editor of The Sun. Future guests include the historian Peter Frankopan and Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors.

Below, as ever, are a selection of things that caught my eye this month and some of the pieces that I’ve worked on. Enjoy.

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The Best Book Covers of 2016. Plus: A Dinosaur Tail in Amber, Bottling the Scent of the Monsoon, Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie’, and Disruptive Lingerie

img_2795 The final few days of each year always feel a little deflated, like balloons five days after a children’s party. Here in the UK, the buzz and build-up of Christmas (love it or loathe it) has popped and people are sated and yet still not quite satisfied.

The new year brings reckonings and renewed goals. After a tumultuous 12 months I know I’m not the only one nervous about what 2017 holds for global geopolitics. (Those of an ominous disposition might not want to be reminded that next year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution and 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’.)

There are, however, many things to be excited about. Russian revolutionary art will be celebrated at the Royal Academy; the work of David Hockney will return en masse to the Tate Britain; while Pink Floyd is heralded at the V&A. Elsewhere, Seurat will take a turn at the Met and Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy will be on display at MoMA. The second season of ‘Stranger Things‘, the brilliant Netflix show from the Duffer brothers, will be released. (I wrote this piece about the show for Film & Furniture.) The 200th anniversary of the death of Madame de Stael, an eloquent opponent of Napoleon, will see a renewed interest in one of history’s great women of letters.

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