Material world: the language of textiles

By Bernadette Paton, OED

The English language is rich in words for fabrics and textiles imported from various regions of the world. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in particular an enormous number and variety of fabrics were imported to Britain, especially from Europe and the Middle and Far East.

jersey from Jersey

Many of these, or the garments and other goods made from them, bore—and still bear—the recognizable name of the place in which they originated. Holland, a kind of linen, came to Britain, as the name suggests, from the nearby province of Holland in the Netherlands. Similarly jersey was originally the name given to stockings and worsted items produced in Jersey, or, by the nineteenth century, to a sort of ‘knitted tunic’, the ancestor of the modern jersey (guernseys arrived by the same process, the earliest garment being called a guernsey frock or coat). Cambric came from the Flemish town of Cambray; and, not unpredictably, tulle is named after Tulle, the town in south-western France where it was first made.

cashmere from Kashmir

Other names underwent some minor modification, either by being filtered through another European language—Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese—before arriving in English, or by corruption of the form over time. Damask, originally a rich silk fabric woven with elaborate designs and later a thick figured linen used especially for the table, is still recognizable as coming from the town of Damascus. Cashmere, apart from the anglicized spelling, is not far removed in form from Kashmir, in the Himalayas, from where the soft wool shawls and fabric were imported in the early nineteenth century. Nankeen, a kind of pale yellow cotton cloth from China, represents a pronunciation variant of Nankin, an old spelling of the name of the city of Nanking; and osnaburg, a kind of coarse linen used chiefly for sacking (or, sadly, for making clothing for servants or slaves), came from Osnabrück in Germany.

jeans from Genoa

But some textile names have moved so far from their etymon as to have become almost unrecognizable as bearing any relation to it. Denim came into English as shortened from serge denim, or serge de Nime, a fabric originating in Nîmes in France. So too the heavy twilled fabric jean, or jean fustian, which derives from Old French, Janne (now Gênes), and in turn from medieval Latin Janua (Genoa), literally ‘fustian from Genoa’. The word jeans given to the trousers made from it bears little resemblance to the name of the Italian city from which it derives. Other such changes include calico, an alteration of Calicut, now Kozhikode, in southern India; muslin (via French mousseline and Italian mussolina) from Mussolo or Mosul, now in northern Iraq; and jaconet, a smooth, stiff, lightweight cotton fabric popular in the nineteenth century, which represents an alteration of Hindi Jagannath(puri) (now Puri) in eastern India, its place of origin—making this fabric a distant cousin of the juggernaut, since both come from the same Hindi word.

hairy mohair

The distortion over time often results, after several generations, in an unfamiliar foreign etymon being reduced to a more English-sounding form. Seersucker, a light fabric with a crimped surface, was originally Persian šir o šakar, literally ‘milk and sugar’ (as it was typically striped). Another such anglicization is mohair, from Arabic mukayyar (‘select, choice’), which was assimilated into English through the association of the long-fibred wool with hair.

chints or chintz?

Fabrics were often imported in rolls and spoken of commercially in the plural, and hence the plural ending was sometimes taken in popular usage to be part of the name. Chintz was originally chint (from a Hindi word meaning ‘spattering, stain’, denoting a stained or painted calico cloth) but the plural form came to dominate, and then to be treated as a singular. Similarly baize, originally a plural, from French baies, the feminine plural of bai ‘chestnut-coloured’, came to be viewed in English as a singular noun. (It is the same word as bay, the colour of a horse, perhaps because the cloth was originally brown, although it is now typically green.)

all fustian

Other fabrics travelled so far as to alter not only their form but their meaning. Fustian, from medieval Latin fustaneum (perhaps ‘cloth from Fostat’, a suburb of Cairo) and bombast (ultimately from medieval Latin bombax, an alteration of bombyx ‘silkworm’) both came to denote not only raw cotton or wool used for padding, but also empty ‘padded’ language.

household Manchester …

As well as importing textile names, Britain also contributed them to the rest of the world: Manchester, Nottingham, Norwich, Bolton, and Paisley all gave their names to exported woollens, cottons, silks, and laces. ‘Manchester’ is still in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (but not in Britain) used to denote cotton goods and household linen collectively—and hence, in those countries, the linen section of a department store.

… and Irish rum-swizzle

Finally, the OED provides an insight into a treasure trove of long-gone textile riches. These is so little surviving evidence for many of these obsolete fabrics—some of them only appearing in records of import duties, wills and inventories, and laundry lists—that the original editors of the dictionary were driven to the formula ‘some kind of fabric’ and ‘of unknown origin’. These include the interesting-sounding novato, puleray, cannequin, gazda, grogram, lockram, sannah, shagreen, wadmal, Ticklenburgs, prunella, kreyscloth, gulix, and huckaback (some of these are now under investigation by the Manchester Lexis Medieval Textiles Project). Others, although no longer with us, are well-enough preserved in the literary sources for us to have a clear idea of the type of cloth they were—such as the wonderfully named but etymologically obscure rum-swizzle, ‘a very excellent brownish frieze’ from Ireland.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. The OED Online includes nearly 4000 entries relating to textiles, within which you’ll find sub-categories of words associated with—among others—knitting and weaving.
  2. You can also search by place of origin: words relating to costume, originating in North America. Here, in addition to denim, you’ll find sneaker (1895), monkey-suit (1920), and beanie (1943).

How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries by date, usage, origin, region, and subject using the Advanced Search option. To find entries relating to textiles, search by Subject (under Crafts and trades); searches may also be combined: for example, by Subject (Crafts and trades/costume) and Region (North America).

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