29 August 2018

The Language of Textiles

Catalogue piece to accompany Bow Arts Raw Materials exhibition

The English language is a great melting pot of borrowed phrases and words, influences from invaders and explorers, and the legacy of thousands of years of cultural and social life. Even many years after working terms and practices have died out, they linger on in the language, becoming part of the way we express ourselves every day.

In this richness of words and phrases, expressions and words relating to textiles are deeply woven through the language. It wasn’t so long ago that many cardigans were home-knitted, that clothes were more usually sewn on the sewing machine than shop-bought, and before that, many households were industrial units, completing piecework. Sewing, knitting, weaving, embroidery and related skills were part of everyday life for most people over centuries, and still remain so for many, for work or personal passion.

It’s no surprise, then that our language is so embroidered with phrases referencing textiles and fabrics, and they are so knitted into our ways of expressing ourselves, you may say, that they are hard to avoid.

Textile-related sayings

We embroider the truth when we try to make something more interesting by adding details which may be untrue.

We attempt to weave lies but get caught out. Sir Walter Scott, from his 1808 poem Marmion:
Oh, what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive.

Fag end has nothing to do with smoking. In the textiles trade, the last part of the piece of cloth was made of coarser material than the rest and left hanging loose. It came to be known as the fag end, possibly as a corruption of flag, meaning hang down.

Tent The name of a portable shelter supported by poles or a frame came from the Latin tenta/tentus/tendere - to extend or stretch, through Old French, and 13th century Middle English tente, when it usually referred to stretched animal skins.

Tender hooks The phrase on tenter hooks derives from the 14th century term for a wooden frame where wet clothes were hung out to dry. Now we use the term when we feel our nerves are being stretched beyond endurance: today the phrase is often said as on tender hooks.

Glad rags Best party clothes. This term for dressing up in our finest is not new. Glad is a word that seeped into the English language through several sources, including Old English glæd (bright, shining, pleasant) and Old Saxon gladmod (cheerful). Glad used to mean more being more splendidly happy and radiant with joy than it does in today’s definition of being moderately pleased. It is first recorded as referring to a smashing outfit in 1902. There are other slang meanings, such reusable material for periods and cloths used to wipe down after sex!

Clobber In the 19th century, clobber was a dark, mud-like paste used to cover the breaks in leather of old shoes, possibly from the Gaelic clabar (mud). Dressing your best was clobbering up - to patch old clothes to cover up defects. Clobber was recorded as British Air Force slang meaning clothes and personal effects in 1941.

Other everyday words and phrases speak of past practices

Milliner - hatmaker Milan in Italy used to be famous for its manufacture of fancy goods, which Milaners or travelling salesmen took all over Europe. Eventually, the term became specific to those who sold hats and then those who made them, whether they came from Milan or not.

(In) fine fettle In good health or good condition. Fetel is an Old English word for girdle or belt, so when you were dressed in your best clothes and belt, you were in fine fetel. From there, the word developed an association with tidying up other things, such as cleaning off stray fragments that stuck to iron castings or china mouldings. When the process was finished, the piece had been fettled.

Textiles are also woven into the language in more metaphorical ways

Subtle is from the Latin sub (under, below), and tela (delicate tissue, web-like structure): beneath the threads on a loom, meaning finely woven. The modern meaning of subtle as clever and indirect is perfectly described as a delicately complicated and understated web of meanings.

Text is from the Latin past participle of texere, meaning to weave, join, fit together, interweave. The concept of text as interwoven ideas, thoughts, nuances and meanings, creates a beautiful and insightful definition, as so much of what we say and write communicates at those layers of meanings that make up the fabric of language.

And more cat-agorical ways

Tabby cat In the 14th century there was a textile manufacturing suburb of Baghdad, al-‘Attābīya, named after Prince Attāb. The cloth made there was known as attābī and the term passed via Old French atabis and modern French tabis into English as tabby. This originally denoted a sort of rich silk taffeta.

This day put on my false tabby waistcoat with gold lace, Samuel Pepys diary, 13 October 1661.

Since the cloth was usually striped, by the 1660s the word was being applied to brindled cats - brownish or tawny with streaks of other colours. And so tabby cats were so-called because they looked like they were wearing silk waistcoats.

English sleeved silk waistcoat 1676-1699, Museum of London catalogue, 'Men's Costume, 1580-1750', Cat. No. 28. In time, waistcoats got shorter and became sleeveless.

Jeff the tabby cat 2018

Some textile-based terms have spread into wider use, with poor quality associated with lack of morality or low principle

Shoddy is cloth spun from left over and shredded fabric. Made from short staple yarn, the fabric is cheap, weak and poor quality. Now of course, the term shoddy can be used for any inferior item or practice.

Old Rags into New Cloth - Salvage in Britain, April 1942 A textile worker rakes newly-made ‘shoddy’ out of the “blow ‘ole” (the receiving chamber of the rag grinding machine) at this factory somewhere in Britain. The shoddy will be combined with new wool to produce new cloth. Image Imperial War Museum © IWM (D 7447)

Sleazy is a loosely woven cloth, such as cheesecloth. Cheesecloth is also by definition a shoddy cloth. So a cheesecloth dress is thin, flimsy and poor quality, and sleazy of course. Further connotations of sleazy meaning disreputable, low and contemptible come from this original definition of poor quality. Sleazy did not take on a sense of seediness, corruption and immorality until the 1940s.

Tawdry In the 17th century tawdry was developed as a shortened form of tawdry lace or St Audrey’s lace, a necktie or ribbon which was sold annually at Ely fair. Tawdry eventually lost its original sense and developed an association with the showy and sordid.

Seamy Now more used in the term seamy sex scandal, seamy once referred to clothing that had the rough edges of its seams visible, and is now tabloid code for sordid or disreputable.

Drab was a natural, undyed cloth but gained another meaning since the late nineteenth century: a dirty, untidy woman or prostitute. Now of course, drab is anything plain, colourless or boring.

Cockney language

This article accompanies the Bow Arts research and exhibition project Raw Materials: Textiles which traces the textile heritage of the East End, which roughly corresponds with the Cockney area. Every place on Earth has its area-specific language, references and slang, and the Cockney slang is a wonderfully rich mixture of terms and jokes, Yiddish and other influences, and the intricacies of rhyming slang.

In the densely populated East End, of the early 19th century, in the fast-paced growth of the city during the industrial revolution, it was said that rhyming slang evolved from codes used amongst thieves so that law enforcers would not understand them, and other codes used within trades and business. Partly they were ways of speaking which deliberately excluded outsiders, whether the police or Peelers, or unsuspecting customers in the market place. Crucially, in rhyming slang, the rhyme is inferred but not said, unless explained to non-Cockneys, so a suit is a whistle, meaning whistle and flute: Nice whistle, mate!

Whistle – suit However, these rhymes didn’t come about without meaning just because they rhymed, but evolved through interweaving other sayings and references, some of which may be traced and unravelled, although much of this language was not written down - it’s a marvellously inventive and still evolving language. Whistle and flute is thought to refer to the phrase - clean as a whistle, because steam train whistles needed to be kept clean of grime in order to work. A suit was a Sunday-best type of clothing supposedly kept cleaner than other clothes, therefore: clean as a whistle, whistle and flute, suit.

Weasel – coat The nursery rhyme Pop goes the weasel is based on Cockney rhyming slang - weasel and stoat - coat

Up and down the City Road In and out the Eagle, That’s the way the money goes, Pop! Goes the weasel.

It's fairly well-known that the Eagle is a still-existing pub on City Road, and the ne’er-do-well of the rhyme was constantly having to pop his weasel - pawn his coat, in order to fund drinking there - a common practice for the poor in early 19th century London. However, in cloth making, the machine that wound the yarn was called the weasel. Every 80 yards of yarn, or 40th revolution, the machine made a popping sound to tell the spinner that the skein was completed. This witty blending of meanings is typical of the imaginative weaving together of phrases in Cockney rhyming slang.

Eagle Tavern, City Road. Print by T. Bowyer and John Shury, 1841. The Eagle Tavern stood on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk. It was formerly a tea garden but became an early music hall in 1825 and features in Dickens' Sketches by Boz. It was sold in 1883 to the Salvation Army, and later demolished in 1901. © Museum of London.

The Eagle, now on the site of the old Eagle Tavern

Uncle Bert – shirt I’ve got to iron my Uncle.

Uncle meant a pawnbroker (although there are plenty of other meanings for Uncle). Bert meant either an impressive and popular fellow, or an attractive guy: Wow! That guy is such a Bert!

It’s hard to establish the earliest use of Bert in the shirt context - suggestions range from reference to Bertie - King Edward VII, to Dick Van Dyke’s mockney Bert from the film Mary Poppins, both of which would make the term 20th century. A shirt anyway is still an everyday smart item. Bert can also stand in for any temporarily forgotten noun, much like thingumajig, or to replace a noun when you don’t want someone else to know what you’re talking about. Pass me over that bert quick before she sees it!

Uncle Bertie adjective meaning angry, especially if only temporarily, or characteristically ill- tempered. Extended from Uncle Bert – shirt: What are you getting all Uncle Bertie about?
At any rate, Cockney rhyming slang is an ever-evolving language which continues to absorb references from popular culture, and to spread its phrases into everyday language used far from the original Bow Bells, and to suggest otherwise would be to tell porkie pies.

Textile-related place names in the East End

Cable Street mural

Cable Street The scene of the famous Battle of Cable Street, 1936, where the locals stood up to Oswald Mosley and his fascists, Cable Street is a long road, originally named because it was a straight path along which hemp ropes were laid out and twisted into full-length shipping cables.

Petticoat Lane A petticoat was originally a little coat - pety coote, the padded coat worn by men under armour, only later describing the underskirt worn by women. In the 15th century the area was where second-hand clothes and bric-a-brac were traded. By the 17th century incoming Huguenots established weaving and dyeing industries, and the fields all around were tentergrounds, where cloth was stretched out to dry. Despite being renamed Middlesex Street in 1830, the area is still known as Petticoat Lane and is still the site of a clothing and bric-a-brac market.

Petticoat Lane Market, 1975

Once the seams of words and phrases are unpicked, metaphors and references begin to spill out and unravel, and so often these are related to textiles, to clothing, and working with fabrics.


Copley, J. (1961). Shift of meaning. London: Oxford University Press.
Ekwall, E. (1954). Street names of the City of London. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Macdonald, A. M. (1956). Chambers's Etymological English Dictionary. Edinburgh; London: W. & R. Chambers, Limited.
Museum of London online archive: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/collections
Scott, W. (1810). Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field: Edinburgh: Printed by J. Ballantyne and Co. For Archibald Constable and Company, Edinburgh; and William Miller, and John Murray, London, 1808.
V&A online archive: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/
1000 English Idioms Explained (English Language). (2008). UK: Foulsham & Co. Ltd.

Eleanor MacFarlane, April 2018, first published Bow Arts

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