click to view original photo

Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 10 - The Fabric of Our Lives

The fabrics and terms relating to the materials used for clothing and other items have given us a wealth of terms to use in our everyday vernacular. If you have wondered about how something could be "dyed-in-the-wool" or whether Argyll socks have anything to do with the place of the same name in Scotland, this article may just solve some mysteries.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1402 (approx.)
Short URL:

For the past nine months I have introduced folks to the origins of some of the terms we use for various garments along with the phrases employed that make reference to articles of clothing. For the last installment of this series, I would like to take a side-step to examine the names of fabrics and patterns used in the construction of these pieces of apparel. This is not, by any means, an all-inclusive list, but it should give folks an insight into why we use certain terms to refer to these elements of every-day life.

Sometimes it is as difficult to track a word's genealogy as it is those of our ancestors. Such is the case with tweed, a fabric first used (or whose use can be traced) to the early 1800s. There was a man named Harris Tweed, whose tweed fabric was manufactured in Scotland then as it is now - in the Outer Hebrides; his name became synonymous with that special yarn spun, dyed, and woven there. But it is also entirely possible that the term "tweed" was a misreading of tweel, a Scottish twill. Others say that it is a slurring of the process: tweeled - eventually metamorphosing into "tweed." And yet another opinion is that it is derived from the river Tweed that forms a portion of the Scotland/England border (American Heritage, p. 297).

I loved my suede shoes when I was a kid (no, not "blue suede," but suede Hushpuppies that required an amazing amount of time and energy to care for - almost as much as a real puppy). But before they were used for shoes, suede was a preferred "fabric" for gloves (from the French Suède - meaning "Sweden"); the material was "undressed kidskin" but was eventually altered to be known as any "leather with a napped surface" (American Heritage, pp. 269-270).

Staying on the subject of footwear, which we looked at with much scrutiny a few months ago, let's investigate the reason for the term "Argyll" - meaning a type of socks. This unusual word (which reminds me of an elevated train stop in Chicago whenever I hear the term) was probably initially fashioned after the tartan or family plaid of the Campbell of Argyll; later the word was used to describe the pattern, not the color scheme and so has lost its original meaning (Funk, Horsefeathers, p.14).

I always thought the word "seersucker" sounded funny, and somewhat demeaning (probably due to the "sucker" part of the word). Its origin is Indian (from India, not America), and the original form of the word was sīsakar (a Hindi term, borrowed from a Persian term, which came from the Sanskrit śarkarā - and you thought your genealogy was a mixture!), meaning "sugar." The original material, "seersucker," came from India so, after much warring and "sharing," the English soon found themselves acquiring both name and material from India (the original spelling - Sea sucker - is first found in written form in 1722) (American Heritage, pp.256-157). It gives a new meaning to "borrowing [a cup of] sugar."

Gawbardyne was a type of cloth used to make the garments worn by those who made pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. The intent of the sojourners was to reach a holy shrine for religious purposes, and this they did without carrying much with them. They wore a practical garment for their journey - a gray robe and cowl with a wide brimmed hat; the adornment of a red cross made their purposes clear; and they carried a sack (containing their worldly goods), a staff, and a gourd. Soon the garment was given the name of the cloth from which it was made, with more recent spelling resulting in its present title "gabardine," and even, at least for a time, the pilgrimage itself was dubbed the same (Garrison, p. 71).

Early dyes were created from plants by squeezing the colorful juices and placing them in a vat with the material our ancestors wished to dye. However, the permanence and even initial fixing of the color into the fabric was a constant struggle for those early housewives who tried to create something pretty from ordinary cloth. As a result, they would often re-dye ("double-dye") the piece to get it more securely colored. It was clear when this process of placing the fabric into the vat for a second application of dye took place and double-dyed clothing was not hard to discern. Similarly, anyone who is "deeply stained with guilt" became known as a "double-dyed" villain (Garrison, p. 132).

With dyeing being such a hit-and-miss sort of activity, it was discovered (likely very early in civilization) that if it was accomplished before the wool was spun into yarn (and, obviously, before it was woven into fabric) that the color would be more likely to hold. For this reason, anything "dyed in the wool" was inclined to have the color firmly fixed. Taking that saying into other aspects of life we find that anything that is "dyed in the wool" is interpreted as being a hard and fast behavior or inclination (Funk, Hog on Ice, pp. 26-27).

It is hard to believe that there was much variety in textiles and fabrics in the earliest years of civilization, but medieval Europe boasted some who could spin with the shortest of fibers. The next step, after weaving was completed, was to smooth and cut the short strands leaving the nap tight and soft, such as that of velvet. Those who could not (or chose not to) replace such a fine garment as the nap wore thin, clearly showing the bare threads, would be ridiculed by their associates as wearing "threadbare" clothing. We continue to use the word today to refer to any well-worn clothing or other fabric-covered item (e.g., "my family kept the threadbare couch until the fabric actually fell away from the frame") (Garrison, p. 178).

When I read some of my great-grandfather's letters, about his experiences, I am certain that the facts, as he presented them, were "cut out of whole cloth"; that is, entirely false. He created them for the circumstances. Originally, the word "whole" was "broad" and the term meant "cloth that ran the full width of the loom." So something made of such material was created within the full extent of possibility (using all the cloth available). For the tailors, this was not a bad thing - using all of the resources at one's disposal - but over the years, adjustments occurred. They would advertise using "whole cloth" when, in fact, they used pieced goods, patching what they had, or stretching existing material to make it appear that a full width was used. Now the phrase "made of whole cloth" would be preferable, but the cliché "held" and so it is today (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 101).

My grandmother used to adorn the arms of her settee with doilies. I never could figure out the purpose for them, as they seemed to get in the way more than help protect that part of the furniture. But she was only carrying on tradition (and they did look nice, at least when we would first arrive in her home). Doilies had also been used as table napkins in her ancestors' homes, but prior to that, the little pieces of light-weight fabric were actually used for summer garments. The inventor? Why, eighteenth century Mr. Doiley, of course: a storekeeper who prided himself in providing only the best for his wealthy female customers. England's elite were thrilled with the economical woolen textile (Garrison, p. 234). So if you read in your ancestor's diary that she was able to obtain some "doily," do not assume that it was to dress up her sofa.

So, my fellow genealogists, please do not create your family histories out of whole cloth. Be certain your facts are dyed-in-the-wool and that none of the stories are double-dyed. While the books holding the precious records may have originally been bound in suede covers but now are threadbare, the pages inside, holding the family heritage, is certainly material to treasure.


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles