I have been listening to a podcast on the history of the English language and one of the more recent episodes has been about clothing and the cloth industry. I have summarised below some of the main points from this episode. If you want to listen to more you can download the podcast from the usual places or you can visit the website www.HistoryofEnglishPodcast.com
Shirt, Shoe, Belt and Hat are the only 4 words used by the Anglo-Saxons that we still use today.
The words ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’ come from the same basic root. ‘Shirt’ is an old English word and ‘Skirt’ was the Norse word for ‘shirt’ used by Vikings and then over time they came to mean two different things and ‘skirt’ didn’t come to the English language until the early 1300s.
The words ‘sock’ and ‘cap’ are found in old English documents but are loan words from Latin. The words ‘shorts’,’ sweater’, ‘slacks’ and ‘stockings’ are based on the old English root words ‘short’, ‘sweat’, ‘slack’ and ‘stock’ respectively, but ‘stockings’ itself didn’t appear until the late 1500s and the others did not appear until the 1800s. This is mainly because these items of clothing did not exist during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Most of the clothing was draped over the body before medieval as there was no easy way to secure and there was relatively little difference between male and female clothing. Tunics, which were often worn, were a loose square of material with a hole for the head and a belt was used to fasten it to the body. Tunics were worn by both men and women with cloth tied round the legs as a form of stocking or leg wrap. Trousers as we know them today did not exist. If it was cold they would wear a cape sometimes secured with a brooch.
Most changed from mid 1200s to early 1300s due to introduction of the button. Buttons first appeared in Western Europe in the mid 1200s. The word button in English was borrowed from French, although it has a Germanic root and is cognate with the English word ‘beat’ and the Germanic word ‘butt’ referring to the fact that the button is pushed through a small opening. First mentioned in a document in 1320. This meant that things could be more fitted and be easier to take on and off. They became shorter and tailored and also varied according to gender. This allowed for coats, trousers, etc. ‘To put on [clothes]’ became used in this context around this time.
‘Dress’ was borrowed from French and Latin and was first used in English in the early 1300s. Initially it meant to put something right or put things in order as in ‘address an issue’. When buttons gave a more tailored look to clothing, items became more specific to certain areas of the body and more layers could be worn. This gave rise to the use of the word ‘dress’ in the context of ‘putting on’ clothing and ‘getting dressed’. It wasn’t until the 1600s that ‘dress’ came to mean a ladies ‘gown’ or ‘frock’.
The tailoring meant that at this point men’s and women’s clothing began to diverge and this is where ‘shirt’ became reserved for the upper body and ‘skirt’ was used for the lower part. The words ‘cap’ and ‘cape’ similarly diverged. Both come from the Latin word copper meaning a hooded cape and one became the hood and the other, the cape. The rich were affected first as they could afford it, but it gradually spread to even the poorer peasants.
The fabric used, for both rich and poor, was mainly wool as sheep were very common. Mainly in Netherlands and Belgium were the main suppliers of fabric and England the main supplier of the wool to make the fabric. An interdependent relationship. Wool was the English primary export and important to our economy. Even today, the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords sits on a large square bag of wool called the ‘Wool Sack’. By 1300 there were 10 million sheep producing 40 thousand sacks of wool per year. Some sold to Italian merchants, but most earmarked for Flanders.
The word ‘Earmarked’ comes from days of common land and notching the ears of the sheep to identify the sheep. Farmers then moved to private land and used hedges to mark boundaries and keep animals in and others out. This marks a societal shift from a communal society to one where property and ownership was the norm. A hedge warden was there to keep an eye on the hedges and make sure the sheep did not escape and others did not come in. Over time, in the same way that ‘Shire reeve’ became ‘sheriff’ and ’sheep herder’ became ‘shepherd’, the words ‘hedge warden’ became ‘hayward’ and ‘haywood’. This has nothing to do with the word ‘hay’ it is just a shortened form of the word ‘hedge’. This is the start of surnames. Little Boy Blue in the nursery rhyme was a Hayward and the horn was used to inform others the sheep had got out.
Hedges gave protection and defence, hence the use as a verb from the late 1300s. These terms are now often used in the finance industry partly because the sheep and the wool trade were very valuable, hence the words ‘hedge fund’, ‘hedging your bets’.
‘Sheep’ is an old English word also sometimes called ‘a wether’. It refers to a male sheep and usually a castrated male sheep. It was common for a shepherd to put a bell around the neck of the lead sheep, which is where the term ‘Bellwether’ comes from as an indicator of future trends. As a ‘hedgefund’ manager you might ‘earmark’ some of your funds to invest in a new industry and some in a ‘bellwether’ ‘stock’.
English sheep tended to provide a very fine wool and why it was in high demand to make a high-quality cloth. The fleece was bundled into sacks. England had only a small local cloth production. Flanders imposed custom duties on the English merchants and a dispute arose in 1270. The Count of Flanders put an embargo on English wool. Increasingly England sold to Italy instead. In 1274 Edward I came to power and took his time coming back to England from the Crusade when taking the crown and part of that was dealing with the dispute. He talked to the Count and resolved the issue meaning the Flanders market was now open again. He called his first parliament on return and included the merchants. This was partly due to the costs of the crusade and not wanting to cause an uprising by the nobles and merchants. He imposed a tax on wool exports with no objection and was relatively modest. This was the start of taxing exports and imports rather than nobility.
Step one was to sort through the wool and divided into coarse, medium and fine. It was then washed to remove the grease and spread on boards to dry. Soil, etc removed either by hand or cut out. The wool could be dyed at any point. Before process or after spun or after made into cloth, which was more common. If dyed before spun it tended to hold colour better and for longer ‘dyed in the wool’ now meaning holds onto strong passions or beliefs.
Next step carding/combing then spun using a distaff and a spindle. At this time the spinning wheel was introduced to Europe in late 1200s, earliest picture of a spinning wheel is from Bagdad in early 1200s. Europe first references are around 1280 just after the Flanders market reopened. The first efforts with the spinning wheel were rough and the guilds at first banned the use of spinning wheels because it produced lower quality yarn, but after adaptations, it improved and it meant it could be spun faster. This is one of the few careers that accepted women and they were called ‘spinsters’. They were not called spinners as the ‘er’ ending in old English was reserved for male worker and ‘ster’ a female worker. Those women who got married and had children often stopped spinning , which meant older, unmarried women doing spinning were rarer and gradually these became known as ‘spinsters’. Today we still use ‘ster’ in ‘gangster’ ’shyster’, ‘prankster’ and ‘polster’, but it lost its connection to female workers in middle English and started to become more gender neutral and started in the North of England as the same time English adopted the use of ‘ess’ ending from France became better known and has a Latin root.
Next step weaving – Surnames Webber and Webster male and female weavers from ‘webs’ being woven and turned into cloth in the USA Webster is a synonym for dictionary written by Noah Webster. Over time ‘weaver’ was also used for this process.
Next the cloth needed fulling to make it ready for turning into clothing. This was done by putting it in a trough of water along with ‘fullers earth’ a mix of minerals to clean the cloth and was common for adding urine to the mix and then people needed to walk in the trough to work the mix into the cloth. Here is where the surnames Fuller and Walker come from. This shrunk the cloth, cleaned it and made it firmer. The cloth then needed to dry. It was put on a wooden frame called a ‘Tinter’ and the cloth was hung on hooks and stretched. To be on ‘tenterhooks’ meaning to be held in suspense. When finally dry the fuzzy bits called ‘naps’ had to be sheared off by a shearer or shear man, hence the surname Sherman. And now we have the word ‘nappy’. In the US this is a slang derogatory term for frizzy hair.
Sometimes the cloth was sold undyed. The French had a word for this ‘drop’ or ‘droperie’ and this became a verb ‘to drape’. The word ‘drop’ from undyed cloth became ‘drab’.
Dyeing was regulated by guilds often specialising in one colour. Many bought dyes, some made their own.
The words ‘white’,’ black’, ‘red’, ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ come from old English and ‘purple’ from Latin, but there were no words for blue, orange or brown. The word ‘blue’ appeared around 1300 from French. The words used previously referred to the plants or dyes, eg woad, indigo. Woad was mainly used by peasants as it produced a more washed-out blue, whereas indigo produced a more desirable colour. European cloth makers found it difficult to use for dyeing cloth. It was Marco Polo that helped on how to use indigo for dyeing by including details of this in his writings.
Red dyers would use madder or cermes and gave the word ‘crimson’ a word borrowed from French and Latin in 1400s then a cloth dyed with cermes was called scarlet , which is the origin of the word scarlet. The word ‘scarlet’ was used even when dyed with cermes and indigo to produce a purple, although most of the time it was just cermes and over time the word ‘scarlet’ came to be associated with the bright red colour.
Carpet became the word for thick cloth that people started to use on their floors, although initially used for tablecloths or bedcover. Originally the cloth was used on council tables and when people were called before the council they were ‘called to the carpet’. The words ‘map’, ‘apron’ and ‘napkin’ all originate from the Latin word ‘mappa’ when cloth was more common than paper , cloth was used for maps, French word ‘nappe’ meant a tablecloth, the English took this and added the diminutive ‘kin’ to get ‘napkin’ literally a small tablecloth. In these times it was common for tablecloths to hang long where people sat and for people to use the edges to wipe their faces and hands. The French did something similar by adding their own diminutive to get ‘napparon’
The napkin was used to protect the clothes when cooking, etc. ‘An’ was initially used for all nouns, but the ‘n’ was soon dropped when there was no need for it in front of a noun with a consonant at the beginning and people got confused over the ‘a/an’ article and moved the ‘n’ from the beginning of the noun and so we move from An aparon or a naparon to over time it becoming ‘an apron’.
The export of cloth didn’t really happen in England, but this changed with the introduction of the spinning wheel and more so with the introduction of the water wheel in the late 1200s and using it for the fulling process, which made the process quicker. These were called fulling mills, called tucking mills in the west country and walk mills in the north. This allowed England to produce enough for export along with political issues in Flanders which brought immigrants from Flanders. Thomas Blanquet did not give his name to Blanket as commonly thought as this came from the French word blanc meaning white wool stuffing and was in use in England before Blanquet was born.
Dutch words ‘spool’,’ pack’, ‘bundle’ and ‘bale’ in 1500s ‘mannekin’ meaning ‘little man’ - now mannequin
Initially the tax by Edward I was small and it was accepted because it was small and he negotiated an end to the embargo. In 1294 he ordered a ceasure of all the sacks of wool and only released them on payment of a higher tax. The ‘Moll Toll’ a French word meaning ‘evil taking’. This bolstered the English cloth industry to save the export tax.
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