Thursday, September 6, 2012

Of the Cloth

Of the Cloth

Here’s a thematic dip into the etymologies of some common fabrics.

Muslin came to English about 1600, from the French word mousseline, which came from the Italian word mussolina, which came from the Italian word Mussolo, a rendering of the Mesopotamian city, Mosul (now in Iraq). It was in Mosul that people wove a luxurious fabric of silk & gold the Italians called mussolilna. Nobody’s quite sure how muslin lost its luster, but by 1872, Americans defined it as everyday cotton fabric for shirts & bedding.

Corduroy’s story provides a near-mirror image of muslin’s story. Corduroy entered the language in 1780 & referred to a coarse fabric made in England. Tales are told that it comes from corde du roi, the corde of royalty, but no evidence exists to support this story, & wouldn’t you think coarse cloth would chap the hide of royalty?

The word Denim entered English in the late 1600s. It came from the French serge de Nîmes, meaning serge from Nîmes (a town in southern France). The word denim was first applied to the trousers we call jeans in 1868.

Canvas made its way into English in the mid-15th century, from the Old French word canevas, which meant made of hemp, from the Latin cannabis. Who knew?

Last, & least referred to in this modern age, is the word seersucker (I couldn’t resist). Seersucker comes from the Hindi word sirsakir, which came from the Persian shir o shakkar. This term referred to a striped cloth alternating between smooth & puckered textures. Shir o shakkar literally translates to milk & sugar, suggesting that the smooth stripes in the fabric are smooth as milk, while the puckered stripes have a rougher texture.

Dear readers, shall we all plan a trip to the south of France, wearing our serge de Nîmes? Or what do you think of bringing back seersucker? Or have you ever met sailors who appear to have had a bit too much experience with, well, shall we say canvas?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, & The OED.


  1. I love that canvas comes from cannabis since those things most commonly made from canvas are things related to adventurous, free and artistic expression. What artist wouldn't want to sail away with a backpack full of paint and canvas and...well...

  2. I am fascinated with fabric, because I've been sewing since I was 12 years old. Muslin is one of my favorites, but linen is tops for me. I buy all that fits me at second hand shops and wear it even in summer as it keeps me cooler in this hot part of the state.

    After my daughter collapsed on the lawn at our county fair this year, she said, "Aren't you hot?"

    "No," I said, "I'm wearing linen under my shirt." Amazing, huh.

    Thank you for this wealth of information, Charlie.

  3. These are absolutely fascinating. I've always wondered about seersucker. Such an odd word. I had no idea that the word muslin had such high-falutin' origins. Or that canvas started as cannabis. I agree with Christine that it seems very fitting.

  4. Hey Jean Ann, Anne & Christine,
    Thanks for popping by. Jean Ann, the word linen is one of those mystery words that shows up in all the Indo-European languages, but has an unknown original source. Tres cool, & I hope your daughter has taken up your custom.

  5. Having been raised in the Southland ("that y'all and shut my mouth land; be it ever so decadent, there's no place like home." - Thanks to Tom Lehrer), I have often---but not recently---wondered about the etymology of "seersucker," that garb most favored in Mississippi, et all, y'all---by lawyers, middle-level hucksters, and low level politicians. I am ever so grateful to Yogi Perryess for enlightening me and his vast
    reading public for this, err, enlightenment.
    (By the way, the structure of my first sentence was supposed to recall to your readerly mind, the scribblings of William Faulkner.
    Oh, well.
    ---SK Figler (of