Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Textile terms and phrases hiding in our language

Yes, in addition to being a textile arts geek, I'm also a word geek. And I love it when the two worlds collide! I've been poking around the internet the past few days, and stumbled across some cool things.

Do you know where the word 'rocket' comes from? From 'rocchetta', an Italian term for a 'little distaff'. Evidently the early 17th century experiments in rockets reminded folks of the cylindrical shape of a distaff loaded with fiber. So yes, our rocket ships to the moon are named after a spinning tool.

And the term 'dyed in the wool' means 'permanent or extreme in your views'. Where did that come from? Fabric can be dyed after it is woven, or yarn can be dyed, but the color can just lay on the surface then. However, if the wool is dyed before spinning ("dyed in the wool") the color goes all the way through the fibers, and is least likely to fade or change.

Here's another one: the country Brazil's name is "derived from the Portuguese and Spanish word brasil, the name of an East Indian tree with reddish-brown wood from which a red dye was extracted. The Portuguese found a New World tree related to the Old World brasil tree when they explored what is now called Brazil, and as a result they named the New World country after the Old World tree." So there is a whole country named after a red dye source. How cool is that?

'Subtle' is from the latin sub + tela, 'beneath the threads on a loom', meaning finely woven. 'Text' is from the past participle of 'texere', meaning 'to weave'.

Ooh... and cat lovers look here: . "The tabby cat commemorates a textile manufacturing suburb of Baghdad. This was al-‘Attābīya, named after Prince Attāb, who lived there. 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’ noted Samuel Pepys in his diary for 13 October 1661), but since such cloth was originally usually striped, by the 1660s the word was being applied to brindled cats."

So...who has some other examples of fiber arts words and phrases embedded in our language?


  1. Wow, interesting information! My dad was a word (and trivia guy). It is always fascinating to look at the origins. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Lori! I've been having a lot of fun poking into these. Amazing how many fiber terms are really embedded into the language. Just goes to show how important spinning and weaving really were!

  3. i love this post - i'm a linguist and a fiber artist. what a creative idea for a blog post! i'll definitely think about some more examples for you sometime.

  4. shoddy, which is thrumbs and left over scrap fabric which is shredded and spun into "shoddy" cloth. It's cheap, weak and poor quality. Sometimes "recycled" is not a good thing. The fabric, being made from short staple yarn, doesn't hold up well.

  5. Ooh! Shoddy is a good one. It goes with sleazy, which is cloth that is loosely woven. Cheesecloth is sleazy.

    Thanks for stopping by, folks. :)