woolly thinking: part 2

(Mid- eighteenth-century glazed Norwich worsted wools: Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines.)

As we’ve seen throughout WOVEMBER, the way that textiles are named and sold can be misleading and difficult to understand. In a rush to make a chemical innovations integral to a brand, or to lay corporate claim to a particular spinning or weaving process, manufacturers are constantly in the business of re-naming and re-marketing the fabric they produce. While these fabric-product-names have an important function in selling textiles on to garment manufacturers, their significance seems to gradually get lost as the newly-named fabric travels down its chain of production. When it finally ends up as a finished garment, it is of course rebranded, renamed, and remarketed anew. The result of this is that the consumer has little sense of what the words on the label really mean. Did you know, for example, that lycra is the same thing as spandex or elastane or that tencel is simply a brand name of lyocel, which is itself a sub-category of rayon, which is made of wood? Really, it is no wonder that we are bewildered by what is wool and what is not.

(Samples of eighteenth century tobines. These examples are glazed worsted wools, but tobines could be made of silk and cotton as well as wool)

But such confusion over the meaning of the names of commodities is really nothing new. Canny branding and re-branding, naming and re-naming is, of course, one of capitalism’s distinctive hallmarks. And, in a sense contemporary textile manufacturers are merely drawing on a marketing tradition that was already well-established in the early-modern British wool trade.

(eighteenth-century moreens, woven in Yorkshire. Moreens were furnishing-weight worsted wools, with a waved or stamped finish achieved by ‘watering’)

The swatches at the top of this post are taken from a mid-eighteenth century trade sample book. They are all dress-weight glazed worsteds, and were all woven in Norwich. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, following the successful development of long-wool sheep breeds in East Anglia; innovations in the processing of combing-wool; and a large community of Hugenot refugees (who were skilled designers and weavers); Norwich was the heart of Britain’s trade in worsted cloth (‘Worsted’ takes its name from a village North of Norwich). But as the seventeenth century progressed, Norwich found itself under competition from the burgeoning new woollen and worsted trades developing in the English North. In response, the East Anglian worsted manufacture successfully re-branded itself as the “new draperies”. But “new draperies,” needed new names, to distinguish themselves from the old, and such names also needed to appeal to the fashionable consumer’s sense of the modern, the novel, the exotic: hence Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines in the top example. The newly-named glazed worsteds were extremely popular with the public, but some other English weavers, (in terms typically coloured by xenophobia) complained heartily about the Norwich Hugenots’ “outlandish inventions”. There was nothing new about the “new draperies” but their names, and these, the weavers complained, were mere ciphers to make the Hugenots’ textiles “more vendible”.

“In demonstration, thereof, a buffyn, a catalowne and the pearl of beauty are all one cloth; a peropus and a paragon all one; a say and pyramides all one; the same cloths bearing other names in times past. The paragon, peropus and philiselles may be affirmed to be double chambletts; the difference being only the one was doubled in the warp, the other in the weft. Buffyn, catalowne and pearl of beauty etc, may be affirmed single chambletts, differing only in their breadth. The say and pyramides may be affirmed to be that ancient cloth called a bed; the difference only consisting in the breadth and fineness.”*

For these weavers, the new draperies were little more than words, and simply illustrated the public’s propensity to be hoodwinked by fashion’s meaningless novelty.

Another impediment to understanding textile names (from a historian’s perspective, as well as a consumer’s) is that their significance is apt to change radically over time.

These rather beautiful scraps of cloth are eighteenth-century tabourets. These examples are fine Norwich worsted wools, frequently exported to colonial America, where, among fashionable circles, they achieved popularity in the manufacture of clothing. In mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia, you might well be wearing tabouret but, half a century later, during the early years of the early republic, tabourets of heavier weight were being imported from London to furnish the homes of Philadelphia’s new federalist elite. By the 1860s, and by now in exclusive use as a luxury upholstery fabric, taboratt was being manufactured in the USA, and was no longer woven from worsted wool, but from heavy cotton, or silk, or a blend of both. Apart from their names, what connects this series of quite different cloths all in popular use in North America over a century or more is their appearance: tabourets or taboratts all tend to be shaded and / or striped.

( eighteenth-century camlet. Another worsted wool cloth, camlets were also woven from silk, linen, or mohair. Camlets of different weights and finishes later became known as grograms, and groginettes, chinas and cheneys, harateens and moreens)

I have two points to make here. The first is an obvious Marxist one about the way in which finished commodities always disguise the stages of their own production. Whether it is a wool-flannel shirt sold by Urban Outfitters that is actually entirely made of cotton, or a bolt of glazed worsted pyramides that was once simply known by the homely and far less exotic name of a bed, textiles are in the business of constantly being renamed, redescribed, and rebranded in order to sell themselves. The second is that the meanings of commodities – as well as the commodities themselves — are subject to change, not just through canny marketing, but, like tamouret or tamoratt, through their contexts and the way in which they are used. To my mind there is no reason why we can’t wrest the word wool back from meaning all yarn, or all warm and fuzzy cloth (as it clearly does for some UK retailers) to its correct application to cloth spun, knitted and woven from the fleece-of-the-sheep.

And we purportedly wool-aware folk in the UK are very much at fault here as well. Among UK knitters, there is a curious and totally intractable attachment to the phrase “wool shop” (for yarn shop) and “wool” as a generic term for whatever yarn they happen to be knitting with at the time. The words yarn and yarn store are the focus of weird resistance by some British knitters, who regard these terms as a terrible Americanisation of language amounting, in their eyes, to a sort of imperialistic imposition. (Bizarre, I know, but all too true) But, dear countrymen and women, it is nothing of the sort: with the word ‘yarn’, North Americans are simply using the English language correctly, while you, who stubbornly continue to refer to all yarn as wool “because it is British” are completely incorrect. In short, British knitters, why not start saying YARN?

* See Robin D Gwynn, Hugenot Heritage: The History and Contribtion of the Hugenots in Britain (1985; reissued 2001).