material world

Textile terminology has evolved from myriad sources but often the etymology involves the name of a place or town.

Muslin comes from Mussolo, the Italian for Mosul, Iraq, where mussolina/muslin was produced. In other parts of Asia it was known as ‘daka’, named for Dhaka, Bangladesh (where it’s thought the fabric originated).

I always wondered about the story behind Liberty’s Tana Lawn fabric – it’s named for Lake Tana in Ethiopia where the cotton for the fabric was grown, while lawn is a mis-rendering/anglicisation of Laon, a town in France where large amounts of fine linen were made.

Paisley, the English word for the Persian boteh teardrop design, is named for the textile manufacturing town in West Scotland. The Argyle pattern is the tartan of Clan Campbell from Argyll (also in West Scotland). Angora wool takes its name from the capital of Turkey, Angora, now Ankara (from the Greek ankyra, ‘anchor’.)

Calico (from Kozhikode, India, known in English as Calicut), Denim (from the French serge de Nîmes), Organza (from a medieval form of Urgench, a town in Uzbekistan), Satin (from Zayton, Arabic for the Chinese port city of Quanzhou)…

The etymology of fabric names is a fascinating exploration of odyssey, appropriation, trade and industrialisation.


Featured images: detail of The Grammar of Ornament, ‘Indian No. 4’ (example 11) by Owen Jones. V&A Collections; Muslin dress piece with chikan embroidery, Lucknow, ca.1880 (V&A Collection); Desert Island Deliveries – Tana Lawn Cotton (Liberty London)


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