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From denim to tweed, the fabrics named after places

Many of the materials we use derive their names from the towns they were first made in. PETER TRUDGILL explores the stories behind some of the best-known

The sad city of Mosul, or what is left of it, has been very much in the news. Thousands of its inhabitants have been killed, wounded, or displaced; and there has been much anguish over the preservation of its architectural splendours.

It is not very widely recognised, though – and this will be absolutely no consolation – that the name of the city is preserved in the English language in the shape of our word for the fabric muslin. We acquired the word in the 17th century from French mousseline, which had come into French from Italian mussolo ‘muslin’, or more accurately from mussolina ‘made from muslin’. This term was derived from the name of the city where muslin was originally made, most likely in its Kurdish form Musil, though possibly also Arabic Mawsil.

Many English-language names for fabrics are derived from Middle or Far Eastern languages. Taffeta comes from Persian taftah; and the origin of cotton lies in Arabic qutn. And a number of fabric names, like muslin, come from the names of Eastern cities which were renowned for the manufacture of that particular cloth. Damask comes from Damascus. Satin may be derived, via Arabic, from Zaitun, the name of an ancient city in southern China. Calico is from Calicut, an Indian city on the coast of Kerala (known in Keralese as Kozhikode).

But there are a small number of fabrics whose English names derive from European locations. The most famous of these is perhaps denim, which is a kind of serge. (The word serge itself supposedly comes from the name of the Seres, an ancient Far Eastern people.) The source of the word denim lies in the French city of Nimes, which the fabric was originally associated with: the material was originally known as serge de Nimes. An edition of the London Gazette from 1703 mentions ‘a pair of Serge de Nim breeches’.

Another fabric for which we can claim a European place-name origin is cambric, named after Cambrai in northeastern France ­– its Dutch name is Kamerijk. And lisle comes from the name of the nearby French city Lille, earlier spelt Lisle. The town was originally Dutch-speaking, and its Dutch name is Rijsel, from ter ijsel ‘at the island’. The French name had the same kind of origin: it came from l’isle, ‘the island’, hence the earlier spelling.

There’s also one well-known fabric name which has a British topographical origin. This is worsted (pronounced ‘woosted’), named after the Norfolk village of Worstead (pronounced in the same way), which is located to the northeast of Norwich near Aylsham and North Walsham, which were also both associated with the manufacture of this type of cloth.

It is widely believed that the name nylon was also derived in part from a British place-name. There is a story that it was created from the initial letters of New York, plus the first syllable of London – but that isn’t true. The name was invented out of the blue by the Du Pont company, which manufactured the material, with the decision being taken to have a name ending in -on on the pattern of cotton and rayon.

The other fabric which we might want to claim a British place-name origin for – this time Scottish rather than English – is tweed. After all, the River Tweed forms the historical boundary between Scotland and England, and tweed fabric is famously associated with Scotland. Once again, this explanation isn’t correct. A clue to this is that one of most famous cloths of this type is Harris Tweed from the Outer Hebrides which are nowhere near the River Tweed.

The truth of the matter is that the fabric name tweed was a mistake, a cross-linguistic misunderstanding. The Scots word corresponding to English twill is tweel. Some time around 1830, a London-based merchant, not being familiar with the Scots form, misread tweel as tweed, no doubt influenced by the name of the river, and put in an order for … tweed.