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Volume 38, Number 3May/June 1987

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Fabrics from the Middle East

"Cecy has got some beautiful new dresses - a white muslin, a tarlatan and a pink silk.''

Susan Coolidge. What KatyDid, 1873

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Does anyone know what "tarlatan" is any more? Or "tabby"? Or "fustian"?

Fabric names like those, and many others more familiar, have disappeared from shops and labels since our grandmothers' day. Today, we buy largely man-made products with equally manmade names: Dacron, polyester, Tricel, viscose and rayon.

Many of the old materials have been with us for centuries, and before they vanish altogether it is interesting to consider what they are - and were - and where they came from. When we examine their origins in diaries, literature and the records the past has left us, we see that many of them originated in the Middle East.

Of course, homespun cloths of different kinds were produced in England from the earliest times, and in the United States from the first colonization. But materials with native names like flannel, frieze, plaid, twill and linsey-woolsey in fact appear in the literature no earlier than more exotic materials from the East.

One of the earliest materials mentioned, in about the year 1000, is felt. The word comes from Old Slavonic, and it is conceivable that in some way both the word and the cloth reached England from Central Asia, where felt is still produced and much used for tents. The technique of quilting is mentioned a little later and was doubtless of great importance in the icy houses of the European Dark Ages.

In the 13th century, several new materials appear in English records, among them gauze, muslin, fustian, sendal and buckram; several of these names still exist today, but often they do not refer to the same cloth. A kind of weaver's version of Gresham's Law prevails, so that a name may be retained over centuries, originally designating a rich and splendid cloth and gradually degenerating in its meaning to refer to poorer, coarser stuffs.

Gauze, a thin transparent material of silk, linen or cotton, is first mentioned in 1279 under the name gazzatum; it was among the fabrics considered too luxurious for monks to wear. The name may come from the town of Gaza, and the cloth may be of the same type as the famous "veils of Cos" with which Caesar bade Cleopatra cover herself, for decency's sake, when she visited Rome in 43 B.C.

Muslin takes its name from Mosul, in Iraq, where it was originally made. According to Marco Polo, it was "a cloth of silk and gold," although the name has, for several centuries now, simply designated a fine cotton or silk material.

The name of fustian is thought to be derived from Fustat, the original name of today's Cairo and later a suburb of that city, where it was manufactured. Fustian was never very fine - it was originally a coarse cotton-and-flax mixture and then came to be a thick twilled cloth with a filled pile face. It is perhaps because of that soft padded surface that the word fustian has come to mean "pompous or inflated speech or writing." Fustian is first mentioned in the records of Trinity College in 1200, and in 1502 it appears in the accounts of the privy purse expenditure of Elizabeth of York, the wife of King Henry VII: "ij yerdes of white fustyan for sokkes for the Quene."

Sendal has definitely vanished from our vocabularies. The name is probably from the Greek sindon, fine linen, the same word as is used for the winding sheet of Christ. It was first mentioned in 1225 and in 1523 was still esteemed: "There was pyght up a pavilyon of crymasyn sendall, right noble and riche."

Buckram is another material which began fine and ended coarse. It was first mentioned in 1222 and its name maybe derived from Bukhara, a great cloth-making center now in the Uzbek S.S.R. Other possibilities are that the word comes from the Arabic qiram, tapestry or thin dress, or perhaps from kirim, the Turkic word for the Crimea.

In the 14th century, new materials flooded into Europe from the Middle East, largely as a result of the Crusades. Luxury materials of today, such as satin and taffeta, begin to appear, although the other great favorites, damask and brocade, are not mentioned until later centuries.

It has been suggested that the word satin is connected with the Arabic zaituni, meaning "like an olive" or - more likely -"coming from Zaitun," the Arab name for a city in China whose whereabouts are no longer known. Others say it comes from a Chinese word sze-tun or ssu-tuan, a smooth silk. Chaucer was the first to mention it in English, and in 1369 we have:"Ryght wel cledde in fyne blak satyn de owter mere." "Owter mere" was the French Outremer—beyond the seas - and was the term used generally for the Middle Eastern lands occupied by the Crusaders. Whether the fine black satin was made there or simply bought there, we have no way of knowing.

Taffeta was originally a plain glossy silk of any color. It seems to be linked to the Persian word taftah, a silken cloth, which in turn is derived from taftan, "to shine."

Most of the other 14th-century cloths are no longer in use, except serge, which has remained popular. Although the name ultimately derives from the Greek seres, silk, serge seems to have kept its character as a durable, unglamorous woolen cloth over many centuries. In 1386 Chaucer described a rich Oriental town as "the Citee large, Hanged with clooth of gold, and not withsarge."

Another early material that lasted into our grandmothers' time is tabby. This was originally a striped silk taffeta, but the word was later used as a general term for waved or watered cloth, like moiré silk. The name is taken from the Attabiy quarter of Baghdad where the cloth was made, as a 12th-century writer attests: "Here are made the stuffs called Attabiya, which are silks and cottons made of various colours." An early reference to this material occurs in the London Gazette: "Lost,...a child's Mantle, of Sky-colour Tabby."

Because of the irregular striped pattern of tabby cloth, the word also came to be applied to a new breed of cat that began to make its appearance in England at the end of the 17th century. Not long after, Dr. Johnson was complaining that the newfangled tabbies were driving out the true English black-and-white breed - but within a century, it was the tabbies themselves that were being acclaimed as "the true English cats," and certainly today they seem to be predominant.

Camlet appears in the West in the 14th century, and from the beginning its name is associated with the camel, from whose hair the lustrous cloth was supposedly woven. This may be mistaken, and more probable derivations are from the Arabic khamilah, the nap or pile of a fabric, or from an Arabic word for the Angora goat, which may also have provided raw material for the weave. Camlet was usually dyed bright red, and appears in an inventory, in 1413, of the wardrobe of King Henry IV: "Seven yards of red chamlett at 13s4d the remnant."

Cypress vanished two centuries ago. It is another material which began as something very rich, perhaps cloth of gold, declined to being a valuable satin, then to a simple mourning cloth by the year 1611, when Shakespeare wrote: "Lawne as white as driven snow, Cypresse blacke as ere was Crow." Naturally, it came from Cyprus, and when the poet Byron visited the island in the last century, he was struck by the long black cloaks of the women. On asking why they wore them, he was told it was in mourning for a Christian defeat in the Crusades.

But the Crusades ended and this, combined with the rise of piracy in the Mediterranean and the European discovery of the sea routes to the East, led to a decline in the quantity of fabrics imported from the Middle East. In the centuries to come, fashion veered toward fabrics from further east: from India, Persia, Indochina and China.

Damask is one of the last new materials from the Middle East. It originated, of course, from Damascus, the city which also gave the world both fine damascened-steel blades and the red damask rose - the most scented of all roses. First mentioned in 1480 - "A fayre whyte covering of damaske clothe" - damask retained its nature and use through the centuries. More than a century later, in 1609, we learn that "a Damask table cloth cost me eighteen pound." It is perhaps worth remembering that fine cloth was comparatively more expensive then than it is now, and there were fewer alternatives available.

In the same century as the first mention of damask, a mysterious entry appears in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland for 1488: "A covering of variand purpir tartar...and a unicorn." The unicorn remains unexplained, but the tartar, also known as "cloth of Tartary," seems to have been a many-colored woolen material, presumably imported from the Crimea, where the Tatar people live, or even further east. It is possible - barely -that this "variand" cloth was the ancestor of the tartan cloth that, more recently, has become the emblem of Scotland.

The word brocade was introduced in the mid-16th century, and the paintings of the period amply demonstrate the popularity of the cloth itself. Brocade was distinguished by its raised patterns that were originally of silver and gold embroidery. The origin of the word is disputed; the English form is taken from the Spanish which in turn comes from an Italian root that refers to the projecting "tooth" of the embroidered figures. But in Hakluyt's Voyages an account of Ormus says that "cloth of silke, brocardo, and divers other sortes of marchandise come out of Persia." Perhaps, then, brocade represented another triumph of Persian taste and craftsmanship.

Bombazine first appears in English in 1555. Its name is derived from bombyx, the Greek for silkworm, and a connection with the Persian word pampe, cotton, has also been claimed. In Elizabethan times it was more often used in the form "bombast," or padding, and thus, with fustian, came to mean a ranting, theatrical, insincere style. Bombazine itself did not come into its own until the Victorian period, when its invariable black became a symbol of sober respectability and hence preferred for housekeepers and mourners.

Calico, on the other hand, was one of the first materials to arrive from the further East. The name derives from the city of Calicut on India's Malabar coast, one of the chief ports in the trade between India and Europe. The poet Dunbar mentions the city in The Worldis Instabilitie in 1505, and in 1541 a letter to King Henry VIII speaks of "IX peces of Callicutt claith pertenyng to ane William Blaky in Leith." The cloth was soon in very general use, and in 1666 Pepys mentions in his diary "flags, which I had bought for the Navy of calico." Calico was described in 1753 as "an Indian stuff made of cotton sometimes stained with gay and beautiful colours." That is still an accurate description in the United States, while in England calico is plain white cotton, bleached or unbleached. Calico became immensely popular, especially in 19th-century America - a fact commented on in trade reports by Emerson.

Chintz was another material which came on the market about the same time and, in his diary for 1663, Pepys wrote, "Bought my wife a chint, that is, a painted Indian callico, for to line her new study." He was using the singular form correctly, for the word derives from the Hindi chint (plural chints), and the two forms were not confused to form our chintz until the late 18th century. The characteristics of Indian chintzes were their flower and bird designs and their high glaze, still to be found in traditional homes today and, indeed, now enjoying a revival.

The third fabric of this period, also much used for interior decorating, was dimity. In 1632 we read of "a hundred Camels loaden with Silkes, Dimmeties and other Commodifies." It was originally a stout cotton cloth with raised stripes and fancy figures that was usually used undyed for beds and bedroom hangings, although later it came to mean a rather lighter material. The word may be related to the Arabic dimyati, from the name of the important port of Damietta in Egypt, or perhaps from the Greek "two-threaded," referring to a doubled warp thread used in its weaving. (The name of the heavier samite cloth was similarly derived from the Greek for "six-threaded.") In either case it would seem likely that the material dates back far beyond the 17th century, but apparently it did not reach England, or did not happen to be recorded by that name.

The origin of duck, a strong untwilled linen or, later, cotton, is known. It reached England and the English language via the Dutch - where dock means "cloth" - probably from Indochina. It is first mentioned in 1640, and in 1780 Thomas Jefferson wrote in one of his letters: "What is to be done for tents, I do not know. I am assured that very little duck can be got in this country."

Percale was first imported from the East Indies in the 17th century, and the origin of the word is uncertain. Parqali, "rag" in Persian, has been suggested, and this is not unlikely, for Persian was then the lingua franca of much of the trading world.

Gingham, much used in the 19th century for waistcoats and umbrellas, and still a modern favorite, is derived from the Malay ginggang, originally an adjective meaning "striped." In 1615, we read, "Capt. Cock is of the opinion that the ginghams, both white and browne,... will prove a good commodity in the Kinge of Shashma his cuntry." By 1763, however, times had changed and gingham no longer came into the category of trade goods. In that year a reporter wrote that "ladies of taste are prodigiously fond of the Ginghams manufactured there" - and "there" meant industrial Manchester, England.

This rise in cheap textile production in the West was soon to have a serious effect on Oriental imports. In England, tweed and corduroy were coming in for common wear, while the fashionable world looked to France for its crèpes and voiles, chiffons and tulles, to say nothing of that useful sailcloth, toîle de Nîmes - now better known to us as denim.

Materials still came from the East, however. Cecy's tarlatan was introduced at the beginning of the 18th century and organdy a hundred years later. The origins of both words are lost, though we know they came into English from French. The materials themselves most probably came from India, perhaps by way of the French colonies. And in 1757 a thin linen, striped in pale blue and white, was introduced. It was known under the charming name of seersucker, from the Persian shir o shikar, milk and sugar, and is still worn today.

For the sake of their own markets, the 19th-century producers of factory-made textiles in the West did all they could to discourage the handmade cloths of the Orient. Admittedly, Kashmir shawls and Indian muslins remained in vogue, and toward the end of the century a growing interest in China led to a flow of crèpes de Chine, pongees, shantungs and tussores. But Eastern materials were - with a few exceptions - no longer priceless treasures; interests had shifted elsewhere.

Now in the 20th century, the wind has changed yet again. In both England and America, those who do not wish to wear Dacron, Courtelle or any of the acrylic fibres are more and more, like their grandparents, buying cottons and silk gauzes from India, heavy printed silks from Thailand, batiks from Malaya and Java, and foulards and satins from China and Japan. We can hope that, before too long, they will also be looking again for muslins, damasks, taffetas, and tabbies from the Middle East.

Caroline Stone is a freelance writer who divides her time between London, Rome and Seville. She is the author of The Embroideries of North Africa, published by Longman.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the May/June 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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