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Fibres from the Earth

Before the comparatively recent introduction of synthetic fibres, we relied on natural vegetable and animal products to make our clothes, cloths, carpets, and cordage. Some even of these — like jute, sisal, coir, and kapok — only began to be imported into Britain from the nineteenth century onwards. Before then other sources of fibres were used, including some that have now gone out of use. Their names are often ancient, showing they have been employed since immemorial times.

One such was the common nettle, a plant whose name goes back in similar form and meaning as far as we can trace the Germanic languages, and which has an even longer history as a source of fibre. Archaeological remains in Denmark and Britain show that it was used to make string and cloth in Neolithic times. Drag nets for fishing were made from nettle fibre in Britain down to post-medieval times. Indeed, nettlecloth continued to be manufactured in Scandinavia and Scotland until the nineteenth century, and it was for a long while called Scotch cloth in Britain. The Germans were forced by shortages of cotton during the First World War to use it to make clothing (though it took 45 kilograms of nettles to make one shirt).

Another was the lime tree (strictly the small-leaved lime, the one called pry in East Anglia), whose fibrous inner bark, bast (another word at least as old as English and whose ultimate source is unknown), was used for a number of purposes. The herbalist John Gerard said it is “white, moyst, and tough, serving very well for ropes, trases, and halters”. It was also plaited or woven into a kind of rough cloth once sometimes called Russia matting, especially in Devon and Cornwall and in Lincolnshire. The name of this inner bark has now been applied generally to this fibrous layer of many kinds of plants.

As an aside, the nettle and the lime were among the most useful plants before the modern day. Young nettle and lime leaves were served as salad vegetables (nettle leaves sometimes still are); oatmeal and nettle leaves were the main constituents of an Irish soup called St Columba’s broth; the stinging leaves of nettle were once employed as a signature counter-irritant to ward off inflammations, particularly arthritis (a signature was a characteristic mark or feature on a plant — in this case the sting of the nettle — which was supposed to indicate its value, especially for some medicinal purpose; it’s the same word as our modern term for the characteristic writing of a person’s name, from the Latin signare, “to write”). Lime trees (formerly also called the linden of romantic legend, or the lin — the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus is named for the lime tree at his family home) provide a wonderful timber for carving (and formed the plywood skin of Mosquito fighters in the Second World War, much to the loss of a favourite native species); the flowers can be infused to make a tea called tilleul (a name which comes via French from the Latin word for lime that also gives us its botanical name of Tilia). Both nettle and lime leaves can be brewed into a wine (but then it seems almost anything can with enough desire and effort).

Perhaps the oldest recorded of these tough fabrics is hemp (it was already being cultivated in China in 2800 BC). If you go back far enough through the Indo-European languages that led to English, its name turns out to be related to the Greek and Latin cannabis from which we get both its botanical name and the name for the drug extracted from its female plants. It also gave rise to the term canvas, since hemp was commonly used to make sails, though they were also woven from linen. Hemp was once commonly grown in England, being the almost exact equivalent of the Scottish and Irish flax. The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1771 says: “In some parts of Lincolnshire ... the soil is naturally so free and rich, that it will produce hemp constantly year after year without manure”. Much of the crop went not to make rope, but paper, which frequently also included a recycled proportion of worn out hemp rope from the Navy (genuinely money for old rope though that proverbial expression is twentieth-century and not contemporary). These days hemp is hardly grown in England, since it now needs a special Home Office license to cultivate it, for fear that it might be a source of the recreational substance rather than the fibre.

Hemp and linen fibres were manufactured in much the same way, and a foul, disagreeable and antisocial business it was too, second only to tanning and the beavering of woad (fermenting it to produce the dye) as a provocation for early anti-pollution laws. The processes are a rich source of technical terms now obsolete. After harvesting, the flax stems were rippled by combing them to remove the seed heads, then tied up in beets (stooks), and placed in water-filled pits to decompose by bacterial action for a week or two, producing the most awful stench but usefully softening the glue between the fibres so they were easier to extract. This process was called retting (a name which, unsurprisingly, derives from the same root as rot). Sometimes it was called water-retting to distinguish it from the related but more protracted process of leaving the stems exposed to the air, dew-retting. After that the rotted stems were taken to the mill to be scutched (a word which seems to be of Scandinavian origin) — beaten with a hinged batten to free the individual fibres. Then the stems were hackled (from the Old High German word that also gave us hook) to remove any remaining non-fibrous material by drawing them through a big comb consisting of a bed of nails in a wooden board. Both flax and hemp were also shived (from an old root meaning “to split”) to remove the less useful short fibres, which went to make tow (a word which may be linked to the Old English towcraeft for spinning), though this more frequently applied to hemp, whose main fibres were longer. It has been suggested that the word flax derives from a root meaning “to flay” because of these mechanical processes.

In medieval times, seemingly about 1300, a new fibre began to be imported into Britain. Its name came to us from the Arabic qutn, which in English became cotton (Arabic because an important early source was Egypt, and because the Middle East was a way-station on the route from India, where cotton has been cultivated for millennia). Another twisting of the Arabic word gave us the obsolete term acton for a type of quilted jerkin worn under mail, because an early use of cotton was as a stuffing, both of clothing and of upholstery; apparently cotton wool preceded cotton fabric in British use. By Shakespeare’s time, this soft downy cotton fibre had become known as bombast, from which the figurative sense of “high-flown language on a trivial subject” developed from an association with the idea of “overstuffed; puffed up”, leading to our adjective bombastic. Confusingly, the original source of the word was the Greek bombux, “silkworm”, from which we also get bombazine. The twentieth-century idiom to cotton on does derive from the fibre, but by a convoluted process from a series of earlier idioms with meaning like “to become drawn or attached to someone”, “to make friendly advances to someone”, “to work harmoniously with someone”, “to prosper, succeed”, which seems to have had something to do with the development of processes to raise the nap on cotton cloth in the sixteenth century.

The names for the more recently-introduced natural fibres reflect their world-wide origins and distribution. Sisal comes from the leaves of a plant native to Central America and its name is said to derive from the port in Yucatán, Mexico, from which it was first exported (though it doesn’t appear on any of my maps). Other fibres from the same genus of plants include the Mexican henequen (from the native name through the mediation of Spanish), sometimes called Yucatán sisal or Cuban sisal, cantala (apparently from its Sanskrit name), and maguey (from the Haitian name, again via Spanish). Jute was originally an east Indian fibre and its name is Bengali for a “braid of hair”; in Britain it is still associated with Dundee, where factories for making jute products were established in the 1820s, though the industry is now defunct (because Dundee also made marmalade and had a publishing house, its principal products were nicely alliterated as “jam, jute and journalism”). The term ramie comes from Malay, though its fabric has variously been known as grass linen, grass cloth, or China linen since it was first introduced in the eighteenth century. Kapok is a silky fibre obtained from a large east Indian tree (the word is another one from Malay), which is sometimes called silk cotton or Java cotton. The name coir derives from the Malayalam kayaru, “cord”, and the fibre is obtained from the husk of a species of coconut. The fibre phormium is from an evergreen plant native to New Zealand (another name is New Zealand flax), whose name is a “book word” for a genus of plants called after the Greek phormos, “basket”, because that was one of the early main uses of the fibre. In Europe we know it as an ornamental plant, grown for its leaves.

Page created 22 Feb. 1997

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Last modified: 22 February 1997.