From Start to Finish
By Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Work with textiles has moved to the machinery and technology age, but in the early days, textiles were created and crafted by hand, using the simplest of tools and devices. Many people still enjoy shearing the fleece from their sheep, llama, or alpacas, or saving trimmed-off dog hair, then carding it to help clean it and straighten the fibers for spinning them into yarn. Whether with a simple hand-twirled spindle or a cute spinning wheel (that doubles as a nice conversation piece decorating the house), the resulting yarn has that distinctive character of “homespun,” ready for weaving, knitting, crocheting, or other crafts.
The “olden” days created some rather unusual names for the people who worked in creating fabric — names now mostly unheard but which were once common in everyday vocabulary. Here are a few of them.
Working with fleece to create wool meant someone had to be a “carder” or “comber” to straighten the fleece fibers in preparation for spinning. A “spinner” or “spinster” actually did the work of spinning the wool into yarn. The term “spinster” was later used to mean an unmarried adult woman because she usually was still at home with her parents, doing the task of spinning the wool for the family and making extra yarn to trade or sell to others. A “webster,” “weaver,” or “wayer” used a loom to weave the yarn into cloth. The “fuller” finished and cleaned the cloth once it was woven.
Another word used when working wool or flax is “distaff,” the rod that holds the un-spun fibers to prevent their tangling. The fibers are fed, by hand, from the distaff to a spindle or spinning wheel and spun into yarn. Because women usually were the spinners, the word “distaff” came to be associated with women, with even Chaucer and Shakespeare using the word to designate females. It’s still used as a noun to name the tool used in spinning but is also used as an adjective to designate the female side of a family or group.
Flax yielded fiber for linen cloth. A “flax rippler” broke off the flax seedpods. The “hatchler,” “flax dresser,” “hackler,” or “heckler” combed or carded the flax with a hatchel or hechel. (While we now think of a “heckler” as an audience member who taunts a performance, that usage didn’t come about until the mid-1800’s.) A “burler” removed any knots or burls that were in the cloth. And a “teagler” used a thistle or tool to raise the nap on the cloth.
Next came the “slopster” whose job it was to cut the cloth into pattern pieces. And the “litster” dyed the cloth. The “sartor,” “fashioner,” “tailor” (male), or “tailoress” (female) turned the cut pattern pieces into clothing.
Even though the entire process was almost all handwork, it was efficient enough that relatively inexpensive, ready-made clothes were available to those who could not afford higher-end clothing. Such inexpensive clothing was sold in a “slopshop” by a “slopshop dealer” or “slopshop keeper.” Employees of that person were known as “slop workers.” (Alas, also back then in the same 14th century, slop could also mean a mud hole, slime, or other gooey substance that was liquid or semi-liquid, and that’s the definition that carries over to today when we say something is a pile of slop or sloppy. So you probably don’t want to name your clothing shop a “slopshop” or call your employees “slop workers!”)
While clothing is vital, there are some other accouterments just as vital, and that’s where some more unusual occupational names came in.
The “currier” or “barker” was the person who tanned animal skins into leather.
The “cordwainer” made shoes out of some of that leather, and the “soler,” “snobscat,” or “cobbler” repaired the shoes.
A “peruker” or “perruquier” made wigs for gentlemen who wanted to look fashionable in their social and business lives.
And when things wore out and were discarded, along came the “chiffonier” who picked through the rags and sold what’s still known as “junk!” That word also derives from the 14th century and referred to old cable or line discarded from a ship. It’s probably from the Old French “junc” for reeds or rushes — in other words, something common and not of much value.
And now you know!
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.