Fabrics Past and Present.

It occurred to me the other day that back in the 1950s we had words for fabrics which are hardly ever heard now. Perhaps because my mum was a keen dressmaker, I remember even as a child being aware of the different fabrics my clothes were made from. Seersucker was very popular for making summer dresses. I remember my mum making clothes for us out of poplin, gingham, moygashel, broderie anglaise. A raincoat was often referred to as a gabardine – the fabric it was made of. Men’s plain grey trousers, standard wear for men at that time, were always known as flannels. My school blazer was made of barathea. Garments were often referred to by their fabrics e.g. a poplin shirt, grey flannels, twill and cavalry twill trousers, worsted suits, gabardine raincoats and barathea blazers. Stockings were called nylons and I remember old ladies referring to lisle stockings which were what preceded nylon stockings.

Some historical notes on the origins of some of the fabrics mentioned –  which some might find interesting.

Lisle (named after Lisle in France where it originated) was a fine cotton knit used for stockings for a few hundred years before the invention of nylon. Referring to garments by specific fabrics is something which doesn’t happen so much now and also many of these fabric names have dropped completely out of common usage.

School uniforms of flannel shorts and blazers. Barathea was also used a lot for blazers and gymslips.


Nylons were shaped as there was no stretch in them.

A Welsh origin to the word flannel has been suggested as fabric similar to flannel can be traced back to Wales, where it was well known as early as the 16th century. The French term flanelle was used in the late 17th century, and the German Flanell was used in the early 18th century. Flannel has been made since the 17th century, gradually replacing the older Welsh plains, some of which were finished as “cottons” or friezes which was the local textile product. In the 19th century, flannel was made particularly in towns such as Newtown, Hay on Wye and Llanidloes. Newtown has a lovely textile museum I’ve visited which tells the story of the Welsh flannel industry.

An old flannel mill in South Wales.

Gabardine was invented in 1879 by Thomas Burberry, founder of the Burberry fashion house in Basingstoke and patented in 1888. The word then became a synonym for a mac or raincoat.

A gabardine raincoat as standard school uniform.

During the British Colonial period seersucker was a popular material in Britain’s warm weather colonies like British India.

Broderie anglaise was extremely popular in England between 1840 and 1880 for women’s underclothing and children’s wear. The 1950s saw a resurgence in popularity, when it was frequently used to trim dresses and underwear. In 1959, Brigitte Bardot wore a dress of gingham and broderie anglaise for her wedding to Jacques Charrier.

When I was about ten my mum made me a summer dress in gingham with broderie anglaise trim. I had no idea that Brigitte Bardot had influenced that style!

Worsted is a high-quality type of wool yarn and the fabric made from this yarn. The name derives from Worstead, a village in the county of Norfolk. That village, together with North Walsham and Aylsham, formed a manufacturing centre for yarn and cloth in the 12th century, when pasture enclosure and liming rendered the East Anglian soil too rich for the older sheep breeds.

Back in the 15th Century, poplin was used for winter attire, and was made using silk and wool. The actual word ‘poplin’ derives from ‘papelaine’, and is based on the (now obsolete) French papal town of Avignon.

Even good old corduroy isn’t seen or heard of much today. In continental Europe, corduroy is known as “Cord”, “rib cord” or “rib velvet” – in parts of Europe such as Germany, Czechoslovakia, Holland and Belgium it used to be simply known as “Manchester” – that still remains the current name for corduroy in Swedish. Corduroy is a material traditionally used in making British country clothing, even though its origin lies among items worn by townspeople in industrial areas. Although corduroy has existed for a long time and was used in Europe since the 18th century, only in the 20th century did it become global – notably expanding in popularity during the 1970s.


Tweed, linen cotton, poly cotton and denim are familiar words now but so many of the others are hardly heard now apart from amongst people who work with fabrics.



20 thoughts on “Fabrics Past and Present.

  1. I remember the days of nylons! My mother made all my clothes when I was growing up. Seersucker, gingham, flannel, poplin, and corduroy featured prominently in my wardrobe. I remember what a big deal wide-wale corduroy was when it came out. Definitely worn by the cool kids!

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  2. How interesting that you called it wide wale; we knew it as jumbo cord here. I didn’t know until I was researching for this post that the ridges in corduroy are known as wales. Before working on this post I wouldn’t have known what wide wale meant! I learn so much from both researching posts and from the comments made by my readers. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Wowsers..so much history..and words I must look up. Enjoyed this trip into time..immensely. I do remember my mother making two winter coats out of a worsted pendelton wool..back in my elem. sch. days. During the war..i remember watching my auntie..carefully ‘draw’..a neat line down the back of very shaply..late 30s legs..when no nylons were ‘on order’. Usually..she had some nylons..but if ..going out..she drew the lines for hose. Ok..off to search words..and again..thanks, ina

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    • Ina – As always, an enjoyable, informative comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Worsted Pendleton is a new one on me which I will look up. I’ve heard about women drawing a seam up their legs to look like nylons but as I was born in 1951, I didn’t see it myself. It would have been when nylons were very new and a luxury or during the war when clothes were rationed. We really don’t appreciate how lucky we are now to be able to buy whatever we want.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was born in 1958. I so enjoyed reading this! My grandmother made dresses for me when I was a child. She also made lots of clothes for my dolls. Sometimes, the dolls and I wore matching dresses. I loved to go to my grandmother’s house. She had tin cans full of buttons for me to play with, and zippers that had been saved from discarded items. She did not even need to use a pattern. It always amazed me how everything still fit. She also had paper dolls for me to play with. I could sit for a very long time with those paper dolls under a tree!

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  5. I remember all these old fabric names, too. My high school summer uniform was made out of green gingham – that put me off gingham for life!

    I love “shot” fabrics like shot silk and shot linen because of the tricks they play with light. And I like cotton chambrai, too.

    I’m waiting for corduroy to make a comeback, as I’m sure it will. I had a lovely wide-wale blazer when I was in my twenties. I also used to like the very narrow wale corduroy that we called needlecord.

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  6. I’ve just discovered this wonderful blog which took me right back to my childhood – I was born in 1955. I remember being made to wear a liberty bodice over my vest in the winter! – No central heating or double glazing in our house when I was growing up. My mum also made all our clothes and she did patchwork too, before it got more popular with the Victorian revival in the ’70s. The quilts and bedcovers she made from all the remnants of our old summer dresses! So much love and care went into those items. The ‘Make do and mend’ mentality is an inspiration – it is the way to help our planet survive. Thanks for posting all this great stuff.

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