Did you know these English words for cloth and fabric have originated from France?

The term “Chevron”, derived from the Old French word chevron, meaning “rafter”, refers to a V-shaped symbol

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Wed 10 Apr 2024, 5:11 PM

Last week we looked at India’s contribution of words related to cloth in the English language. The French are not far behind. The Jacquard loom, an extraordinary innovation that revolutionised textile production, holds a significant place in history. It was named after Joseph Marie Jacquard of Lyons, who invented a groundbreaking loom around 1800. Jacquard introduced an automated system utilising a chain of punched cards to create a sequence, resulting in an intricate and luxurious craftsmanship. For the first time, weavers gained the ability to produce patterns of seemingly boundless complexity on a large scale. Additionally, Jacquard’s punched-card method served as a significant inspiration for Charles Babbage, who pioneered the first mechanical computer in the 1820s.

“Chambray” shares a significant connection with denim, particularly in its defining feature – the incorporation of a white horizontal thread in the fabric’s weave. The true elegance of this technique becomes evident as the fabrics mature, with the white weft gradually becoming more prominent over time. The roots of the term “Chambray” trace back to 1801 and are associated with the French town of Cambrai, which in turn gave us the term “Cambric”. Cambrai town was a hub for the production of early plain-weave workwear fabrics.

The term “Chevron”, derived from the Old French word chevron, meaning “rafter”, refers to a V-shaped symbol. This symbol is formed by two diagonal lines meeting at an angle, presenting either an inverted or upright “V” shape. “Chevron” made its way into the English language in the 14th century, though evidence of the design dates back to 1800 B.C. The Chevron pattern was initially a single “V” shape but it evolved over time. Textile designs featuring the Chevron pattern emerged in 1962 with the production of the first fabric incorporating this design. Modern Chevron fabrics consist of multiple V shapes arranged closely, resulting in a pattern resembling a zigzag.

“Moiré” has its roots in the French language and can be traced back to the 17th century. In its adjectival form, moiré means “shimmering” and refers to a textile, typically crafted from silk, that exhibits a distinctive rippled or ‘watered’ appearance. The distinctive wood grain look was first attained by compressing and steaming two layers of horizontally textured fabric along their length. The irregular and closely spaced threads give rise to a unique undulating design, known as the Moiré effect, which persists even after the fabric has dried.

The origins of the “Poplin” fabric lie in the medieval French city of Avignon, where some Popes resided. The term “Poplin” is believed to have its roots in the fabric known as papeline, a term that translates to “of the pope” or “papal fabric”. Avignon served as a hub for silk production during that period. Initially, Poplin was crafted by blending silk and wool, yielding a sumptuous and sturdy fabric. As time passed, the term “Poplin” expanded to include a diverse array of fabrics produced from various fibres. In general, Poplin has maintained its enduring status as a lightweight, airy, and glossy material, solidifying its position as a “timeless classic” in the realm of textiles.

“Tartan” is believed to have its roots in the 13th century, originating from the French word tiretaine, which denotes a “robust, coarse fabric”. The term “Tartan”, referring to a “kind of woolen fabric”, emerged in the 15th century. Tartan is a distinctive recurring design featuring intersecting bands, stripes, or lines of various colours, arranged in a specific width and sequence. This pattern, known as a “sett”, is woven into woollen fabric, occasionally incorporating silk. While similar designs have been present across various cultures for centuries, Tartan has become particularly associated with Scotland, often serving as a characteristic feature of Scottish kilts.

“Camouflage” originates from the French word camoufler, which translates to “disguise”. Numerous prominent fashion designers have embraced the style and symbolism of Camouflage, incorporating it into their designs. Military-inspired clothing or replicas thereof have found use not only as streetwear but also as a symbol of political protest. The term camouflage, deriving from French slang, gained widespread use in English during World War I. So let’s not camouflage France’s role in bringing these fabric-related words into English!


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