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History of Textiles: What Did You Say?!

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This week's look at the history of textiles takes a somewhat comical spin. In the rural south, textiles were such a big part of the lives of many families that some of the terminology associated with their jobs infiltrated their language. Here are a few examples:

"I'm fair to middlin'" -- A response given when one was asked how they are doing. Cotton is graded according to its strength, staple length, color, smoothness, and uniformity. Large amounts of leaf and debris decrease the cotton’s value. Middling grade cotton is considered average and is used as the standard to measure all other grades of cotton.

"That was a shoddy job" -- Shoddy is an inferior quality yarn or fabric made from the shredded fiber of waste woolen cloth or clippings; however, the "shoddy" of the mid 1800s was of good quality and had no negative meaning. As colorful jacquard fabrics began to become more common, shoddy became sub-par, or even a fabric for the poor. Shoddy had a "muddy" purplish-brown color due to the combining of many waste products.

"He sure could spin a yarn." -- In other words, he cure could tell a tall tale! To "spin a yarn" comes from the idea of telling stories while doing seated work such as yarn-twisting. In it's simpler form, a "yarn" is a sometimes marvelous or incredible story or tale.

"Wait a cotton pickin' minute" -- A cotton picking minute would last the exact amount of time it took the regular person to pick a basket of cotton. This was, on average, about 1 and 1/2 minutes.

"I owe my soul to the company store" -- A southern saying as well as the title of a song by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. This refers to a person being employed by a textile mill where the owner of the mill also owned the local store, the homes workers lived in, as well as any other major structures in the mill village. Workers would often find themselves in debt to the mill store, so when they went off to work, they would often say it was because they owed their soul to the company store.

"Bob and weave" -- A way for a boxer to avoid being hit. While the "bob" portion of this saying tends to deal with an up and down motion, the "weave" part is the side to side movement, much like the shuttles running back and forth on a loom.

"Thread and thrum" - A combination of good and bad. "Thrum" are the bits of thread left on the loom after a finished item has been removed. A good example would be "I know you're disappointed with your minor role in the play, but at least you get to act—you have to accept the thread and thrum."

"Walkin' in high cotton" -- This means someone is doing well off. In the Antebellum South, high cotton was a sign of a good crop and higher cotton value. Also, for those picking the cotton, high cotton meant they didn't have to stoop hardly at all to pick the bolls. The work was easier -- life was easier.

 

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