Monday, 21 May 2012

Cotton, cottons and fustian: Part 1 Fustian

The introduction of cotton cloth to England was slow and gradual until the seventeenth century. If there is a reference to cottons (note the plural form) then the reference usually means the wool based cloth. If there is a reference to cotton wool or cotton yarn then the reference is to the fibres or thread made from vegetable cotton. Not that many people in England understood how cotton grew. The supposed travel writer Sir John Mandeville, who was probably  a Benedictine monk in France regurgitating other writers works (1) wrote, "There grew [in India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie." This resulted in woodcuts such as the one on the right.


Cotton was used in England for the making of fustians. A petition of 1621 states,

“about twenty yeeres past diverse people in this Kingdome, but chiefly in the Countie of Lancaster, have found out the trade of making other fustians, made of a kind of bombast or downe, being a fruit of the earth growing upon little shrubs or bushes, brought into this kingdome by the Turkie merchants, from Smyrna, Cyprus, Acra and Sydon, but commonly called cotton wool. .. There is at least 40 thousand peeces of Fustian of this kind yeerely made in England.” (2)

Fustian, usually though not always, referred to a fabric with a linen warp and a cotton weft and, although the term fustian is actually used much earlier in England than the petition would indicate, Janet Arnold has stated that much of this earlier fustian was imported and consequently expensive (3).  Sykas has indicated that some of these early fustians may not have been linen and cotton mix as there is a statue of 1495 regarding the import of deceitfully finished fustians (4). True fustians should have the nap raised and shorn with broadshears, in the deceitful fustians the nap was being singed with candles.

The variety referred to variously as fustian and apes, fustian a napes or fustian of Naples is described by Cotgrave as mock velvet, presumably because of this smooth raised nap (4). This was being made in Norwich as early as 1554 when the local weavers petitioned for their “fustian-a-napes” to be called Norwich fustian. By the end of the sixteenth century it appears to have become more common as a statue of 1597 states that “the wearing of fustian has grown to greater use than it ever was before.”

John Smythe considered that fustian would be good for soldiers’ doublets, saying that a “man may arme better upon [fustian] then upon canvas or anything that is more smooth” (6)

1. Seymour, M. C. ‘Mandeville, Sir John (supp. fl. c.1357)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Online] 2004. [Cited: 2 May 2012.] http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17928, .

2. To the honorable knights, citizens and burgesses of the Commons House of Parliament the humble petition...buying and selling of fustians made in England.... London : s.n., 1621.

3. Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. Leeds : Maney, 1988.

4. Sykas, Philip. Fustians in Englishmen's Dress. Costume. 2009, Vol. 43.

5. Cotgrave, R. Dictionaries of the French and English Tongues. 1611.

6. Smythe, John. Certen Instructions, observations and orders Militarie. London : s.n., 1594.

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