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Weaving Metaphors from Textiles

Posted by Wendy Anderson on the 10th of April 2015

This is ‘Dress and Textiles month’ in the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. The Dress and Textiles feature on the Industry Engagement webpage begins: “There’s no escaping dress and textiles. From birth to death they are the literal fabric of people’s lives.” In the Mapping Metaphor data too, there is no escaping dress and textiles – they are the metaphorical fabric of people’s lives. Textiles in particular are woven into the language we use for all sort of concepts. Here are a few of the metaphorical links we’ve found.

Terms from sewing and embroidery turn up in various categories of plants, largely motivated by attributes of shape and texture: pinpillow for a prickly pear plant, pincushion which the OED records as a local term for various types of flower, thimble for an acorn-cup, felt as an alternative name for couch-grass, given its dense, matted texture. Still within the Historical Thesaurus External World categories, there is a strong bidirectional link between textiles and the category of ‘Atmosphere and Weather’. On the one hand, we talk about weather phenomena in terms borrowed from textiles (a sheet of rain or mist, fleecy clouds, gauze (for haze), a weft (streak) of cloud), and on the other we describe textiles in terms of weather (for example, zephyr for a thin, delicate fabric, and snowflake, a late nineteenth century term for a type of weaving).

Searching for metaphors is a very good way to learn new words. A new word for me, forming a metaphorical connection between textiles and ‘Emotional Suffering’ was hatchel (or hetchel), literally an instrument for combing flax or hemp, and metaphorically, in verbal form, ‘to harass, worry’, as in the OED citation “They have..hatchelled them with prosecutions, fines, and imprisonments.” (from Aurora, 1800).

This is one of many metaphors from weaving and spinning. Textiles also form the warp and weft of our thought and expression. In ‘Imagination’ we find spin (a yarn) and fustian, literally a coarse cloth, which appears with the sense ‘made up, imaginary’. Fustian appears again in the category of ‘Truth and falsity’ meaning ‘lofty or pompous in expression’, here alongside embroider (‘to embellish with rhetorical ornament’), wool (as a verb, ‘to deceive’), and sew up (a slang term, meaning ‘to get the better of’). Many of the same metaphorical links appear in ‘Literature’: to embroider, fustian and yarn-spinner can be added silken (‘elegant words’) and taffeta (‘inflated, bombastic language’).

Social structures also draw on textiles, with tweedy, woollen, home-spun, russet, all at different times indicating rustic, rude or ignorant people, and chintzy, on the other hand, as a derogatory term for the suburban petit bourgeois. At the other end of the social scale, and by metonymy, to be made a peer is to be ermined.

The very abstract categories of ‘Part-whole relationships’ and ‘Variety’ also draw strongly on textiles, with examples including patchwork (‘made up of diverse elements’), and linsey-woolsey (literally a material woven from a mixture of wool and flax, and figuratively ‘a strange medley’). This rag-bag (‘incongruous mixture’) of textiles metaphors has in fact some strong common threads.