By Sam Powers
Everyone loves corduroy — what’s not to love? It’s warm, soft, durable and adds texture to your outfit. Its versatility allows the cloth to be worn by anyone for anything, giving denim a run for its money. To really know what the cloth is all about, we must go all the way back to ancient Egypt where its ancestor was created.
During the third century, a new fabric was created by Egyptian weavers in Al-Fustāt. Named “fustian” after its city of origin, the manufacturing kicks off a chain of events leading to what we know as corduroy.
Woven with a cotton weft (over and under) and linen warp (held stationary), fustian is a heavy cloth characterized by its pile, a raised surface of fabric caused by the looping of threads. An easy way to understand pile is to look at your bath towel — you’ll likely see a bunch of tiny loops creating the surface giving your towel that luxurious texture.
After centuries of being produced and worn in Egypt, the cloth spread into Europe during the 12–14th centuries via the cotton trade. The luxurious feeling the pile creates made fustian a desired cloth among European royalties, among them being King Henry VIII. Although the durable cloth’s popularity continued to increase, causing guilds of fustian weavers to spread across Europe, fustian’s reputation as an exotic luxury cloth would not last.
By the 19th century, fustian’s reputation transitioned to that of a practical textile for the working-class because of its inflexibility and durability. Philosopher Friedrich Engels comments on fustian in an 1844 book, “Fustian has become the proverbial costume of the working-men, who are called ‘fustian jackets.’”
It is around this time that the name “corduroy” was coined, but the exact details of the corded fabric’s emergence are not well documented. With the earliest recorded use of “corduroy” in 1774, there are claims that it was first produced during the Industrial Revolution in Manchester, England, for use as workers’ uniforms.
The name of the cloth itself is surrounded in confusion. Some believe the name comes from the french expression “corde du roi” translating to “cloth of the king,” but this is ultimately an unsubstantiated theory. The more agreed-upon origin of the name comes from a portmanteau of “cord,” referring to the ribs, and “duroy,” a coarse woolen cloth.
Corduroy most likely was not a grand unveiling, but a series of hard-to-track, small changes to fustian. If you think of it in terms of biological evolution, the human eye didn’t uniformly appear one day. A series of small adaptations over a massive time scale eventually create the eye as we know it.
The history of textiles should be thought of in a similar way. These cloths have a long history subject to minor changes building on one another based on the weavers’ innovations.
Entering the 20th century, corduroy is well-established as a workers’, children’s and sports cloth. This reputation was reinforced by World War I as militaries across Europe included corduroy trousers in uniforms.
The Women’s Land Army wore corduroy as well, showing it wasn’t a cloth just for male use. As the mid-century approached, corduroy expanded beyond workwear, becoming a fashionable sporty fabric suited for the modern world.
It was in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when corduroy really had its cultural moment. Drawing on its utilitarian past, the durable fabric becomes a popular anti-establishment symbol. Corduroy jeans, trucker jackets, dresses and sport coats are a must-have for the baby-boomer’s closet. Corduroy joins denim as a popular cloth for beatniks, college students and workers alike.
Corduroy starts with either a plain weave (the weft alternating above and below the warp) or a twill weave (a diagonal pattern common in jeans) as its base. Extra filling yarns are then passed through warp yarns creating raised floats, yarns that skip over two or more adjacent warp yarns, in parallel rows.
The pile created by the extra filling yarns are cut, allowing the yarn to stand up, giving corduroy its soft feel and creating wales, the cords. The pile gives corduroy its warmth by trapping small pockets of air.
Formally speaking, corduroy adds structure to an outfit through its rigid pattern of parallel wales. But more than anything, corduroy’s stylistic appeal comes from its historic connotations.
Its history as work-wear gives the cloth a down-to-earth vibe, something that our favorite folksy professors have picked up on. Corduroy’s association with academia, in turn, makes the fabric seem high-brow — scholarly, even.
These connotations are played up or down based on the garment. For instance, a corduroy trucker jacket plays more into its work-wear history, while a corduroy sport coat plays into the world of collegiate prep.
Corduroy is a powerful cloth with a long history, referenced in every wear whether the owner means to or not.