Autumn has returned—calendrically, anyway—and with it a host of seasonal, perennial favorites. Football graces once again our Sundays, rakes are pulled from the backs of old sheds, and as warmer clothes are rescued from under the bed, a beloved fabric makes its triumphant return: corduroy. The sweetest zip-zip sound two thighs will ever make.
But what’s the story on cords? Why the wales, why the texture, and speaking of which, what’s with that sound? Here’s just a brief history of our favorite fall fabric, with enough tidbits to tide you over until spring.
Contrary to popular belief, the word “corduroy” is not a corruption of the French for “cord of the king.” The term most likely came from corduroy roads, log trails of frontier America whose bumpy appearance resembled the ridges, or “wales” of corduroy. Indeed, the term is distinctly American—in England, and Europe in general, corduroy is more commonly known as Manchester cloth, after the city where much of the early corduroy fabric was made. There is a competing theory that the name came from corded “duroy,” a woolen fabric popular in England, but the first one has a bit more romance to it, and that’s what we’ll stick with.
As for the cloth itself, corduroy is essentially tufted velvet. Its ancestor was an Egyptian fabric called “fustian,” a ridged cotton cloth that was embraced for centuries by European nobles. Corduroy as we know it didn’t really catch on with commoners until the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution was booming, and a new factory working class desperately needed a sturdy, affordable fabric that could withstand both wear and chill. And in Manchester—a northern English city with plenty of factories and textile mills to call its own—the stuff caught on pretty quickly, giving it a blue collar association that would last well into the 20th century, until intellectuals and artsy types began to embrace the once-noble fabric yet again.
Given its two-pronged history—a lineage that is both princely and pauperish—it should come as no surprise that corduroy is regarded as an eminently versatile fabric. It can be made into a stately three-piece suit as readily as a pair of five-pocket jean-style pants. It is rare in that it can at once connote intellectualism and sturdiness, style and brawn, and, yes, make a pretty intriguing zip-zip sound in the process.
As to how it makes that sound, our sound engineer suggests it may be a natural fricative caused by the turbulent flow of air through a narrow opening . . . whatever that means.
And there you have it.