Idioms for Fabric and Other Materials

By Mark Nichol - 2 minute read

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Words for various materials used in clothing have been applied to various descriptive terms and idiomatic expressions, including those described below.

Cotton-picking is a euphemism to express anger or frustration. To cotton to something is to take a liking to it or to come to an understanding of it (the phrasing can also be “cotton on to”), and to cotton up to someone is to flatter. Meanwhile, to be in high or tall cotton is to be successful (from the notion of a cotton planter walking among large plants).

Dyed-in-the-wool is an adjective meaning “set in one’s ways,” from the practice of dying wool fibers before they are spun into thread so that the dye is more durable. To pull the wool over someone’s eyes (a reference to a wig made of wool) is to deceive them, to wrap them up in cotton wool is to be overprotective (with the connotation of swaddling someone as if they were a baby), and to live in cotton wool is to live a protected life. To woolgather, meanwhile, is to daydream; the idiom stems from the seemingly aimless act of collecting bits of wool on bushes and fences.

“All wool and a yard wide” and “all wool and no shoddy” both denote an honorable person or something of high quality. Various other expressions including wool, including “all cry and no wool” “great cry and little wool,” and “more cry than wool,” allude to much attention given to something of little significance.

“Go hell for leather” or “go hell-bent for leather” means “act quickly” or “act recklessly.” (The leather in question originally referred to a saddle, with the notion of riding a horse quickly or recklessly.) “Tough as (shoe) leather” refers figuratively to physical fortitude or literally to something resembling leather, as a cut of meat. Leathery may describe something akin to leather in appearance or texture, as to skin roughened by exposure to the elements, and someone who is leather lunged has a very loud or strong voice, while the phrase “as ever trod shoe leather” is a more colorful way of saying “as ever lived” or “as ever walked the earth” following a compliment (or denigrating remark) in order to intensify it.

Lacy describes something resembling lace, such as a dew-drenched spider web or a delicate coating. To lace is not only to thread or trim but also to add a color, flavor, or other quality to something or otherwise enhance it.

Silky describes fluid or smooth movement or texture, and “smooth as silk” describes something or someone delicate in demeanor or texture. The expression “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” means that something refined cannot be produced from rough materials, while “silk-stocking district” connotes an affluent neighborhood, from the fact that at one time, only the wealthy could afford such items. To hit the silk, meanwhile, is to parachute from an airplane (an allusion to the material used for the parachute). Satiny also suggests smoothness.

Meanwhile, the smooth, plush texture of velvet, which is made of one of several fabrics, is suggested with the adjective velvety.

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2 Responses to “Idioms for Fabric and Other Materials”

  • TheBluebird11

    I would add that to lace something (e.g. a drink) can refer to the addition of poison, which is not necessarily an enhancement LOL
    Another expression is “lace-curtain Irish,” meaning well off but also kind of trying to climb the social ladder.

  • D.A.W.

    Cotton-picking:
    A “lazy cotton-picker” is one (in the South) not ambitious enough to [learn how and] do something else for a living.
    Actually, picking cotton by hand is mostly hard work, and especially in hot weather.
    One who just wants “to sit under the shade tree all day” is really, really lazy. A lazy one could also “sit on the porch all day”.

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