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Terminology: What is sewing carbage? (or cabbage, or garbage)

The Sewing Workshop, 1760 Musee Reattu - Arles, France.

Carbage or cabbage, and more rarely garbage, is the name given to the bits of fabric left over from cutting out an item.

Tailor from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, 1568

Tailor from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), Jost Amman and Hans Sachs, 1568

You can see the box of ‘carbage’ under the tailors table in Amman’s woodcut.

The term dates back to at least the 17th century, where it was also used for ‘shreds and patches used as padding’.

In 1648 Robert Herrick wittily commented on tailors credit:

Eupez for the outside of his suit has paid
But for his heart, he cannot have it made
The reason is, his credit 
cannot get
The inward garbage for his 
cloathes as yet

In another poem he complained of women’s fashions:

Upon some women,
Pieces, patches, ropes of haire,
In-laid garbage 
ev’rywhere

Some versions Herrick’s poems use carbage instead of garbage, and I would dearly like to know which were used in the original.

Butler’s 1660s Hudibras makes clear how important cabbage was to tailors:

For as tailors preserve their cabbage,
So squires take care of bag and baggage

In the mid-17th century play Hey for Honesty (usually attributed to Randolph, though this seems very unlikely) the character of the tailor states:

Nay, he has made me sharper than my needle; makes me eat my own cabbage.

The Sewing Workshop, 1760 Musee Reattu - Arles, France.

Antoine Raspal, The Sewing Workshop, 1760, Musee Reattu – Arles, France

The end of the 17th century is also when cabbage picked up the connotation it has today: as a bit of private theft and skimming off the top.

Tailors claimed the scraps from cutting out a client’s garment as their perquisites.  Some clients felt that the scraps should be theirs, not the tailors, and less scrupulous tailors were even accused of inflating the amount of fabric needed for a garment, or cutting it poorly, in order to make off with larger and more valuable scraps.

Dyche’s Dictionary of 1748 describes cabbage as:

…a cant word to express anything that is pilfered privately, as pieces of cloth or silk retained by taylors, mantua-makers or others.

In 1811 A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described cabbage as:

clothe, stuff or silk purloined by tailors from their employers.

In 1826 Etymons of English defined it as:

What is taken or purloined in cutting out clothes

Depending on the circumstances, tailors were charged for cabbage, and even hanged for it.

Cabbage as theft lingers in the vocabulary associated with organised crime groups today – you might have heard it mentioned in a mob movie or TV show, as the monies skimmed off the top.

There are a score of suppositions as to where the words come from.

There is a 1725 claim that it is because tailors like eating cabbage, so bits they steal are also cabbage. A 19th c researcher proposed that it is after a late 17th c hairstyle called the choux or cabbage, a sort of bun which may have been stuffed with scraps, and then the scraps picked up the name of the bun.  I think we can discard both of these as options, the first because there are no other mentions of tailors liking cabbage, which there ought to be if it was so commonly known, and the second because the hairstyle post-dates numerous usages of the words for scraps.

In the 19th c it was proposed that it came from cablish, an old term for wind-fall wood, or cabas, a basket to hide the hoardings, among other etymologies.

Despite all the guesses, there are no clear answer as to where the word comes from.

Sources:

Anonymous.  Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary Historical and Comparative of the Heterodox Speech of all Classes of Society for More than Three Hundred Years with Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, etc.

Arnold, Janet.  Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560-1620.  London: Macmillian.  1985

Thomas, John.  Etymons of English.  Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd Tweeddale Court.  1826

Cumming, Valerie and Cunnington, C.W.; Cunnington, P.E, The dictionary of fashion history (Rev., updated ed.). Oxford: Berg. 2010

Partridge, Eric,  The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London.  1973

Fosbroke, Thomas Dudley, Encyclopaedia of Antiquities and Elements of Archaeology, Volume 2.  London: M. A Nattali.  1843

Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Verso Books. 2003

15 Comments

  1. I love your terminology posts. They combine my love of sewing, my love of history (and historical sewing) and my love of language. They’re almost slowly reaching the proportions where you could publish an encyclopaedia of historical clothing terms in an actual book.

    This particular one made me giggle; father thought I was cuddling a cat. It does make me similarly happy. Because of course there were words for all that! Of course they used scraps for stuffing things with! Of course they tried to use the larger ones!

  2. So, when someone asks what I stuffed into my bum roll, they will now be told it’s cabbage. Thank you for this very informative post. 🙂

  3. I also enjoy your posts about the origin of terminology. I have never heard “cabbage” as referring to either scraps or skimming. Such fun!

  4. Fascinating!

    “Garbage” is also a recorded name for a medieval dish, which is made with the leftovers of chicken (heads, feet, gizzards, etc.). See: http://medievalcookery.com/recipes/garbage.html Perhaps the later use of garbage to mean “scraps left over from fabric” comes from the earlier use meaning “scraps/offal left over from a carcass”?

    Interestingly, the OED lists the “offal” meaning as the oldest one (earliest mention, c. 1430, which is one of the recipes in the above link). The generalised meaning of “refuse/filth” is c. 1582 at its earliest. Another meaning of “worthless/foul literary matter” is listed as being c. 1592 at its earliest. Another (obscure) meaning, referring to a sheaf of corn, is listed as c. 1562 at its earliest. There is no mention of garbage as in tailor’s scraps…

    • Meant to add:

      OED has no entry for ‘carbage’ but has one for ‘cabbage’ as in cloth offcuts, earliest date c. 1663. It also has an entry for cabbage as a verb, meaning to steal offcuts as a perk of a tailor’s job, earliest reference c. 1703.

      Sorry, I like etymology… ^_^

  5. Deanna says

    The painting of the sewing workshop is wonderful, all those colors and little details to look at! And I always love terminology posts.

  6. Tegan says

    I could also see it as being like the bits of leaves strewn around when you plant or work with cabbage. I certainly find scraps of fabric everywhere!

  7. Lynne says

    OED cites both usages as original for Herrick. I imagine the word had not ‘set’ a spelling yet. Johnson’s Dictionary was first published in 1755, so Herrick would have grown up before its effect of prescribing spelling had taken place.

    Oxford tends to put all its information under ‘cabbage’. It is sniffy about attempts to derive cabbage/carbage/garbage from the vegetable, but offers the following:

    “(It may have) referred to OF ‘cabuse’, imposture, trick, ‘cabuser’, to deceive, cheat; or to F. ‘cabas’, rush-basket, Sp ‘cabacho’, also OF ‘cabas’, cheating, theft, F. ‘cabasser’, to pack up, to cheat, steal, ‘cabasseur’, deceiver, thief; but evidence is wanting.”

    Sounds promising, to me.

    I rejoice in this new term!

  8. Mary Humphries says

    I too very much enjoyed this entry. I also was struck at how colourful the surroundings were, but we have been told of this when all we see is the worn off surfaces, in churches, eg, and fabrics themselves long gone.

    When I was guessing what the word could mean from the initial bit and illustration passed on, I thought at first it might be skins they were sewing, maybe in making parchment? When that came to naught, I thought I saw what looked like a hoop being formed in the sketch, found nothing under cabbage, or in any dictionary of terms I have, but did not try OED under garbage! An altogether delightful romp in history.

  9. This explains something I heard about Celia Birtwell, the textile designer and wife of Ossie Clark, who, when she was asked to identify a top made from her fabrics, said it was “cabbage” – made using fabric left over by the Radley factories or pinched by an employee and used to make something that WASN’T Ossie Clark.

  10. What a great post! I’d never heard the term before, but of course it makes sense that there would be a word for all the leavings.

  11. Mmm…I think I like the term cabbage. Though I might have to call my leftovers sauerkraut just because… 🙂

    • Hehe. I have read one source that claims that the Americans called it coldslaw (not coleslaw) because it is chopped into little bits!

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