… of Cabbages and Kings 49

Tailor from Das-Ständebuch the Book of Trades, 1568

Tailor from Das-Ständebuch the Book of Trades, 1568

Scraps are an inevitable byproduct of any sewing project and many sewists have a tendency to save even the smallest pieces of fabric because they are simply too nice to throw away.  Who knows, they could be find a place in a quilt, as a doll dress, or in any number of small projects.  Still, over the centuries fabric has become less and less dear an even the most economical of today’s sewists end up throwing away fabric that would have once been carefully saved.

In the Middle Ages, fabric was very expensive and a tailor’s skill was not only measured by the quality of his clothes but also the quantity of his cabbage.  Cabbage you say?  What on earth does cabbage have to do with a tailor’s skill?  Actually, a tailor’s cabbage has nothing to do with that delicious garden variety, but actually refers to the pieces of fabric left over from a sewing project that was generally retained by the tailor as part of his wages.  Because cloth came in much narrower widths during the Middle Ages, one of the first skills a tailor’s apprentice learned was piecing.  A tailor that was adept at cutting and piecing garments could be left with some nice size pieces of fabric left over that could be pieced together to make garments for other customers.  Not a piece was wasted and even the tiniest bits of fabric were pieced together to use in garments.  A doublet from the collection at Platt Hall was made pieced together with the cabbage from two different green velvet fabrics.  It has an extraordinary number of pieced components, the nap of which runs in all different directions.


Heavily pieced doublet c. 1610. (copyright Manchester Art Gallery)

While a good tailor was highly valued, he was often underappreciated; often going hungry when work was slow and without sleep when work was plentiful.  Slow periods of work became known as Cucumber Time in the tailoring trade because a journeyman tailor would often be reduced to to living on cucumbers.  An often used maxim was “Tailors are vegetarians, because they live on cucumbers when without work, and on cabbage when in full employ.” To add to their meager incomes, unscrupulous tailors purposely overestimated the amount of fabric needed for a garment or cut it poorly in order to make off with larger and more valuable pieces of cabbage. This spawned a certain amount of distrust toward tailors in general and by the end of the 17th century, the term cabbage was being used to refer to the devious theft of skimming off the top.  Depending on circumstances, tailors were sometimes charged for excessive cabbage and even hanged for it.

Leave a comment below to be included in a random drawing for enough red linen and batiste “cabbage” to make the kirtle, smock, and coif from our upcoming pattern!unnamed-1

For as tailors preserve their cabbage, so squires take care of bag and baggage. ~ Samuel Butler, Hudibras ca. 1670


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49 thoughts on “… of Cabbages and Kings

  • Bonnie S

    What an interesting post! This was all new to me. Thanks for bringing us new info!
    So excited for the new pattern, too. Just adorable!

  • Barbara Martens

    Fascinating-had not heard the therm “cabbage” used this way before. I would love to win the cabbage to make your new pattern-what fun. Love it!

  • Rebecca

    This is so cool; thank you as always for sharing! I had no idea the word cabbage was used that way.

    I’m definitely guilty of saving any and all scraps, even just for test stitches or tiny pieces to use as stuffing.

  • Penny Tennermann

    Somehow, I’ve missed hearing about Cucumber Time and Cabbage. I always learn something new from your newsletters. I remember long ago an article in Threads magazine about piecing a linen shift. It was an impressive challenge to get the width needed from very narrow yardage. If I remember correctly, the author of the article did try to keep the pieces running true to grain.

  • Martha Hanlon

    A very nice story and such a sweet wee maiden. I have a feeling by her “red” colored smock, she must be the Baron’s daughter.

  • Carol M.

    When I took in dressmaking many years ago, my customers always bought the amount of fabric called for on the patterns, and there was ALWAYS quite a lot of scraps because I was able to place the pattern pieces more economically than the diagrams showed. Now that was 30-40 years ago, and I saved all those scraps thinking that SOMEDAY there would be a use for them….sure enough, now I make doll clothes and am able to use so many of those scraps…or cabbage… to make some really unusual outfits. 🙂 Love it!

  • Kathryn Ison

    I’m looking forward to this lovely pattern! Thank you for this opportunity to win the fabric to create it!

  • Michele

    I just love learning these tidbits of sewing and clothing history! Thanks for another fascinating lesson, and I look forward to the lovely kirtle pattern!

  • Beth Sherwin

    I’d have to admit to being one of those people who saves very small pieces of fabric since I love to sew doll clothes!

  • ki wolfe

    The tailor is often the hero in Scottish Gaelic folklore because he went from community to community and house to house making clothes. In several changeling tales, it is the tailor who recognizes that the child has been exchanged and who effects the exchange back.

    One legend is that the devil once decided to learn how to sew and he joined a group of tailors to do so. But thought they showed him how to stitch and all, none of the tailors informed the devil that he had to put a knot at the end of his thread and so all his work came to naught.

  • Sewbig

    Shari — I love your little history lessons! I had never heard the reference to cabbage and cucumbers. I already have a piece of red linen picked out for this outfit from my cabbage patch. (So don’t include me in the drawing!) Just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the bits of history. And the patterns!

  • Rachel Koppleberger

    That is fascinating. He he, so I’m not the only scrap hoarder? Lol my friend helped me go through my scraps the other day and get rid of all the ones that really were too small to reuse. Now I just need to go and make either some clothes for my little dolls or do some quilting.

  • Christie B

    I recently read the back of a pattern yardage required incorrectly and ended up without enough material to cut out a long skirt. The pattern was simple, one piece on the fold for the front, but the back had a long kick pleat. At first I thought I would just take baby steps in it, but then I remembered a tailor in Williamsburg piecing a sleeve. I thought, well now there is an idea. I had just enough fabric to piece the pleat onto each side of the back seam. When pressed to the inside after stitching, it looked like it had been cut that way all along! I felt very 18th Century.

    My AGAT Matilda and I are very excited about the Tudor patterns you are planning.

  • Annlee

    I found this to be a very interesting about the pieces of fabric and how the pieces were used in making a garment.

  • Monya Duvall

    Thanks again for some history. Yikes! I can’t believe they could be hanged for too much piecing. I imagine too much piecing did not make a good looking garment and the buyer would feel cheated. Possibly some tailors did it one too many times!
    The Renaissance dress looks beautiful, I can’t wait to try it. You make beautiful historical patterns!

  • Gloria

    Amazing article!! And, the patterns that you are working on are fantastic! I can’t wait for them to be available. Thank you, Shari, for sharing.

  • Sharon Kayser

    The article was very interesting, I was unaware of that expression applying to bits of fabric
    The new pattern is beautiful.

  • Amey

    I’d heard of ‘cabbage’ used as slang for money, but didn’t know this use. Interesting! Thanks for all the information you share.

  • Janet S

    Who knew that cabbage could mean so many things? Wonder if that is the basis for US Federal Reserve Notes being called “cabbage” — maybe due to the linen content of the bill…

    Thank you Sheri for history!

  • Elsje

    Thank you for the article with all the amazing detail. I have never come across this information before and enjoyed reading it. I have always kept all my scraps for applique, patchwork and doll clothes, although every now and again I do steel myself to go through and weed some of the unlikely ones. Love the kirtle smock and the adorable coif pictured.

  • Maggie Gean

    I didn’t know this so am glad to learn something, MY maternal line is Littlefield and they were involved in the woolen business from the late 1400’s until I don’t know when, my branch migrated to the new world in 1638, selling out, probably his share of the business in Titchfield to his brother.. they had the fulling mill there. So fiber working seems to run in our blood,

  • Melodie Hess

    I love this article! “Tailors are vegetarians”! I’ve sewn all my life (starting at age 3 . .ok sort of) I’ve been vegetarian for 47 years, so I really got a kick out of this one! I love your beautiful patterns!

  • Genine

    How fascinating. I knew about tailor’s cabbage but had never heard of the cucumber bit. Your new pattern looks wonderful – as always!

  • Melinda

    This was fascinating to learn about. Those poor tailors! I used to save every tiny scrap of fabric, but now I have so much that I do throw away small bits.

  • Darlene

    This was so fascinating! I love to learn about new things and old things. I love learning how a saying, or a word came to be used in different ways.

    I like cabbage a lot, but this kind of cabbage is my most favourite! I absolutely love the new pattern – it is stunning in red – what a great giveaway!! I think I will try sewing bits of fabric together and see what it becomes 🙂

  • mermade

    What a great story – always learn something when I read your informative newsletters! LOVE the kirtle, smock & coif and would be thrilled to receive enough ‘cabbage’ to sew one for our dolls. 😉 Busy time of year here, so limited sewing time, but Clementine, Sam and WW Camille are anxious for more new duds, so they’ll top my list when I do find time to sew again! Much appreciate the birthday present that you gave to us too!!!

  • Anne-Marie

    I adore your historical articles. I always learn something new. And the new pattern looks stunning!

  • janis pepper

    I have many boxes and bags of cabbage. I use some as trim in other projects. The smaller pieces are for quilting and the smallest of all is for applique. I have them separated by seasons and sizes. I love all your great historical stories.

  • Marcy Mahle

    I know I have a lot of cabbage to make all sorts of things. I better get busy. I love your historical articles.

  • Linda Torrance

    You are my favorite pattern designer! I love the historical tidbits that come with them. It so important that children today learn from the past, so thanks. I always seem to miss the times when you are on freebie friday at Liberty Jane booh hoo. The kirtle is great can’t wait to see it finished.

  • Georgianne

    I not only have an amazing number of “yet to be used patterns” but also quite a crock of “cabbage.” The cabbage was the reason I started sewing for dolls. We know where that path led. Now I have more fabric and trims to accent the “cabbage.” How my garden grows with beautiful dolls all in a row.
    I love your historical details and your patterns are the very best. Thank you.

  • Melody Mar

    Where did you find your information about cabage use? The women in my guild don’t believe me! I know this post has been here for a while, but I think it is a valuable piece of research. Thank you.