Skip to content

The Language Of Tailors

March 27, 2023
by the gentle author



Click here to book for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF THE CITY OF LONDON on Easter Monday


Mohammed Abdul Mannan at Needlepoint in Barnet Grove by Sarah Ainslie


BABY – The stuffed pad of cloth that the tailor works his cloth on.

BALLOON, TO HAVE A – To have no money coming in at the end of the week.

BANGER –  A piece of wood with a handle used to draw steam out of the material during ironing.

BOARD – Tailor’s work bench.

BOOT? , CAN YOU SPARE THE – Can you give ma loan? Dating from the time that all tailors used to sit cross-legged at the bench. The tailor would record a loan by chalking it up on the sole of his boot.

BUNCE – A perk of the trade. Mungo is one type of tailor’s bunce.

CODGER – A tailor who does up old suits.

CRIB – Larger scraps of cloth, saved from a length of cloth alloted for a job. The crib can be used to make a skirt or a pair of trousers. Another example of a tailor’s bunce.

DEAD – A job is dead when it’s been paid for already. So there is no more money coming in from it and it is as well to get it off your hands quickly.

DOCTOR – An alteration tailor – a separate trade in most houses.

DOLLY – A roll of material, wetted, and used as a sponge to dampen the cloth.

DRAG, IN THE– Late with a job of work.

DRUMMERS – Trouser makers. A term of contempt used by jacket makers to describe trouser makers because there is said to be less skill in making a pair of trousers. Trouser makers are also given the more contemptuous name of FOUR SEAMS & A RUB OF SOAP.

DUCK SHOVING – An East End expression, meaning making the stitches too big. The West End equivalent is SKIPPING IT.

GOOSE IRON –  Hand iron, which used to be heated upon a gas flame.

INCH STICK – Wooden ruler.

KICKING – Looking for another job. If dissatisfied, a tailor might go out looking for another job during the lunch break.

A KILL – A job that is no good at all and cannot be resold. eg If burnt with an iron.

KIPPER – Female tailor’s assistant, called kippers because they always worked in pairs. This was for their own safety – a kind of chaperone system – so that one could protect the other if the tailor made advances.

MANGLE – Sewing machine. Old machine that worked on a treadle looked like mangles.

MUNGO – Cloth cuttings. These belong to the tailor and he can make a few pennies by selling them to a rag merchant.

ON THE COD – Gone for a drink.

ON THE LOG – Piecework. As in most trades, tailors are paid  according to the amount of work they turn out. The work is logged up against the tailor’s name in the book.

A PORK – A job that customer rejects but which can be sold to someone else.

PT, RUBBING IN A – Fitting in a private job eg making yourself a pair of trousers during the lunch break. This practice os allowed in most work rooms provided th tailors are discreet about it, and do it in their own time.

SCHMUTTER, BIT OF OLD –  Jewish expression for a piece of poor cloth.

SHEARS – Tailor’s scissors.

SKIFFLE – A fast job that a customer wants in a hurry.

SMALL SEAMS – A warning expression to a fellow tailor that the person you are talking about is coming into the room.

SOFT SEW – A cloth that is easy to work with eg tweed.

TWEED MERCHANT – A tailor who does the easy work. A term of contempt for a poor workman, because tweed being soft and rough is easier to work with than other cloths.

UMSIES – A name to describe someone who is in the room whom you are talking about but you do not want them to know it. Even if they hear, there is an element of doubt who you are referring to.

Chris Georgiou, Tailor, Gray’s Inn Rd, by Colin O’Brien

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie & Estate of Colin O’Brien

You may also like to read about

The Language of Beer

Printers Terminology

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 27, 2023

    Thank you for this list of very specific vocabulary. Being a translator, I love words, and these are great.

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 27, 2023

    Fascinating terminology! I still have my mother’s old manual sewing machine which is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I no longer use it, but still very much treasure it.

  3. Milo permalink
    March 27, 2023

    Some great old expressions there. I still call people ‘auld codgers’ and ‘a bit of bunce’ was oft used back in the day. A new one though is ‘on the cod.’ Excellent and i shall utilise it immediately as i nip off down the pub for a swifty.

  4. Grace Caruso permalink
    March 27, 2023

    I have been sewing for 70 years and my aunt was a tailor…..but I learned the meaning of many words from this post. I did think the word “mangle” referred to an automatic ironing machine that was used in laundries. Someone sits in front of the machine and places the object to be ironed onto a padded cylinder and lowers a curved, heated metal plate onto the cylinder pressing the object. There were flat ones and the curved version…

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 27, 2023

    Lots of fab new phrases to use but I was surprised to see that schmutter refers to poor cloth. Robert Elms often refers to liking a bit of schmutter on Radio London and as he is such a snappy dresser I had always assumed it was referring to something of good quality!

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS