Growing up in Belfast one of the words I often heard used was "huckaback". It always struck me as a funny word, where could it have come from and why on earth did it seem to be used to describe a linen towel of all things?
Well as the years passed and my love of textiles grew, my curiosity finally got the better of me - what on earth was huckaback and what did it do?
Well, it appears that the word may have come from the word "huckster", or a pedlar who sold their wares, often linens, in markets. Also it my be derived from the Dutch word "hoekster" from the 12th century, someone who carried things on their back, as the pedlars did. This woven linen cloth is also known as "huck" and refers to the pattern woven into the cloth. The patterns produced had an uneven surface, which made them more absorbent and after use, they also dried more quickly. This type of weave was ideally suited for towels.
In Ireland the huckaback towel was not only a functional item, but it became more embellished as time went on and there are some wonderful examples of huckaback towels with elaborate damask designs woven to the borders. At home we had simple hemstitched towels with the distinctive diamond weave, but there were also more special pieces, which would be used when guests came to visit.
This piece came from my mum's linen cupboard and you can see the beautiful damask border alongside the practical huck weave in the body of the towel. The best of both worlds.
Interestingly this type of diamond shaped pattern was also known as "diaper". In the 15th century this was the word used to describe the very absorbent fabric that was well suited to both towels and napkins, which were used to keep babies dry. The USA adopted the word diaper, but here in the UK we still call them "nappies", derived from the word napkins, also made from linen.
So finally my curiosity was satisfied, huckaback is a small woven raised pattern, usually in a diamond shape, which is exceptionally absorbent and mostly woven in linen, Irish Linen of course! Well, not exclusively..... More common in the early part of the 20th century, this great fabric is still available today.
But it isn't just functional, it can be pretty too. I have collected some really lovely guest towels over the years - here are just a few. Hand embroidered or appliqued, they became the "must have" item for the cloakroom of any home from the 1930s onwards.
I would bet that the bathrooms in Downton Abbey were graced with huckaback bath and hand towels woven in high quality Irish Linen. Probably ones like this, with finely hemstitched edges and weaver's mill marks to the corners. The mill mark was only applied to linen of the finest quality - but more of that another time.