‘Shoddy’, cloth made from recycled wool, was first manufactured (and probably invented) by Benjamin Law in Batley, West Yorkshire, in 1813. The process involved grinding woollen rags into a fibrous mass and mixing this with some fresh wool. Law’s nephews later came up with a similar process involving felt or hard-spun woollen cloth, the product in this case being called ‘mungo’.
Shoddy and mungo manufacture was, by the 1860s, a huge industry in West Yorkshire, particularly in and around the Batley and Dewsbury areas. It created a huge demand for rags and waste wool, and made clothes much more affordable.
Shoddy came to mean ‘cheap and nasty’ almost certainly because of the American Civil War (1861–65). Recruitment of huge armies on both sides created an immense demand for uniforms, which some manufacturers struggled to meet (or exploit) with poor-quality shoddy. This led to stories of soldiers’ clothing falling to pieces after just a few days’ wear, or even in heavy rain.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the exact derivation of ‘shoddy’ is unknown. Some claim it is related to the mining term ‘shoad’, meaning scraps of rocks or ore. Perhaps more plausible, however, is the suggestion that shoddy was made from cloth that had been thrown away, from clothes that had been ‘shed’. But that’s just speculation.
Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.
This Q&A first appeared in BBC History Magazine in 2011