"The best of this hard-wearing cotton was made into trousers called nankeen trousers or breeches," she said. When the trousers wore out, they would be cut up and recycled as cleaning cloths. "Very likely there were lower grade cottons that became associated with cleaning cloths and dusters," she said.
The entry for nankeen in The Spinning World. The Global History of Cotton Textiles (2009) notes that Lancashire started to make nankeen cotton cloth by the late 1700s. "Consumers need to develop an association between a particular type of object and its use," said Professor Lemire. "This is why I think a mass market was created. Very likely Lancashire manufacturers were sourcing yellow cotton wherever they could. To cash in on the fad for this yellow fabric."
Staff at the Royal Museums Greenwich said they had heard butter and cheese making could have a connection with dusters. "Dusters and cleaning cloths were traditionally made from rags recycled within the domestic environment before mass production," a spokeswoman said. "Muslin cloths were used in the making of butter and cheese and recycled in this way, the yellow staining proving so popular that enterprising weavers produced cloth dyed yellow for this purpose."
FLAGS AND DISEASE
But the connection could also be associated with flags, because the yellow flag was linked to disease on ships, she said.
When boats came into port they would wave a big yellow flag to show that everyone on board was disease-free. The colour yellow then became associated with cleanliness." Charles Ashburner, chief executive of the Flag Institute, added: "The Q flag is a plain yellow flag and it originally meant your ship had disease on board and was under quarantine. "In modern use it indicates the opposite, that the ship is free of disease and the vessel is ready for boarding and inspection, but it's very rarely used now.