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My local history group is transcribing a series of account books kept by the overseers of the poor in Woodchurch, a village in the English county of Kent. One of the transcribers has come across these two entries:

  • Item paid John Prior for butons teap and cannis and makinge a coate for Widdow Hills boye
  • Item pocketts tape and cannis for the waste bond and to skins

The word we are struggling to find a meaning for is 'cannis'. It looks as though it could be a plural of an item used in tailoring. Online searches of the OED and Google haven't produced any obvious solutions. Seventeenth-century spelling is notoriously phonetic, so the term could be 'cannes' or 'cans' or any similar-sounding variant. If there is anyone here familiar with historical clothing terms, we would love to hear from you.

  • Perhaps is it canna, a measure of cloth? See the OED. (Also spelled cane). – Laurel Nov 21 at 18:10
  • Many thanks for your suggestion, Laurel. That is certainly a possibility we've considered, but the OED puts this definition firmly in Italy, southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean -- a world away from our community of farmers and agricultural labourers. Of course, one of our overseers could have been well travelled, in which case this could be the right meaning. – Goldbern Nov 21 at 18:29
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I believe the product is canvas.

For example, see: THE LIVING AGE VOLUME CXCV, Publisher, Littell, Son and Company, 1892, Contributors Eliakim Littell, Robert S. Littell, Making of America Project:

quote from THE LIVING AGE VOLUME CXCV

Transcribed:

Coarse linen was woven by the village weaver into harn for shirts and bed-coverlets. The latter was cannis or canvas (Lat. canabis, hemp). A similar sheet was laid down to receive the grain when it was being threshed, hence the Buchan proverb, "We can thres i' oor ain cannis".

That is, you've heard of cannabis, marijuana, and its relation to the plan hemp, a textile. The textile is canvas.

  • Yes, that’s what I thought when I read the question ..but I couldn’t find evidence to support it. – user067531 Nov 21 at 18:25
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    @Dan Bron Many thanks indeed for pointing us at 'canvas'. Embarrassingly, an obvious candidate that we simply failed to spot. Going back to the OED, the entry for 'canvas' lists several 17th century dialect forms including 'cannas' and 'canness' that correspond neatly to the spelling variants used by our overseer. – Goldbern Nov 22 at 18:36

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