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Depending on regional usage, some people in the 18th century used “stuff” to describe any sort of woven textile material, but it also applied specifically to a particular type of coarse woven wool fabric. In this sense, it was often used for upholstery, drapes, and wall coverings, since it was sturdy and it could be produced in a range of colors to blend with an assortment of décor.
A major production center for this material was Kidderminster, a town in central England. By the mid-17th century, Kidderminster stuff was a justifiably famous fabric, made from high quality wool and later from a blend of wool and linen which is sometimes referred to as “linsey-woolsey.” This fabric was well known for being warm and sturdy, but not terribly attractive to look at; it was worn by lower ranking members of society, and some people also associated it with cheap, shoddy textile products.
Like many textiles, stuff came in a wide range of grades and qualities. Cheap versions made with thin, poorly handled wool would have been used by only the poorest members of society, while fine versions might be acceptable to a wider range of people, including highly ranked servants. Various other textile mills around England produced stuff from a range of materials; while wool and linen were the most common, this fabric could include almost any material, as long as it wasn't made with silk.
Members of society with higher incomes could afford to wear more expensive textiles like silk, and they tended to avoid stuff because it was itchy and unbecoming. Many tragic heroines in novels wear dresses made of this fabric until they meet their saviors or come into their inheritances; a dress like this carried a great deal of social implications. It was also used to make blankets and quilts, and it was sometimes distributed to the poor and needy.
Knowing that “stuff” refers to a coarse woolen fabric, readers might be confused about the “stuff of gold” which pops up in some novels. This term was sometimes used to describe brocade, which was made with a coarse stuff base which was heavily embroidered to create distinctive raised designs. Although the base for brocade might be humble, the embroidery made it an extremely costly and coveted fabric for formal garments and upholstery.
@bythewell - There is a common usage of it in reference to goods still. People say "foodstuffs" all the time, even though when you think about it, it doesn't really make sense anymore, since "stuff" isn't commonly used like that.
It was generally supposed to mean manufactured goods though, so our usage of it as "foodstuffs" doesn't really work as well as it might have, since I've heard it be used to refer to things like potatoes which have not been processed.
I guess the word probably came originally from that specific type of fabric and now that it's not being made anymore it drifted into other usage and mostly fell out of favor.
I have to confess that I've always skimmed over the word "stuff" in these novels, thinking it just referred to "things" rather than a specific type of fabric. It always seems to be used in a context like that, "the finest stuffs", which could be used either way.
Apparently though it doesn't always refer to woolen fabric, but can be used in a more general sense, not quite the way I originally thought, but not this specific.
I guess that's the evolution of language. The only reason people even still use this word in these kinds of novels is because they've read it themselves in older romances I guess.