I recently put the finishing touches on a blanket made from bunting. As I stitched together row upon row of triangular flags, I idly found myself wondering:
“Bunting, that’s a funny word. I wonder where it comes from.”
What followed, was a very enjoyable tumble down some fascinating internet rabbit holes. After several amusing tangents (including one featuring some very questionable dog breed descriptions), I escaped from the warren of information and fished out the more relevant bunting based tidbits to share with you all. Read on for some random bits of knowledge and a little more material about my own bunting related antics.
A Bird Named Bunting
The oldest use of the word that I came across had absolutely nothing to do with the flag-based decoration I’ve become so familiar with. The Online Etymology Dictionary (and my in-laws) informed me that bunting is also the name of a lark-like bird, which is referenced as far back as the fourteenth century.
According to charming book called “What Shall We Do Now? Five Hundred Games and Pastimes” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, these little feathery creatures also make fine household friends:
“The yellow bunting (or yellow hammer) can be a pet; and he has the sweetest little whispering song. If you have a caged bunting, his seed should be soaked in cold water for some hours before it is given to him, and he must have the yoke of a hard-boiled egg, meal-worms, ants' eggs, and any insects you can catch for him. He must also have plenty of opportunities for bathing, and as much fresh air without draughts as possible.”
This book also has tips for keeping canaries, cardinals, and blackbirds, to name but a few, so don’t feel you need to put all your eggs in one bunting shaped basket when it comes to establishing your own personal menagerie. How terribly dull that would be.
Although there are many different varieties of bunting (yellow-breasted, reed, snow, and indigo bunting to name but a few) the origin of the name is unclear. The suggestions by The Online Etymology Dictionary all related to the description of the bird including:
From the Scottish term “buntin” meaning “short and thick”
From the Welsh term “bontin” meaning “rump” or “bontinog” meaning “big-assed” (my personal favourite)
A diminutive from the French “bon” referring to its petite size
A reference to its speckled plumage from an Old English word similar to the German word “bunt” meaning “speckled”
Wherever the name came from, it certainly sounds like a charming little creature, even if it’s not the first thing that leaps to most people’s minds when you hear the word “bunting”.
Onto more familiar territory for me now. I discovered that “bunting” was used to refer the type of fabric itself, not just the items it was used to make. The fabric was described as being “loosely woven”, “open”, and “light” in the various sources I found. The nature of the fabric hints at one of the possible origins of its name. The word “bonting” in Middle English referred to the action of sifting grain. With its loose weave, the “bunting” fabric would have been ideal for such a task.
I also found reference to the fabric being used to make clothing in a work of fiction. In “At the Mercy of Tiberius” by Augusta Evans Wilson (1887), two dresses made of “bunting” are worn by a character named Beryl:
“Her plain, but perfectly fitting bunting dress, was of the color, popularly dominated "navy-blue," and the linen collar and cuffs were scarcely whiter than the round throat and wrists they encircled.”
“She wore her old blue bunting dress, and a faded blue veil when she delivered the notice at the office of the newspaper, and paid in advance the cost of its publication.”
As delightful as these dresses sound, the main purpose of the fabric appears to be more akin to its modern-day association.
Bunting on Board
There may be other sides to this funny sounding word, but when you get down to it, “bunting” is all about flags. According to Dictionary.com whether you’re talking about the fabric itself, the festive decoration, or the things hanging from ships, it’s all “bunting” baby.
If you happen to find yourself on a ship you’ll find examples of “bunting” or “bunt” (no chuckling please, this is a serious topic) all over the place:
“bunting” refers to “a bulging or swelling of a sail or fishing net” and comes from the verb “to bunt”, meaning “to furl” or “to swell”
“bunt” also refers to the middle part of a sail “that is pouch shaped to increase the effect of the wind”
“buntlines” are ropes used to haul up the sail (bunt and all) when it is to be rolled away (or “furled”)
Victor Hugo writes in his book “Toilers of the Sea” (1911): “Every rag of bunting, from the tiny streamer of the fishing-boat to the great flag of ships of war, droops against the mast.”
A delightful use of the word even crops up roughly seventeen minutes into Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, when Jack Sparrow cries “On deck, all hands! Make fast the bunt gasket!”. Apparently, this refers to the container of the sail
As you can see, there’s “bunting” everywhere onboard.
The fabric known as “bunting” was used to make flags on ships and decorative flags used for festive occasions. It seems quite natural then that the triangles of fabric strung along a piece of ribbon that most of us associate with the word should have the same name.
It also seems there’s no celebration that cannot be enhanced by the addition of some beautiful “bunting”. Here’s some suggestions from Mary E. Blain’s book “Games for all Occasions” (1909):
George Washington’s birthday:
“Red, white and blue paper garlands, paper hatchets and clusters or branches of artificial cherries are attractive; and pictures and busts of Washington draped with flags or bunting would be very effective.”
May pole dance:
“Procure a very light weight wheel about twenty inches in diameter. Wind bright colored bunting or ribbon around the wheel and spokes and attach various flowers and blossoms singly and in clusters to the cloth, letting some hang down as vines and festoons. Place the hub over top of May Pole.”
A flag-based guessing game:
“Drape the red, white and blue bunting from tree to tree and nail to the trees flags of sixteen different countries; the flags to be numbered. Provide each guest with a card containing as many numbers as there are flags. The guests are requested to fill out the cards with the names of countries the flags represent, and are allowed fifteen minutes in which to do this.”
What a versatile piece of kit a piece of bunting can be.
Honourable Bunting Mentions
After a quick foray into the murky world of Wikipedia to look for other bunting related articles, I concluded that there weren’t enough hours in the day to do justice to:
A famous Swedish horse named Bunting
How to engage in bunting while on a basketball court
The animal behaviour known as bunting
A disease caused by fungi that makes wheat and other cereal grasses smell awful and develop black spores called bunt
I’m really am sorry but you’ll just have to look those up on your own time.
Bunting and Me
My own experience of bunting is largely confined to my wedding day. As I mentioned in a previous post, as part of the black and white theme, my Mum spent many hours making a truly monumental amount of monochrome bunting. We used it to decorate the marquee and any other surface that didn’t seem quite fancy enough. It ended up being one of my favourite parts of the whole wedding endeavour.
Since it’s moment of glory on 23rd July 2016, all but a few of these flags have been confined to a box in the back of a cupboard. Considering the hours of toil my Mum put into creating them, this seemed like an unfitting end to the life of this decorative delight. Luckily, I came up with a way for the bunting to be born again.
The Bunting Blanket
With the help of my new heavy duty Singer sewing machine (and my Mother-in-law), I turned these fancy flags into an absolute beast of a blanket. It's certainly got some weight to it.
The first stage involved turning the single flags into whole strips of material. To do this, I slotted two lengths of bunting into one another and sewed the flags together along their diagonal edges.
Once I had ten of these strips, I sewed them together into pairs, before finally sewing all these pairs together to make one giant sheet of fabric made of bunting flags. I had to fill in a few gaps with a few extra flags as they weren’t all totally uniform but generally the strips were quite even and made a reasonably flat sheet of material.
I added a backing fabric to neaten off the jagged edges and make it a more conventionally blanket shaped. As the whole thing was already feeling pretty heavy, I decided against adding any wadding between these two layers. With a thick backing fabric and two layers of fabric in each bunting flag, it was going to keep us toasty warm enough as it was.
To keep the two layers neatly together I added some semi-randomly placed black and white buttons across the surface of the blanket and it was done! A totally unique blanket made of bunting. I’m sure you’ll agree, it looks cozy and delightful.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of a simple yet amusing word and maybe even learned something about a bird, a boat, or a bit of fabric. Next time you find yourself idly wondering about the etymology of a word I encourage you to look it up. You never know which tunnel of a rabbit warren you’ll find yourself at the bottom of.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn about some more ways to entertain myself in lockdown from my new best friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher and her book of games and pastimes. The game called “The Stool of Repentance” sounds like a suitable place to start in a pandemic.
Books from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/)
What Shall We Do Now? Five Hundred Games and Pastimes (1907) by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
At the Mercy of Tiberius” (1887) by Augusta Evans Wilson
Toilers of the Sea (1911) by Victor Hugo
Games for all Occasions (1909) by Mary E. Blain
The Online Etymology Dictionary “bunting” entry https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=bunting
The Word Detective “bunting” entry http://www.word-detective.com/2011/12/bunting/
Dictionary.com “bunting” entry https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bunting?s=t
The Encyclopedia Britannica “bunting bird” entry
Wikipedia “bunting” entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunting
Yellow-breasted bunting image https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellow-breasted_bunting_in_Nepal_02_-Cropped.jpg
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
All sources accessed on 9th February 2021