Why are dusters often yellow?

A hand using a duster Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are a number of theories as to why dusters are yellow

The humble duster is a familiar household object but why do they often seem to be made of the same soft yellow fabric?

Dot Unwin, 64, from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire wrote to the BBC about this "oddity that has puzzled me for years".

"There are all sorts of colours for dishcloths and sponges but I've never seen a pink or blue duster," she said.

"When pompous folk pontificate on the meaning of life and the big questions I always wait until they've finished and throw that one in - 'and why are dusters yellow?'."

Roy Bartlett, 70, from Surrey said he had also been "searching for an answer for ages".

We spoke to some experts and a number of theories emerged.

Image copyright Jen Meierhans
Image caption Nankeen trousers like these were chopped up and recycled as dusters when they were worn out, according to Professor Beverly Lemire

The answer could lie in the naturally yellow cotton which originally came from China, according to Professor Beverly Lemire, a lecturer in material culture at the University of Alberta in Canada.

"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 clothes.

"Very likely there were lower grade cottons that became associated with cleaning clothes 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.

"For a widespread utilitarian use, 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 as a means to cash in on the fad for this yellow fabric," she said.

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Image copyright Tom Stoddart
Image caption Could cheese making be responsible for yellow dusters?

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 used in the making of butter and cheese were recycled in this way, the yellow staining proving so popular that enterprising weavers produced cloth dyed yellow for this purpose."

But the connection could also be associated with flags, because the yellow flag was linked to disease on ships, she said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The yellow flag is the international maritime signal for the letter Q, which meant the ship needed to be quarantined due to disease on board

Lee, a cleaning contractor from Wokingham, told LBC: "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."

Mr Ashburner said he had never heard of a link between the yellow flag and dusters but "supposed it could be possible".

"You would not have wanted to use a flag as a duster though because by the time it stops being used as a flag it's filthy."

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