A user on an ESL forum says,

Cloths are pieces of fabric — for instance, washcloths or tablecloths.

Clothes are wearing apparel — shirts, pants, etc.

Is this correct? And do we still use the word cloths? I’ve never seen it before.

Google Ngram viewer. PS. How is Ngram pronounced? N-gram?

2 Answers 2


Yes, we still use it, and yes, it is usually a piece of cloth or fabric, typically with a specific use. As you see from your own examples, we use it more often as the plural of a compound word such as washcloth, dishcloth, or tablecloth.

For an example of the use of the word on its own, google "burp cloths". You will find all sorts of them for sale; burp cloths are cloths (pieces of cloth) that you can put on your shoulder while you're burping your baby, so he won't spit up on your clothes.

You can also use "cloths" to mean different kinds of cloth, as in "We have several cloths that will fit your needs" or "our hand-tailored shirts use only the finest cotton cloths from Egypt". Saying "cloths" instead of "cloth" here implies that there is more than one type of finest cotton cloth coming from Egypt. However, in this situation, "fabrics" is probably a bit more often used nowadays.

p.s. "EN-gram" is how I pronounce Ngram.

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    You can also use "cloths" to mean different kinds of cloth, as in "We have several cloths that will fit your needs" or "our hand-tailored shirts use only the finest cotton cloths from Egypt". Absolutely not. Speaking as somebody who has probably vastly more experience in fabric stores both "cloth" and "fabric" are used as collective nouns in that context. "We have several kinds of cloth that will fit your needs" or "our hand-tailored shirts use only the finest cotton cloth from Egypt". Native speakers do not use "cloths" (or "fabrics") in this way. Commented May 15, 2014 at 17:22
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    I find numerous examples of "cotton cloths" in the Ngram viewer. For example here and here. There are plenty of others, so I'm afraid I have to disagree, your experience notwithstanding.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:01
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    As far as "making my case", it is you who said that native speakers do not use the term in this way. Seeing as I've provided evidence that appears to refute that position, it looks to me like you're the one who has a case to make, not me. Of course, if you actually meant that "native speakers do not use the term in this way except in the import industry as an archaic term of art", then maybe you'd like to make that clear. That's getting a bit convoluted, though. It might just be easier to say "gee, maybe I was wrong", mightn't it? I did, and look at all the interesting stuff I found.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 20:04
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    From The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, published 2003:- Coarse cloths, made from hemp as well as flax - osnaburgs, dowlas, ravenducks, hessians, buckrams, canvas, sailcloth - were the speciality of the areas. I don't have any specialist knowledge of the terminology used by fabric store workers, but it's pretty obvious to me those highlighted terms are all cloths in the sense "types of cloth", not "pieces of cloth". Commented May 15, 2014 at 22:04
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    I'm not so presumptuous as to attempt to speak for all English speakers, whether English or not, but I know that saying "cloths" within the contexts listed by Bob would not result in raised eyebrows, at least in the part of England where I live (Home Counties), whether in common usage or in a fabric shop.
    – ClickRick
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 23:37

At least State-side, we don't really say 'cloths' in the context of 'the finest cloths from Egypt'. Instead we say fabrics. 'The finest cloth from Egypt is used, however.

Cloths are pieces of material, as you said, like washcloths or can even mean 'a pile of cloths,' as in a pile of rags or assorted cloths sitting around.

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    Then what should I call the pile of cloths that I keep in my kitchen, for wiping things up with? Commented May 16, 2014 at 3:41
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    Moreover, Merriam Webster gives "cloths" as the plural of "cloth". I don't understand how you can assert that it doesn't exist in American English. Commented May 16, 2014 at 5:53
  • @DavidWallace I think the issue is that while we all agree that individual items that are made of cloth--such as washcloths, dishcloths "burp cloths" as in my example and so on--have a plural of "cloths", there seems to be some disagreement on the idea that various types of cloth are called cloths. As I said in my answer, we would more often use "fabrics" in this situation. However, I disagree with the assertion that we do not also use "cloths" to mean this; I have cited many examples that would seem to refute it.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 14:43
  • @JFA with regard to "for plural we use another word, such as fabrics", do you come to your conclusion after reading my examples? If so, perhaps you will share your reasoning. Please understand that it is with an open mind that I invite you to do this.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 14:46
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    @JFA While I don't have examples of the exact string you mention, I find enough related examples in the books in my link that I would say we really do say that in the states. Again, though, the more common word in this context is fabrics, probably because we Americans tend to shy away from simple words when we want to suggest that what we are saying is important.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 18:02

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