Have you ever heard of the phrase “on tenterhooks”? It has come to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, and that is because tenterhooks were once very common sights indeed. Tenterhooks aren’t the big hooks you might see in a meat market or butches but are instead related to the cloth trade.
After a piece of cloth was woven, it still contained oil and dirt from the fleece. A craftsman called a fuller (also called a tucker) cleaned the woollen cloth in a fulling mill, and then had to dry it carefully, to prevent the woollen fabric from shrinking.
To prevent this shrinkage, the fuller would place the wet cloth on a large wooden frame, called a tenter (from Latin tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’), and leave it to dry outdoors.
The lengths of wet cloth were stretched on the tenter using tenterhooks (hooked nails whose long shank was driven into the wood) all around the perimeter of the frame to which the cloth’s edges (selvedges) were fixed, so that as it dried the cloth would retain its shape and size.
Just as today it is common sight to see fields full of solar panels, a century or two ago there would be tentergrounds (or teneter-fields), large open spaces full of tenters, wherever cloth was made, and as a result the word “tenter” is found in place names throughout the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations.
I was reminded of this a little while ago actually on the day I went to see the Aldgate Pump of Death and I found some modern art which I think illustrates two sides of Spitalfields (Whitechapel).
The material itself is of a type and colour that you might find in a sari which demonstrates the multicultural nature of the neighbourhood. However, having it running down the alleys albeit in a very loose fashion makes me think it is also remembering the history of cloth making and tenterhooks for which it was once famous.
All that affords me the chance to promote my book Straight From The Horses Mouth 🙂 for some of the most famous and fun idioms in the English language.
Straight From The Horse’s Mouth is available from the UK in Kindle format from Amazon here and paperback format here. American Amazon readers can squirm their way through the book in Kindle format here and in paperback format here. As well as being available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Nook, you can also get in on the action on your favourite Apple product by purchasing the book on iBooks by clicking below!