Pop goes the weasel and other cloth/weaving/fabric/mill-isms

Phrase origins are always a fun to think about, I think.  I heard someone say that they were on “tenter hooks” the other day, and I wondered what that actually meant.  Well, wasn’t I surprised when I learned that it has to do with a specific stage of the woolen cloth weaving?  After the cloth was washed, it was stretched out on frames and left to dry.  It was held in place by tenter hooks so it wouldn’t shrink, wrinkle, or lose its shape.  

I was able to quickly look up other phrases and sayings (thank you, Google!) that were related to mill work, cloth, weaving, fabric, and I thought I’d share a few here.  If you think of any, send them in!  I’ve decided to start collecting them! 

  • Run of the Mill – factory- or machine-made clothes were seen as less special, more ordinary than handmade clothes.  These clothes were the ‘run of the mill.’
  • Dyed in the wool – if the wool was dyed before it was made into yarn, the color was firmly fixed.
  • It’ll all come out in the wash – all the dirt in the cloth will come out during washing
  • Getting down to brass tacks– fabric was measured between two brass tacks set into the cutting counter.  This was considered more exact that measuring a yard of material using the lenth of your arm as a guide.
  • Pop goes the weasel – when spinning wool on to a reel (a weasel), the ‘pop’ was the sound made when a certain length of yarn was reached.

2 responses to “Pop goes the weasel and other cloth/weaving/fabric/mill-isms

  1. “Fair to middlin’ ” – meaning “not so good” or “lower quality” – a common term in the older South – used by Mark Twain – Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The phrase fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or to a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”. The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it seems to have eventually escaped into the wider language.

  2. That is a good one! I have often said “fair to middlin'” without really thinking about what it means. Thanks for adding that.

    I got another good one from Lynn Pownell too – black sheep of the family. She explained to me that wool from a black sheep can only be spun into black wool, so you don’t want too many black sheep in your flock. I love learning these things!

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