Textile Terms: On Tenterhooks

It’s been so long since anyone has seen either a tenter, or the hooks on one, that the word and the idea behind it are now quite mysterious, but at one time, the phrase on tenterhooks would have evoked an image that was immediately understandable.
Tenter hooks were L-shaped staples, much like a bent nail, placed at regular intervals on a rectangular wooden tenter frame. When cloth emerged wet from the fulling process it was stretched out on these hooks, preventing it from shrinking as it dried – hence the phrase ‘being on tenterhooks’.

  • What may be the last remaining 18th century tenter frames in the world, at Otterburn Mill, Northamptonshire, England.

It comes from one of the processes of making woolen cloth. After it had been woven, the cloth still contained oil and dirt from the fleece.  It needed to be fulled and blocked, much like handknitters treat their finished garments today. After  fulling, the cloth was stretched taut on frames, or  tenters, and the tenter hooks were the metal hooks used to attach the cloth to the frame. At one time, it would have been common in manufacturing areas to see fields full of these frames (older English maps sometimes marked an area as a tenter-field). So it was not a huge leap of the imagination to think of somebody on tenterhooks as being in an state of anxious suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter. The tenters have gone, but the meaning has survived.


Tenter comes from the Latin tendere, to stretch, via a French intermediate. The word has been in the language since the fourteenth century, andon tenters soon after became a phrase meaning painful anxiety. According to the folks at historicjamestown.org, where this photo appears, the figurative use of tenterhooks to describe someone’s suffering or suspense goes back centuries. For example, in 1601 Robert Chester wrote in Love’s Martyr or Rosalin’s Complaint: “Rack on the tenter-hooks of foule disgrace.”)

(information from World Wide Words, Exeter City Council Time Trails, and Historic Jamestowne)


Textile Tools: Medieval Images of the Distaff

The Gospelles of Dystaues (or The Distaff Gospels), 1470

Luttrell Psalter 1320-1340

This woman is shown beating her husband with her distaff!

Family Scene, Wife With Spinning Distaff, Bourdichon, French, 15th c.

Eve spinning, from the Hunterian Psalter , English, ca 1170

Woman unwinding thread from a spindle into a skein MS Fr. 599, f. 48, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris French, c. 15th Century

Historia Alexandri Magni. Flemish. 1470-1480

Fresco, 1304-06 Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua. Giotto.

Woman feeding a hen and chicks. Luttrell Salter 1325-1335.

Three queens. France, probably Paris, mid 14th cent. Pierpont Morgan Library. Manuscript. M.456.

Happy St. Distaff’s Day


In centuries past, January 7th, the day following Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, was known as St. Distaff’s Day. It was not really a holiday, nor is there really a “St. Distaff”. But the marking of this day by common people indicates the importance of spinning in the days before the industrial revolution. The distaff, or “rock”, was the medieval symbol of women’s work. Year round, spinning was a never-ending chore. During the Christmas season, however, both men and women took a break from many chores during the 12 days of the holiday.

But on January 7, the festivities were officially ended, and women would resume their daily round of household tasks. Men, however, did not resume ploughing until Plough Monday, when their ploughs were blessed. That left young men with time to play pranks on the girls, as described by a poem by Robert Herrick. But whereas women would recommence spinning on Distaff Day, the men did not return to the plough until after Plough Monday when their ploughs had been blessed.

“You must on St. Distaffs Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then cane home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff’ all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.”

So St Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, as it was sometimes called, was a final opportunity for some playful high jinks,with the lads setting fire to the flax and in return, the maids soaking the men from the water-pails… Life might have been difficult during the middle ages, but there was still some room for fun.

Making an 18th Century Hussif (Sewing Kit)

A Housewife, or Hussif, is nothing more than an 18th century sewing kit. Women used them at home, and soldiers used them when serving in the military. A few years back, I made one for myself, and use it mostly at re-enactments and museum programs. It’s a very handy thing to carry, and a very easy thing to make. All you need is some appropriate cloth, and simple directions. Here’s how I make mine.


Several 1/2 yard lengths of period appropriate cloth, in various patterns. I like checks. Alternatively, you can use a single color, if you prefer.

2 yards of seam binding or bias tape, or you can make your own.

Matching thread and sewing needles.

Plastic cover from a 15 ounce margarine container.


Cut the following:

A. Plain color lining piece – I generally use muslin. Cut to 4″ x 11″.

B. Backing piece: fabric of your choice. Cut to  4″ X 11″.

C and D:  For pockets: Cut two  3 1/2″ x 4″ pieces;

E. Cut one  4″ x 5″ pocket piece

F. Round the tops of the lining and backing, tracing the arc with the margarine lid. If desired, cut a liner piece for the curved top.


1. Using a neat slip stitch, hem 1 long side of pieces C and D. The hem should be narrow – approximately 1/8″ folded twice.

2. Hem 1 short side of piece E similarly.

3. Lay the lining (A) right side up with the rounded edge to the top. Place piece E, also right side up, so that its cut edges are even with the rectangular end of the lining. This will become the lowest pocket. Bast E in position, leaving hemmed edge free.

4. Place piece C, right side up, on the lining with its hem touching the hem of piece E. Carefully fold      under 1/4″ of the other end of C. Baste C in place, and carefully slip stitch the folded over side to the lining

5. Place D, right side up, on the lining with its hem toward the rectangular end, and approximately 3″ away from the hemmed end of C. Carefully fold under 1/4 ” of the other end of D. Baste D in place, then slip stitch the folded under edge to the lining.

6. Place the lining/pocket over the cover piece (B), matching up the edges. Baste together. Trim away any excess material from the edges.

7. The binding tape is sewn around the edges, beginning at the center of the rectangular end. You can sew through all the layers at once with small running stitches, or slip stitch each side separately. Be sure to miter the corners, and overlap neatly at the bottom.

8. Attach a length of binding tape or ribbon on the exterior to serve as a tie to hold the folded case closed. One third should lie on top of the case, and 2/3 away from the case.

This case can be folded in a variety of ways, depending on how full it is. You can also roll it. Fill it with needles, threads, pins, and any other small objects that you need for sewing. Show off your beautiful new “hussif”!

Textile Terms : The “Distaff Side”

A distaff is a tool used in spinning, to hold the unspun fibers, usually flax, to keep them untangled and ready to be spun. In the photo to the left, it is the object on the upper left that appears covered in long hair.

Because spinning was such a universal chore during medieval times, the distaff became a symbol for domestic life.

Gradually, the term “the distaff side” came to signify the female side of the family, or womanhood itself. In recent times, this descriptor has fallen out of common usage. The image at right shows a spinning wheel with a distaff dressed with flax. Sometimes  a gourd would be hung from the distaff, for holding water, with which the spinner would moisten her fingers while drawing out the flax fibers, to help “set” the new linen thread.

Fiber Folklore – Sun, Moon, and Talia

It’s a shame that many kids today aren’t familiar with the famous, classic fairy tales. Now that I’ve lived a good many years, I often recognize connections and underlying meanings in the stories I learned as a little girl. Many of them involve spinning, flax, and wool, in one way or another. Here is an archetypal tale, Sun, Moon, and Talia, written by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632) during the Renaissance. it is believed to be the source material for the newer story, The Sleeping Beauty.

Sun, Moon, and Talia

On the birth of his daughter Talia, a king asked all the wise men and seers to tell her future. They concluded that she would be exposed to great danger from a splinter of flax. To prevent any such accident, the king ordered that no flax or hemp should ever come into his castle. But one day when Talia had grown up, she saw an old woman who was spinning pass by her window. Talia, who had never seen anything like it before? “was therefore delighted with the dancing of the spindle.” Made curious, she took the distaff in her hand and began to draw out the thread. A splinter of hemp “got under her fingernail and she immediately fell dead upon the ground.” The king left his lifeless daughter seated on a velvet chair in the palace, locked the door, and departed forever, to obliterate the memory of his sorrow.

Some time after, another king was hunting. His falcon flew into a window of the empty castle and did not return. The king, trying to find the falcon, wandered in the castle. There he found Talia as if asleep, but nothing would rouse her. Falling in love with her beauty, he cohabited with her; then he left and forgot the whole affair. Nine months later Talia gave birth to two children, all the time still asleep. [They are named Sun and Moon.] “Once when one of the babies wanted to suck, it could not find the breast, but got into its mouth instead the finger that had been pricked. This the baby sucked so hard that it drew out the splinter, and Talia was roused as if from deep sleep.”

One day the king remembered his adventure and went to see Talia. He was delighted to find her awake with the two beautiful children, and from then on they were always on his mind. The king’s wife found out his secret, and on the sly sent for the two children in the king’s name She ordered them cooked and served to her husband. The cook hid the children in his own home and prepared instead some goat kids, which the queen served to the king. A while later the queen sent for Talia and planned to have her thrown into the fire because she was the reason for the king’s infidelity. At the last minute the king arrived, had his wife thrown into the fire, married Talia, and was happy to find his children, whom the cook had saved.

So what does this tale mean? You’ll notice their are no fairies in it – this is a tale about life in this world. The only magical element is the splinter that put Talia asleep. Here are some of the messages to the reader or hearer of this story:

  • Even as the king’s daughter, you are not safe in this world.
  • You cannot count on your parents to protect you.
  • Men are driven by sexual instincts and will rape you given the chance.
  • Older women are dangerous because they can get jealous.
  • You need luck to survive and conquer.

Moon, Sun, and Talia is believed to provide the source material for the more widely known story, The Sleeping Beauty, recounted by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
From Bettleheim, Bruno; The Uses of Enchantment, Random House, New York, NY: 1977.

The spindle used by the old woman in the story is a drop spindle, the tool used for over 1000 years before the invention of the spinning wheel. Pictured here, the drop spindle is used by suspending it, twisting it sharply to give it some spin, then drawing out the wool fiber while the spindle twists it into yarn. When the new yarn grows longer and the spindle reaches the ground, the spinner must stop to wrap it around the shaft before starting the process anew.

Fiber Folklore: The Flaxen Haired Maiden

Heroines in fairy tales were often referred to as “flaxen haired”, because a freshly prepared strick (bundle) of flax resembles long, pale blond hair. And in those same tales, the fiber that the maiden spun was usually flax. Here is a typical story:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful flaxen haired young girl who was to wed a handsome prince. She was a lazy spinner, and whenever the flax became tangled, she’d throw it on the floor. This maiden had a beautiful, industrious servant girl, who saved the tangles, combed and spun them into fine thread, from which she made herself a a lovely linen gown. On the eve of the wedding, the prince found out about the situation. He realized that his betrothed was lazy and wasteful, unlikely to be a good wife. In her stead, the prince married the servant girl. And they lived happily ever after.


Textile Tools: The Lucet

Lucet, as verb, is a method of making braided cording or lacing that dates from the Viking era. Lucet, as noun, is the name of the little 2 tined tool used to make the cord, which is strong, square, and only slightly elastic. There are many different techniques, each of which will produce a different kind of cord, but the basic process is the same.  Briefly, yarn is worked in a figure 8 pattern, lifted over the tine, then turning the lucet. As the cord grows in length, it can be wound round the handle. Sometimes referred to as a chain fork or hay fork, the lucet was replaced when affordable commercial cording became easily available during the industrial revolution.

I’m not certain whether the word is pronounced “lusette” or “lusay”, and would appreciate your comments if you know for sure.


Textile Tools: The Niddy Noddy

One of my favorite words! A niddy noddy is a winding tool used to remove the spun yarn from the spindle. Often assigned to a child in the family, this was a simple but vital task. Most old niddies measure 2 yards of yarn per pass. This old song was probably designed as an aid to counting off the yardage.


Niddy noddy, niddy, noddy

Two heads, one body,

Here’s one, t’aint one,

‘T’will be one, by and by,

Here’s two, t’ain’t two,

‘T’will be two, by and by.

Etc., until 50 passes have been made and the niddy holds a 100 yard skein.


When I’m spinning away from home, I bring and use my niddy noddy. At home, however, I always use my reel, which is an umpteen times faster way to make that skein. Whichever winder I use, I leave the skein on it for a few days to to help relax it out and straighten the yarn.

Textile Tools: Medieval Images of Spinning Wheels


Woman spinning on the great or walking wheel.
Luttrell Psalter, British Library, London 14th c. England

The great wheel produced thread more quickly than the drop spindle, but the thread was lower quality. It was underspun (not twisted enough) and uneven. The wheel was turned by pushing a stick against the spokes (above) or by turning a crank. Because the spinner had to use one hand to operate the wheel, she was left with only one hand to draft the fibers, resulting in uneven thread.

Woman spinning on a great wheel which is turned by a crank. MS 17, Musee Dobree, Nantes 16th c. France

British Library, early 14th century

The spinners above are drafting the fibers with one hand and turning the crank with the other. The next step in the evolution of the spinning wheel was to attach a foot treadle to the crank. The spinner could then use her foot to turn the wheel, freeing both hands for drafting.