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The meaning of “To be on Tenterhooks”

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A tenterhook – one of many used on a frame as part of traditional cloth finishing, giving rise to the phrase “to be on tenterhooks” (photographed in Ezcaray, Rioja, Spain)

Tenterhooks were metal hooks mounted on a long wooden frame onto which lengths of unfinished woollen cloth were fixed and stretched so that the cloth could be dried in such a way that the width of the fabric could be regulated.  This means the cloth was dried, suspended from the frame and under tension.  Hence the origen of the phrase “to be on tenterhooks” – meaning a state in which a person feels in a state of suspense, for example, awaiting the results of an interview.  These days textile finishing companies use a modernised version of tenterhooks, where metal hooks are substituted by needles and the process is more automated and controlled.

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What do tenterhooks look like? Tenterhook frames like these were used to dry fabrics once they had been woven on the loom and washed in order that the fabric could dry to a uniform width. The origin of the phrase “to be on tenterhooks” becomes clear. Tenterhooks like these were used in the 20th century in Rioja, Spain.

As such, tenterhooks like these are no longer in use.  However there is something refreshingly simple about the original system which enabled small-scale fabric producers to do all the processes in-house.

These days ompanies are obliged to send cloth for finishing to another part of the country, or even to another country (we´re talking about Europe here) to specialist finishing companies.  Of course this pushes up the energy consumption for producing the textiles and of course, the costs.

Most hand-weavers in Europe today hand-wash their textiles as part of the finishing process and for small items and items which have little shrinkage, a large-scale tenterhook frame is not necessary.