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I'm on tenterhooks!

by Laura Eccleston

10 Aug 2021


I'm on tenterhooks!
If you've ever heard the phrase, "keeping someone on tenterhooks" you may begin to think about the feeling of keeping someone in suspense or being made to nervously wait for something, but where did this expression come from? Well, it turns out this expression has a very fibre related background.

On a recent trip to Otterburn Mill in Northumberland, a dear friend of mine came across these rather unusual frames called Tenters, adorned with many small hooks. Their function back in olden times was to hang up damp cloth that had just been woven and washed so it could be dried. The cloth would be hooked onto the frames at the top and the bottom then stretched as the bottom bar was released, but often the weaver would have no idea how the finished fabric would look until the woven piece of art was dry. Hence the expression, keeping someone on tenterhooks as that was exactly the experience of the weaver as they waited for their woven fabric to dry on their tenterhook frames.

The tenter frames at Otterburn Mill are actually the only remaining example of these frames in Europe, starting their life during the industrial revolution in 1821 when William Waddell of Jedburgh and his wife Charlotte Ferrier moved to the remote village. William, having a woolen manufacturing background decided to begin a small woolen business here, which slowly grew into a much larger factory based business, turning local fibres from farmers into beautiful woolen woven pieces. The mill became known for its high quality, colour and design with its tweed and woolen products often being requested by members of the Royal Family and even featuring in Vogue in later, more modern years.

Sadly as time went on, competition from cheaper countries abroad meant the mill suffered a lack of investment, forcing its closure in 1976. The machinery and equipment at the mill lay dormant for many years until eventually in 1995 the mill was redeveloped into a café and store that now sells a range of country and outdoor clothing we see today. Housed in the original mill, you can also enjoy marveling at some original materials, tools and machinery once associated with its thriving weaving industry.

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Photography courtesy of: Deborah Reader

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