On Tenterhooks

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Defined as 'in a state of tension or suspense', the expression 'on tenterhooks' comes from the iron tenterhooks used to fasten washed cloth to a drying frame or 'tenter frame', keeping it taut to prevent shrinkage as it dried out. They are L-shaped iron hooks, sharp at both ends: one end was driven into the frame, the other snagged through the cloth to hold it tight.

As this picture from a 15th century window in York Minster shows, tenterhooks were also used to suspend wall hangings. (The man shown balancing on a rather precariously propped ladder is one Roger of Ripon. Seconds later a large stone fell on his head, but he was saved by the miraculous intervention of St.William of York, hence his presence in the window).

Even very costly tapestries like the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) were hung by snagging their upper edge over tenterhooks driven into a wall-top. Close examination of their upper edges reveals them to be riddled with small holes, where the tenterhooks pierced them every time they were moved and re-hung.

There is evidence of wall-hanging tenterhooks, too, in some unrestored old buildings, usually in the form of rows of regularly placed holes at wall-top height. Sometimes snapped-off remains of tenterhooks survive in the holes, while at Tretower Court, Powys, very unusually, a complete mediaeval tenterhook still remains in position. The remains of paint above and below it show that here a painted timber moulding surmounted the now-vanished hangings

So, being devoted to historical accuracy, we too use smith-made iron tenterhooks to suspend our replicated hangings whenever possible. With practice, we find them admirably suited to adjusting the 'hang' of the cloth and, like our ancestors, for re-hanging cloths after their removal for cleaning or over-winter storage.

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