Posted by: Jack Henry | December 1, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Tenterhooks

During Thanksgiving, I received a text from my brother. It included a photo of my niece and nephew in front of the Catholic grade school my brother and I went to, along with the question: “What are tenterhooks?” Hmm…interesting combination. I thought maybe the kids were in trouble with my brother and that he was about to tell them they were on tenterhooks, but I’m still not sure.

Being the diligent word-nerd that I am, I found an answer and some photos, and a couple of discussions of the term on tenterhooks (not “tenderhooks”). Get ready for more than you ever expected to know about non-camping tenters!

From Wikipedia:

Tenterhooks are hooks in a device called a tenter. Tenters were originally large wooden frames which were used as far back as the 14th century in the process of making woolen cloth. After a piece of cloth was woven, it still contained oil from the fleece and some dirt. A craftsman called a fuller (also called a tucker or wa[u]lker) cleaned the woolen cloth in a fulling mill, and then had to dry it carefully or the woolen fabric would shrink. To prevent this shrinkage, the fuller would place the wet cloth on a tenter, and leave it to dry outdoors. The lengths of wet cloth were stretched on the tenter (from Latin tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’) using tenterhooks (hooked nails driven through the wood) all around the perimeter of the frame to which the cloth’s edges (selvedges) were fixed, so that as it dried the cloth would retain its shape and size. In some manufacturing areas, entire tenter-fields, larger open spaces full of tenters, were once common.

By the mid-18th century, the phrase "on tenterhooks" came to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, i.e., figuratively stretched like the cloth on the tenter.

Cloth on a tenter.


Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


  1. Thank you – I never knew that. Learning all the time.

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