After weaving and dyeing, the piece of cloth was washed in clean water to remove any surplus dye. Then, a process of ‘tentering’ was used to ensure the dry cloth was of the legally-specified dimensions of two yards (6′) wide by twenty-two yards long (a chain, 66′, or the length of a cricket pitch), (The Assize of Cloth, 1196).
In practise, making the cloth to the right dimensions was much more difficult than it sounds. There are numerous court cases where disgruntled buyers alleged that unscrupulous clothiers had over-stretched the cloth at the drying stage, thus making it less hard-wearing because it had fewer threads per inch than properly manufactured cloth.
Getting the cloth to the right dimensions was done by the use of two horizontal rows of hooks on a wooden frame called a tenter which, in turn, was supported by a number of upright posts. The cloth was impaled on the hooks to give the right dimensions. As far as we know, there is no evidence of the frames today in Shepton, but examples of the vertical supporting posts, in stone, can be seen at the Courts Garden, a National Trust property at Holt, near Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire.
Tenters were a common sight on the land around woollen mills, and the strips of land where they were sited were called ‘tenter fields’ or ‘rack fields’. Many of these narrow strips of land can be seen around Shepton today, especially around Bowlish, but there would have been far more when the town was in full production. In other locations, an indoor tentering rack was used to dry cloth using heat from fires and a draft of air. There may be one of these remaining, but we need expert corroboration to be sure.
It is easy to see how the figurative expression ‘on tenterhooks’ originated, meaning a state of uneasiness or suspense, derived from the ‘tenting’ or tensioning of fabric. The expression was originally ‘on the tenters’ and the West Country playwright John Ford was the first to record that expression in the play Broken Heart of 1633:
“Passion, O, be contained. My very heart strings Are on the Tenters.”
Towards the end of the century ‘on the tenterhooks’ began to replace the earlier phrase, for example in the 1690 edition of a periodical that was published annually between 1688 and 1693, The General History of Europe:
“The mischief is, they will not meet again these two years, so that all business must hang upon the tenterhooks till then.”