It is said that England was built on the wool trade and, even to this day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer sits on a wool sack to signify how important the wool trade has been to the development of the United Kingdom. Many people today still refer to the beautiful churches in England as “wool” churches because it was the wealth of the wool trade that enabled the towns to grow and the churches to be built.
During medieval times, the Flemish Weavers who immigrated to England taught the locals their own special technique of fulling and stretching the wool. The wool was first soaked in clean water and fuller’s earth and then pounded and/or ‘walked on’, a system similar to the treading of grapes that meshed the wool. Potash was sometimes used in the fulling process to thicken the wool but stale urine and fuller’s earth was also used as an economical alternative.
When the wool was ready, it was stretched over two frames, a lower and an upper frame called a Tenter. The wool cloth was then secured in place every few inches using nails called tenterhooks. If the weaver had performed his duties well, the cloth would be evenly stretched and reasonably square. This of course required not only skill and expertise, but also a high level of tension.
So, it is easy to see how the term could be used to describe an individual whose emotions were raw, taunt and uptight - in other words, the person was on “tenter hooks.”