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We're Trying To Nail It

Posted on 03 April 2018

 

We have decided to feature the fitted needlework box, which appeared on our latest stock list, as the Object of the Month for April as this gives us the opportunity to discuss ‘nails’more fully . This is the unit of cloth measurement, which is used on the tape measure in the box and which can be found on many tape measures from the 19th century.

Last month we said in our description of the needlework box and its fittings that the nail, which equals a sixteenth of a yard – 2.25inches, was probably named after the practice of knocking brass nails into the counter of fabric shops as a measuring guide. But on reflection, we think this is too simplistic and that the nail as a unit of measurement goes back many centuries, to the time before a universal system of measurement existed. It evidently was in common use in Elizabethan England.  Shakespeare has Petruchio complaining in The Taming of the Shrew about the quantity of fabric in Katherine’s gown:

“Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble,

Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail!”

It was only with the introduction of the Weights and Measures Act of 1824 in Britain that uniformity was achieved with the introduction of the British Imperial System. Prior to that weights and measures tended to be imprecise, with many measurements based on human morphology such as a foot, hand, pace or nail.  Some descriptions of a nail suggest that it is the distance between the thumbnail and the joint in the thumb, which could give rise to any number of different measurements!

We are always pleased to find Tunbridge Ware tape measures marked in nails, especially when they are in their original needlework boxes. We also find a number that are not now associated with a box and perhaps never were. But as yet, we cannot establish at what date the tapes were no longer marked in nails.

Do any of the Tunbridge Ware needlework enthusiasts know the answer to this? If so, please help us nail it and let us know.