Q From Isabelle D. Taudiere, Paris, France: I am an English into French translator and not so long ago, I stumbled upon the (American?) idiom: ‘to be all wool and a yard wide’. No English-speaker around me seems to have ever heard such an expression — let alone used it — and dictionaries disagree about its meaning: ‘to be genuinely warm-hearted and friendly’ according to the NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary; ‘authentic, first-class’ according to the Robert & Collins English-French Dictionary. Which is right? Where does the phrase come from and is it still in use today, in either the UK or the US? Thank you for your help.
A It is in origin an American idiom, though one that is now rather old-fashioned and not so often heard. It’s even less well known outside North America, so many British English speakers may be as puzzled by it as you are. It usually refers to a person who is genuine, sincere and honourable, so putting together bits of the two definitions you’ve found.
Where it comes from is more problematical. As a fixed phrase, it dates from the 1880s; Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, suggests it might have been used in advertising copy for clothing trade promotions, though he doesn’t go into details. However, all wool, in the sense of something first-class, dates from the American Civil War period (there’s an example in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang from a book entitled Rebel Yell of 1864: “We gave them an ‘all wool’ yell and tore after them”).
I’ve seen it suggested that this part of the saying is indeed of Civil War provenance, and refers to uniforms that were made of good quality material. It is said that many were made from shoddy, an inferior semi-felted material derived from shredded fibres of waste woollen cloth. Uniform coats made from it tended to come apart on one’s back (our word shoddy for something inferior comes from this clothing trade term). So all wool meant something of good quality, or excellent of its type. This is just guesswork, I suspect, but it sounds plausible, and it’s supported by a variant form of the saying, known from the late nineteenth century: all wool and no shoddy.
It’s obvious enough that that the second half of the expression referred to the width of the material from which clothing was made. Woollen cloth was often at the time woven in pieces a multiple of a yard wide (broadcloth was two yards wide, which was why it got that name, to distinguish it from strait cloth, which was just one yard wide — only later did the term broadcloth come to refer to quality rather than width). Inferior cloth sometimes skimped on the width, so that material that was a full yard wide was likely to be of better quality.
Putting all these threads of evidence together does suggest that all wool and a yard wide might have had its origin in the clothing trade, or at least in trade terms.