While working on one of my current projects, a history of 19th century development along the valley of the West Fork of White River here in Northwest Arkansas, I thought to search newspapers for any mention of Woolsey, a small community along the river’s passage.
I found only a slim assortment of news items mentioning the location of Woolsey. The dominant mention of the word “woolsey” came in conjunction with the word “linsey,” as in linsey-woolsey, a type of fabric. As often occurs in my wanderings through Internet storehouses, I’m now sidetracked into this fascinating bit:
Linsey-woolsey (less often, woolsey-linsey or in Scottish English, wincey) is a coarse twill or plain-woven fabric woven with a linen warp and a woollen weft. Similar fabrics woven with a cotton warp and woollen weft in Colonial America were also called linsey-woolsey or wincey. The name derives from a combination of lin (an archaic word for flax, whence “linen”) and wool. This textile has been known since ancient times; known as Shatnez in Hebrew, the Torah and hence Jewish law explicitly forbid wearing it.
Well who knew?
The fabric served an important role in 19th century clothing, as noted in multiple merchant advertisements published for William Vance and Brothers, East Main Street in Little Rock, “in the store formerly occupied by Messrs. McLain & Badgett,” :
Clothing: Fine, wool and piece dyed black cloth dress and frock coats; blue, brown, claret and mixed cloth, do. [ditto]; fin black, blue, and other colors of cloth, Palto, sack and surtout coats; Tweed, cassimere [cashmere], jeans and linsey sack and frock coats; green, blue and white blanket and blue flushing over-coats; fancy and lain, black, blue, and other colored cloth and cassimere pantaloons; blue, grey mixed, drag and cadet mixed sattinett [worsted wool in satin weave] and tweed cassimere, linsey and jeans pantaloons; blue, grey, drab and black cloth vests; fancy colored, woolen and silk velvet, do.; black velvet and satin, do.; also jeans, cassinet [English twilled stout trousering and waistcoating in various colors, made of fine cotton warp and woolen yarn dyed in the wool] and linsey-woolsey, do.; together with a good assortment of flannel shirts and drawers; ribbed and plain knit lambswool and cotton, do.; linen and muslin shirts; fancy satin, Lutestrong Italian and India, cravats; and also, gum-elastic, silk, cotton and worsted suspenders; stocks, collars, bosoms, gloves &c, &c.
Another source explains that “Back in Tudor times in England there was a coarse linen material called linsey, whose name was formerly believed to have come from the dialect word line for linen, but is now thought to be from Lindsey, the name of the village in Suffolk where it was first made. Linen was woven with wool to make a less costly fabric that became known as linsey-woolsey, with the ending of wool changed to make a rhyming couplet.”
Henry Smith, who was a Church of England clergyman and a renowned preacher — he was known as Silver-Tongued Smith — included this comment in his sermon, A Preparative to Marriage, that was published in 1591: “God forbad the people to weare linsey wolsey, because it was a signe of inconstancie.” He was referring to the Biblical prohibition against wearing clothes made from a mixture of linen and wool.
Rather later, linsey-woolsey became an inferior coarse cloth of wool woven on cotton. You can tell its humble status from Elizabeth Gaskell’s mention of it in Sylvia’s Lovers of 1863: “How well it was, thought the young girl, that she had doffed her bed-gown and linsey-woolsey petticoat, her working-dress, and made herself smart in her stuff gown, when she sat down to work with her mother.”
The Ohio Democrat commented in 1869 on local small farmers who had come into Charlotte, North Carolina, to sell their cotton crop: “They were uniformly dressed in the roughest sort of homemade linsey-wolsey.”
Another source gives the following examples of the phrase as used in sentences:
Often overlooked, in fact, is the clothing worn by the four million American slaves created from what was called “plantation cloth,” “slave cloth” or “negro cloth”: coarse, thick bolts of linsey-woolsey, kersey and osnaburg. New York Times May 5, 2014
Her dress was a shapeless linsey-woolsey gown, and home-made list slippers covered her long, lank feet ‘Be that the fashion?’ she asked, pointing to my short, closely fitting walking-dress. Woolson, Constance Fenimore
Let us imagine he enters one of our fashionable churches, with his “rough and ready” linsey-woolsey, seamless garment on, made of wild sea-grass, thus presenting a very forbidding appearance, and what would be the result? Graves, Kersey
Very few made long excursions from home, except the manufacturers of Kendal, many of whom travelled on foot in quest of orders for their worsted stockings and linsey-woolsey. Scott, Daniel
The women wore dresses of linsey-woolsey and coarse flax. Purcell, Martha Grassham
But in this present day we find, alas, too frequently a linsey-woolsey religion. Shepard, W. E.
Their petticoats of linsey-woolsey, were striped with a variety of gorgeous dyes, and all of their own manufacture. Various
In an 1835 book, The South-West, the author comments on the yeomen of Mississippi.
These small farmers form a peculiar class and include the majority of the inhabitants in the east part of this state. With the awkwardness of the Yankee countryman, they are destitute of his morals, education, and reverence for religion. With the rude and bold qualities of the chivalrous Kentuckian, they are destitute of his intelligence, and the humour which tempers and renders amusing his very vices. They are in general uneducated, and their apparel consists of a coarse linsey-woolsey, of a dingy yellow or blue, with broad-brimmed hats; though they usually follow their teams barefooted and bareheaded, with their long locks hanging over their eyes and shoulders, giving them a wild appearance…
The phrase entered the Congressional record in an 1846 speech by Mr. Magnum of Oregon when he stated that “When every man carried with him a portion of the national sovereignty, it required no preparation of the national heart for war when the national honor was supposed to be affected. Their plain fellow-citizens, attired in linsey-woolsey, were more keenly alive to national insult, or imagined national insult, than any other people on the face of the earth.”
Because the fabric could be obtained and/or created at low cost, linsey-woolsey clothing long defined a certain class of person. In an extended rant about Colonel Hindman published in the Fayetteville, Arkansas newspaper, the author referred to “linsey-woolsey democrats.” (The Arkansian, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Aug 19, 1859 p 2).
According to William Edward Shepard, a Holiness preacher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, linsey-woolsey meant “made of linen and woolen mixed; hence, made of unsuitable components; ill-assorted; anything unsuitably mixed; a motley composition; medley or absurdities; balderdash; jargon; gibberish.”
And there you have it, dear friends, for what it might be worth. My tolerance toward my wild-hair tangent being fully exhausted, I go back to the task I had at hand two hours ago.
 The South-West. In Two Volumes. Vol II. By a Yankee. New York: Harper & Brothers, Cliff-St. 1835. P 171