"whole cloth"

by Ellen Rosen
 
     [This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]

The phrase "made out of whole cloth" (and variants) currently
means "utterly without foundation in fact, completely fictitious."
MWCD10 gives only this sense for "whole cloth" and dates it 1840.
The phrase did not always have this connotation, however.

   The OED has citations for "whole cloth" from 1433 on.  Its first
definition is "a piece of cloth of the full size as manufactured,
as distinguished from a piece that may be cut off or out of it for
a garment, etc."  This sense is still used by people who sew or
quilt, who use "whole cloth" to mean "uncut fabric".

   The OED also gives several citations for the phrase "cut (or
made) out of whole cloth".  The earliest citation is from 1579.
These citations indicate that for roughly 300 years, the phrase was
used to connote entirety, but not falsehood (an example from 1634:
"The valiant Souldier ... measureth out of the whole cloath his
Honour with his sword". This positive sense of "whole cloth"
persisted in England until at least the beginning of this century
(a citation from 1905: "That Eton captain is cut out of whole cloth;
no shoddy there".)

   Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had ready access to
whole cloth.  Cotton had to be picked (or sheep sheared); the cotton
or wool had to be washed and picked over; the material had to be
spun into thread, and the thread woven into cloth.  Cloth was
therefore precious and frequently reused.  A worn-out man's shirt
would be cut down to make a child's shirt; the unworn parts of a
woman's skirt would be reused to make quilts; etc.  Also, homespun
fabric was not very comfortable to wear.  Even after the Industrial
Revolution, ready-made whole cloth was sufficiently expensive that
many people could not afford to use new cloth for everything.

   Therefore, to have a piece of clothing made out of whole cloth
must have been very special, indeed:  something new, not something
hand-me-down; something that hadn't been patched together from
disparate, often unmatched pieces; maybe even something comfortable.
So describing something as being made from whole cloth would mean
that it had never existed as a garment before, and that it was
something special, something wondrous -- one's Sunday best, or
better.

   The meaning of the phrase "made out of whole cloth" appears to
have begun to change in the United States in the first half of the
19th century.  The OED labels the falsehood sense "U.S. colloquial
or slang", and provides a citation from 1843:  "Isn't this entire
story ... made out of whole cloth?"  The change of meaning may have
arisen from deceptive trade practices.  Charles Earle Funk suggests
that 19th-century tailors advertising whole cloth may really have
been using patched cloth or cloth that was falsely stretched to
appear to be full-width.

   Alternatively, the modern figurative meaning of "whole cloth"
may depend on a lie's having sprung whole ex nihilo, having no
connection with existing facts.  All-newness distinguishes garments
and lies made out of whole cloth.  This is a positive characteristic
for clothes, but not for the average tissue of lies and deception.

   A Web search done by Michael Papadopoulos (papadop@peak.org)
indicates (a) that the original British usage has not been left
behind by the British and (b) that "the opposite US usage meaning
'completely fictitious' is neither the only US usage nor the
dominant one."