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Words In History: Haire

...The haircloth from which such shirts were made was originally from animals such as horses and goats, at least according to some writers, but it came gradually to mean any coarse fabric and was used more widely of the material for items such as towels and tents. It was certainly used for making sieves,..

And folk in the Middle Ages knew what a ‘haire’ was, without need of the addition of “shirt’’, as historian George Redmonds reveals.

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It may seem surprising but the OED has no record of the term ‘hair-shirt’ earlier than 1737 and yet we readily associate such shirts with penitents or ascetics in the Middle Ages. The fact is that in earlier centuries the garment was referred to simply as a ‘haire’ – as when Chaucer wrote that the maidenly Saint Cecilia ‘under hir robes of gold … had next hir flesh y-clad hir in an heyre’.

The haircloth from which such shirts were made was originally from animals such as horses and goats, at least according to some writers, but it came gradually to mean any coarse fabric and was used more widely of the material for items such as towels and tents. It was certainly used for making sieves, for John Webster of Doncaster had ‘a haire Tems’ in his Meal Chamber in 1674. The temse was a sieve used particularly for bolting meal.

Another specific use was in kilns where grain or hops were being dried. Indeed, ‘kiln hairs’ feature regularly in inventories of the Tudor period, often with the word ‘pair’. Typical references are to ‘1 par le kilnehaires’ in Beckwithshaw’ (1511) and ‘a pare of kilne haires’ in Sherburn (1528). Less specifically, John Thornhill of Fixby had ‘one hayre clothe … in the kylne howse’ in 1567. More difficult to identify is ‘a pair of killhires’ that George West of Knaresborough had in the great parlour in 1625. These examples illustrate how ‘a pair’ was formerly used in situations where ‘a set’ would now be more usual.

The earliest example of ‘kiln hair’ that I have come across is in a York document of 1487. It was said on that occasion to belong to the craft of rope-making, and ‘foreign’ ropers who entered the city were not allowed ‘to wirk eny maner stuffe as ropes, kilne heris, or eny other thing to that craft belonging’. A closer look at the rules that governed the craft shows that ropers were linked on that occasion with ‘haysters’ and this must be a late example of the term ‘hairester’, noted by the OED in York in 1415. In fact, there are earlier references, including Roger de Beverlay who was a ‘hairster’ in the city in 1299-1300 and John Styllington, a ‘harester’ in 1411.

The York evidence may imply that the craft began to lose its importance in the 1400s and that ‘hairster’ was already an obsolete term by 1487. John Hayster was actually a York goldsmith in 1491 but his surname seems likely to have been Hayrster originally. That should not be taken to mean that ‘haire’ was also losing its meaning for the examples already quoted make it clear that it was in common use over a much longer period. However, the reference to ‘a kilnhairmaker’ in the West Riding quarter sessions of 1701 seems to confirm that hairster was no longer in use.

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