What’s in a Name: Whole Cloth

Whole Cloth
– Mike Unser

In 1958 Paul Cook of Bluffington, Indiana, introduced his latest masterpiece – a blue and white amoena he named Whole Cloth. Immediately acclaimed, this exceptional variety scored an Honorable Mention that very year, followed by an Award of Merit two years later, and then continued on to win the coveted Dykes Medal in 1962. Surely a beautiful flower, but what of that name? By modern American use of the phrase it would seem to say this iris is not what it seems. Yet, the implied deception of its moniker not-withstanding, this iris is the genuine article when it comes to being among the ‘Best of the Best’. So how does the name fit? To find out we’ll need to explore the origins of this phrase.

The usual figurative sense of ‘out of whole cloth’ means without foundation in fact; fictitious, containing not a bit of truth – a fabrication, you might say. As cloth is one of our most familiar everyday materials, it seems odd as a metaphor for “having no basis in fact,” but this use of the phrase has been a standard figure of speech in the English language since at least the early 19th century. However it is almost exclusively an Americanism in this context. This is only its most recent usage though – it had a different, practically opposite, meaning in previous centuries. In the 15th century, ‘whole cloth’ was used synonymously with ‘broad cloth,’ i.e., cloth that ran the full width of the loom and was intact as manufactured. To have a garment cut from whole cloth, rather than one pieced together from leftover material, was highly desirable and also implied top of the line quality. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 1525 request for “your hole cloth…to make a large Gowne and a Kyrtell.” This intent dropped out of use about the time of the industrial revolution, and it began to be used as a charge of fabrication thereafter.

iris whole cloth
There are many ideas about how the meaning became turned around. Several sources propose a more direct connection between whole cloth and prevarication. It is said that by the 18th century tailors or others who made garments were pulling the wool over the eyes of their customers by advertising that they made clothing out of whole cloth, while instead artfully using leftover pieces. The “lie” metaphor would then seem to have come out of a cynically skeptical reaction to such claims; “Whole cloth? Sure it is.” Though there is no clear evidence to confirm or deny this version of origin, it is certainly discussed by more than one source, and seems all too reasonable.

So how do we tie these various meanings into the historic iris we admire so much? A lie made from whole cloth does not stretch the truth, nor is it patched together from bits of truth and half-truths, but is instead a seamless fabric of deception. Nothing there would fit this bloom, but there is more than one reason to make something up than just to deceive. A storyteller creating from whole cloth would be wholey original and new with their substance and style, presenting something unique and novel in order to entertain. It is within this context I think we shall find a meaning that fits our flower. Mr. Cook’s creation certainly wrote a fresh and wonderfully unique advancement in the amoena pattern into the iris history books and thousands of appreciative gardeners are entertained by its beauty each spring. In the context of Whole Cloth we have a name that deftly fuses the old world designation of quality and purity with the modern implication of originality and uniqueness. A most appropriate name indeed.