ell

1

In England, before the 12th – 20th centuries, a unit of length used for cloth, = 20 nails = 5 quarters (of the yard) = 45 inches.

In the 17th century, sometimes the plural was ellons.

Writing in the 18th century, Hayes (1740, page 206) says the ell was used only to measure a few types of linens called Hollands. He also mentions that the Flemish ell was in use in England to measure tapestry, = 12 nails = 3 quarters = 27 inches. Later sources¹ say that 6 quarters were called a French ell.

Use of the ell was prohibited by the act establishing imperial measure, in 1824. It is a peculiarity of the English ell that it was never legally defined, even though since Elizabeth I the Exchequer kept a standard (a bronze bar) and many statutes referred to it obliquely.

Simmonds states that after the ell's abolition it continued to be used to describe the width of certain types of cloth.

1. Crawford's Handbook for the Grocery and Kindred Trades.
Edinburgh, Wm. Crawford & Sons, Ltd. 1922.

Page 150.

sources

1

Alla una di panno di Bruggia fa in Firenze braccia uno e un sexto. ...Braccia uno e mezo di panno di Vinegia fanno in Londra alle una. ... Alle 3 di Londra fanno alle iiij di Brugia.

One ell of cloth in Bruges makes 1 1/6 braccia in Florence. ... One and a half braccia of cloth in Venice make 1 ell in London. ... Three yards in London makes 4 ells in Bruges.

Chiarini, 1481.

2

Three foot make one yard; which is common English measure, wherewith most English commodities are measured. As for the El, though it be commonly used among us, yet the Statute takes little or no notice of it, it being a foreign measure, and used about foreign commodities, as Silks, and French Linens. The length of the El is five quarters of our yard; so that five yards are four Els.

Henry Phillippes.
The Purchasers Pattern. 2nd ed., corrected and enlarged.
London: Printed for R. & W. Leybourn, for T. Pierrepont..., 1654.
Page 151.

2

In Bruges, a unit of length for cloth, about 695.642 millimeters, metrified in the 19th century to exactly 700 mm. See the discussion above.

The Dutch or Flemish ell is 27 inches. The proportion between Dutch ells and English yards is generally taken at 3 yards to 4 ells, but the real rate is 100 yards to 129 2/27-th ells.

Simmonds, 1892, page 140.

The second proportion Simmonds gives would make the Flemish ell 27.89 inches, or 708.4 mm, which is bigger than any of the values Doursther gives for Dutch and Flemish cities.

Date Comparison Unit Estimated at
(meters)
Source of
conversion factor
Conversion factor Making the ell
of Bruges
1480 Florentine braccia   Pegolotti, pg 246 1 1/6  
1480 Pisan braccia   Pegolotti, pg 249 99/100  
  London "alle"        

3

In Scotland, as early as the 12th century – 19th century, a unit of length = 37 inches. Traditionally and in all probability it was defined by King David; the magnitude was reaffirmed by the Scottish parliament in 1427. The Scottish ell was abolished in 1835–1836.² Unlike the English ell, it was not only a cloth measure, but played the role the yard did in England, and is sometimes called the Scottish yard. It was not subdivided into inches, but into binary fractions: ½ ell, ¼ ell, and so on.

Kidson³ has suggested that the Scottish ell acquired its extra inch sometime before the 14th century in order to make it equal to an even number (3) of Rhenish Fuss, a common unit in the Hanseatic League.

Connor and Simpson have described how later authors, misled by a worn bed standard and cloth ells, came to the erroneous conclusion that the Scottish ell was longer than 37 inches, and that there was a Scottish inch distinct from and larger than the English inch. These errors even led to the use of the false ell in surveys in the 18th century. Please see the documents reproduced under Scottish acre.

There also existed other ells specifically for cloth. Swinton and others mention some local variants in Scotland:

Locale Value in inches For What?
Aberdeenshire 38 5/12 plaiding
Fifeshire &
Langhom in Dumfriesshire
37⅛  
Angus 37¼ woolen cloth
Dumfriesshire (parts) 39  
Inverness 38 coarse woolens & linens
Ross & Cromartie 38 home manufactures
Kincardineshire 38½ home manufactures
Edinburgh 39½ plaiding and stuffs
Wigtownshire 38 green linens
40–41 raw woolen cloth

1. The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland.
Volume 1. A.D. MCXXIV–MCCCCXXII.
London: Great Britain Record Commission Publications, 1814.

Page 309.

2. 4 & 5 William IV. c 49 1834; 5 & 6 William IV 1835.
Statutes at Large, Volume XXVII.

Pages 629 & 977.

3. Peter Kidson.
A Metrological Investigation.
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol 53 (1990).

Page 91.

Sources

1

Of the Eln.

The eln aw to contain in length .xxxvij. inch met with the thawmys of iij men that is to say a mekill man and a man of messurabill statur and of a lytill man bot be the thoume of a medilkinman it aw to stand or ells efter the length of iij bear corns gud and chosyn but tayllis, the thowm aw to be messurit at the rut of the nayll

The ell ought to contain in length 37 inches measured with the thumbs of three men, that is to say a big man, a man of usual stature and a little man, but be the thumb that of a middling man it ought to stand, or else after the length of three good barleycorns, without tails. The thumb ought to measured at the root of the nail.

The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland. Volume 1. A.D. MCXXIV–MCCCCXXII. Page 673.

2

The Foundation of Measures, for length, breadth, and thicknes.

3. Barlie cornes faire and round lying in length without the tailes maketh an Inch.

12. Inches maketh a foote.

3. Foote is an English yard.

3. Foote and an inch, or 37 inches makes the Ell of Edinburgh. Which Ell is parted in 4 quarters, and everie quarter in 4 nailes.

45. Inches is the English Ell.

27. Inches is the Flemish Ell.

Alexander Huntar 1624, pages 5 & 6.

4

In Jersey, the ell = 4 feet.

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