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.”
Punch had fun with its name in its issue of 14 February 1917:
When I grow up to be a man and wear whate’er I please,
Black-cloth and serge and Harris-tweed — I will have none of these;
For shaggy men wear Harris-tweed, so Harris-tweed won’t do,
And fat commercial travellers are dressed in dingy blue;
Lack-lustre black to lawyers leave and sad souls in the City,
But I’ll wear Linsey-Woolsey because it sounds so pretty.
I don’t know what it looks like,
I don’t know how it feels,
But Linsey-Woolsey to my fancy
Because linsey-woolsey combines two fabrics, the word came, as early as the end of the sixteenth century, to refer to a strange mixture and so to confusion or nonsense. Shakespeare was an early user in All’s Well That Ends Well (1601): “But what linsey-woolsey hast thou to speak to us again?” It’s long defunct in this sense; one of the last users was an anonymous critic in The Examiner in 1823: “A perking, prurient, linsey-wolsey species of composition.” [Perking: upstart, insolent or impudent.]