Opinion: Daydreaming about woolgathering


I was having coffee with a friend the other day when my mind drifted away from our conversation.

“Did you hear what I said?” he asked.

“Sorry,” I muttered. “I must have been woolgathering.”

“Huh? What does that mean?” he asked.

“Daydreaming,” I said.

“Oh,” he said with a frown.

I wasn’t sure whether he frowned because I wasn’t listening to him or because he didn’t like my definition of woolgathering. I decided I’d better look it up in case it ever happened again.

Turns out, the phrase comes from 16th-century England, where there were people who wandered along fences and pastures gathering fragments of wool that had gotten caught when the sheep walked by. An activity, according to one observer at the time, that requires much wandering to little purpose.

I found another quote by one Thomas Wilson, a notable humanist and administrator of the time: “The arte of rehetorique for the use of all suche as are studious of eloquence, set forth in English.”

To be blunt, I haven’t a clue what that means. Which tends to prove Winston Churchill’s claim that, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.”

A more modern definition calls woolgathering indulging in wandering fantasies and purposeless thinking. Webster cuts to the chase and simply calls it daydreaming.

Closer to home, the 23rd annual Woolgathering Festival will occur September 15-16 at Young’s Jersey Dairy near Yellow Springs, Ohio. It promises to have plenty of music, fun, food and woolgathering.

Apparently, wool can be gathered from sheep, of course, but also from llamas, alpacas (which look a lot like llamas), cashmere goats and angora rabbits. All of them will be showing off their wool at the festival.

Now, I’m not one to quibble, but the Young’s Jersey Dairy website didn’t say anything about woolgathering from dogs. And if you should venture north to Shakopee, Minnesota in a couple of weeks, the Renaissance Fair usually held there each year will offer a proud example of canine woolgathering.

At least one lady there brushes her sled dog huskies every day, saves the fur and spins it into yarn, which she knits into remarkably warm sweaters. There have been reports, however, that people who wear them have experienced an irresistible desire to run through the snow and howl at the moon. 

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