What is the origin of the Italian idiom “dar del filo da torcere”?
During the daily discussions and the friendly talks it is often used the adage “to give a hard time”, and it is utilized when talking about something or someone that is difficult to deal with, or that is an obstacle to the achievement of a project, or even to put someone in an unpleasant situation. This idiom has the same meaning of the old Italian common saying „dare del filo da torcere“, that literally can be translated into „to give yarn to twist“. The use of this adage is so frequent, that hardly anyone remembers its origin. Let’s discover together what’s the story with this Italian idiom.
Directly from the textile world
The Italian idiom „dare del filo da torcere“, clearly comes from the textile world. Before the industrial age, the weaving was based on four very important operations, and all were hand made: the spinning, the twisting, the weaving, and finally the finishing. Among these operations, the twisting was especially a very complex operation. In fact it had to do with making the yarn rotate (indeed twisting) around itself, to give it a better texture, and to avoid tears and breakages. This operation was carried out with the help of a rod around which the twisted yarn was wrapped. At the end of the yarn was then fixed a weight.
A strictly feminine assignment
The female workers‘ assignment – this operation in fact was almost always submitted to the female’s smaller, agile and delicate hands – was to twist the yarn. This was a very laborious task, because the yarns to be wound were often irregular and rough. And from this difficulty comes the Italian common saying „dare del filo da torcere“ („to give yarn to twist“), as it refers to the difficulties that the spinners met in this operation. The situation totally changed with the advent of the mechanical circular drawing frame, when the whole operation became mechanical, and the hands of the spinners were replaced by the job of a machine, eliminating all the difficulties.
A perfect yarn in perfect hands
Another curiosity linked to this operation comes from the particular characteristics that had to have the spinners, in order to be able to carry out the hand twisting, which was the softness of their hands. In fact some chapped hands could cause damage to the yarn that was very delicate before the twisting. For this reason a hand lotion was distributed to the spinners, and they had to use it after each hand washing. The hands of the spinners were carefully checked at the entrance of the mills; the mill girls that did not satisfy the requirements of the company, and did not have perfect hands, were moved on from the plant. But this expulsion meant the loss of the daily salary. So here is the explanation of the origin of the expression “dare del filo da torcere”, and may be also of the invention of the ladies manicure.