The ell was originally a cubit, later replaced by the cloth-ell or "double ell".
An ell (from Proto-Germanic *alin?, cognate with Latin ulna) is a northwestern European unit of measurement, originally understood as a cubit (the combined length of the forearm and extended hand). The word literally means "arm", and survives in form of the modern English word "elbow" (arm-bend). Later usage through the 19th century refers to several longer units, some of which are thought to derive from a "double ell".
An ell-wand or ellwand was a rod of length one ell used for official measurement. Edward I of England required that every town have one. In Scotland, the Belt of Orion was called "the King's Ellwand". An iron ellwand is preserved in the entrance to Stånga Church on the Swedish island of Gotland, indicating the role that rural churches had in disseminating uniform measures.
Several national forms existed, with different lengths, including the Scottish ell , the Flemish ell [el] , the French ell [aune] , the Polish ell , the Danish alen , the Swedish aln and the German ell [Elle] of different lengths in Frankfurt (54.7 cm), Cologne, Leipzig (Saxony) or Hamburg.
Select customs were observed by English importers of Dutch textiles: although all cloths were bought by the Flemish ell, linen was sold by the English ell, but tapestry was sold by the Flemish ell.
The Viking ell was the measure from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, about 18 inches (460 mm). The Viking or primitive ell was used in Iceland up to the 13th century. By the 13th century, a law set the "stika" as equal to 2 ells which was the English ell of the time.
In England, the ell was usually 45 in (1.143 m), or a yard and a quarter. It was mainly used in the tailoring business but is now obsolete. Although the exact length was never defined in English law, standards were kept; the brass ell examined at the Exchequer by Graham in the 1740s had been in use "since the time of Queen Elizabeth".
The Scottish ell (Scottish Gaelic: slat thomhais) is approximately 37 inches (0.94 m). The Scottish ell was standardised in 1661, with the exemplar to be kept in the custody of Edinburgh. It comes from Middle English elle.
It was used in the popular expression
The Ell Shop (1757) in Dunkeld, Perth and Kinross (National Trust for Scotland), is so called from the 18th-century iron ell-stick attached to one corner, once used to measure cloth and other commodities in the adjacent market-place. The shaft of the 17th-century Kincardine mercat cross stands in the square of Fettercairn, and is notched to show the measurements of an ell.
Scottish measures were made obsolete, and English measurements made standard in Scotland, by act of parliament in 1824.
forearm, ell, cubit.
Sam paid it out slowly, measuring it with his arms: 'Five, ten, twenty, thirty ells, more or less, ... Thirty ells, or say, about eighteen fathom'
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