The meaning of, and background to, the well-known expression "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear..

Well-Known Expressions

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Meaning:

You can't make something good out of something inherently bad.

Background:

This proverb is first found in English in Alexander Barclay's Eclogues.

Barclay (1475? - 1552) was a Scottish clergyman and poet who is believed to have been the first to write pastoral eclogues in English. (an eclogue being a poem in a classical style on a pastoral subject, usually in the form of a dialogue between two shepherds!)

In 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. (who discovered acetate) decided to try his hand at making a silk purse from a sow's ear. He obtained a glue made from the skin and gristle of sow's ears, and had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. The glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse which you should be able to admire by clicking here!

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The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
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