I have never heard anyone use the idiom to go woolgathering, but it occurs in older books with some regularity, and that’s why I know it. To go woolgathering means “to indulge in aimless thought, day dreaming, or fruitless pursuit.” Sometimes only absent-mindedness is implied. There seems to be an uneasy consensus about the idiom’s origin, but, although I cannot offer an alternative etymology, I am afraid that the existing one should be abandoned.
According to my database, this idiom has been discussed only in the popular press of the relatively recent past (the earliest reference I have goes back to The Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1789 and the latest to Notes and Queries for 1889-1890) and dictionaries, but dictionaries do not say anything one cannot find in the periodicals. The main obstacle in our research is that the phrase surfaced in print in the middle of the sixteenth century, while the conjectures about its historical background are late. Some information was probably lost between 1553 (the date of the earliest citation in the OED) and 1789. If the idiom originally meant what it means today, it may have been coined at one of the peaks of the process known in English history as enclosure (or inclosure), though wool industry and wool trade in England goes back to the beginning of the Common Era.
E. Cobham Brewer, the author of the once immensely popular Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, wrote this: “Your wits are gone wool-gathering. You are in a brown study. Your brains are asleep, and you seem bewildered. The allusion is to village children sent to gather wool from hedges; while so employed they are absent, and for a trivial purpose. To be wool-gathering is to be absent-minded, but to be so to no good purpose.” It is amusing that Brewer referred to the idiom in a brown study “in a state of deep reverie or gloomy meditation,” which does not seem to have crossed the Atlantic (see my post for 22 October 2014) and may be obsolete even in England. Perhaps its source is French. The problem with Brewer’s book is that it contains few or no references to the sources. How did he find the origin of the idiom? Did he suggest it himself or did he read it somewhere? In any way, those who have tried to account for the existence of the odd phrase remained more or less at the level of Brewer’s explanation.
Did anyone ever gather wool from hedges? This is the testimony of the correspondents to Notes and Queries. The phrase was coined “in allusion to the poor old women, generally too infirm for other work, who go wandering by the hedge-sides to pick off the small bits of wool left by the sheep on the thorns. Perhaps one of poorest and most beggarly of all employments.” In response to this statement the following was said in 1889: “… wool-gathering was not very long ago a common practice in pastoral districts, and was not ‘the most beggarly of all employments’…. I have known substantial farmers who did not disdain to go out of their way for the purpose of picking wool off the thorns and hedges; and the wool thus gleaned was found very useful… for stuffing horse-collars, cushions, mattresses, &c…. the wool so procured would be of considerable service to cottagers for spinning into blankets; and it is quite a mistake to suppose that our proverb has any contemptuous intentions. It refers rather to the wide and irregular range of such wanderings as the wool-gatherer’s.”
Nor were children spared this job, as said in the once popular and later satirized tract The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain (1795). There it is “mentioned that even the very young children could be usefully employed in gathering the locks of wool found on the bramble bushes and thorns, which wool was carded and spun during the winter evening and made into stockings.” The reading of The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain shows that, even though gathering wool was not a “beggarly” occupation, it was left for poor people to indulge in. According to one opinion, woolgathering was an employment “so poor and unremunerative that well-wishers of their species could not help feeling pity for those who had no better employment. They had to wander through many fields painfully to pick from the thorns small scraps of wool torn from sheep generally poor and lousy.” The correspondent continues: “So when it is said of one that his ‘wits are gone wool-gathering’, I understand by it that his [a nice reference to poor women, small children of both sexes, and one] mind is wandering, and wandering where it is not likely to find anything of value.” But even at the end of the nineteenth century the possible value of the wool collected by children in a season could come to four hundred pounds. (For the curious: we are told by knowledgeable people that the children used to catch up the bits of wool quickly by means of short sticks with a bit of notched iron hoop at the end.)
Most appropriately, Wordsworth’s sonnet was quoted in the exchange: “Intent on gathering wool from hedge and brake/ Yon busy Little-ones rejoice that soon/ A poor old Dame will bless them for the boon;/ Great is their glee while flake they add to flake/ With rival earnestness….” Let us leave the “little-ones’” rejoicing for another occasion and rather remember the poor old Dame. As a final flourish, I may quote Thomas Blount (1618-1679; his book Fragmenta Antiquitatis… is quoted in my sources). A certain Peter de Baldewyn was expected to gather wool “for our Lady the Queen from the White Thorns, if he chose to do it; and if he refused to gather it,” he had to “pay twenty shillings a year at the King’s Exchequer.” This statement makes us wonder whether the earliest wool gatherers were beggarly (poor) women and very young children. The very task we are discussing may need another definition. The correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine thought that ancient woolgathering “was no mere gleaning from hedge and bush, but a collection of a sort of rent-charge in wool exigible from tenants.”
I am returning to the beginning of the story. To my mind, the idea that gathering wool from thorns and bushes “necessitated much wandering to little purpose,” as The Century Dictionary tentatively put it, cannot be substantiated: the wandering was “goal-oriented” and needed a lot of attention. Its results were far from negligible. As early as the 1550’s, the phrase was current in the figurative meaning still familiar to us. It takes some time for the direct sense of a phrase to develop into an obscure metaphor. We will probably never find out who was the first to kick the bucket or pay through the nose (see the posts for 24 September and 15 October 2014), but there must have been a connection between the act and the idiom. Woolgathering has nothing in common with daydreaming or absentmindedness. Nor is it (to repeat!) a fruitless pursuit. Perhaps in the beginning it designated a process different from the one people observed in the recent past.
All these ideas are of course classic exercises in woolgathering, and I’d rather not go too far afield. It suffices to repeat that the origin of our idiom is unknown and that what is said in dictionaries about it should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
Image credits: Featured and (4): “Tufts of wool on barbed wire fence” by Neil Theasby, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph. (1) “David, as a young man, playing pipe and bell as he watches his sheep in the pasture.” by Anonymous. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “E. Cobham Brewer image in 1922 book” by London, New York [etc.] Cassell and Company, Limited, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Child, school, girl” by Cole Stivers, Public Domain via Pixabay.