The whole nine yards

Weblog reader and historian Allan writes wondering if I know the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards." I do not, so I looked on the internet and there are several possibilities.

--It could be a reference to football. Nine yards is just short of the ten required for a first down. The "whole nine yards," somebody postulated, is an subtly ironic reference to falling just short. I doubt this. Somehow "subtle irony" and "football" don't seem to belong in the same sentence.

--It could be a phrase from the garment industry. However, no standard lengths of cloth that anybody knows of are measured in lengths of nine yards.

--It could refer to putting up all the sails on a ship. However, the phrase first appears in about 1966, a little late for it to be a nautical reference to big sailing ships.

--Machine gun shells were at one time about 27 feet in length, nine yards. Shooting off all the shells in one strip could mean one shot "the whole nine yards." However, by the time the phrase appears, strips of that length were long obsolete.

--My favorite possibility is that it refers to nine yards of concrete, the standard capacity of a modern cement truck. Say you pour a slab and there's a little left over. You quick find a place that needs concrete so you can use up "the whole nine yards."

If any of you have any further ideas, let me know. It appears the language experts don't really know where the phrase came from.