Friday, March 7, 2014

Waulking with Barbara and Sharon

Maybe it's just me, but I am constantly amazed at the topics our members know about -- and know a lot about -- that I have never even heard of! Barbara and Sharon Downey did it to me again with their great program on Feb. 15 about Waulking Wool. How could I not know about this?!!

Here's the deal, as I understood it. Waulking -- an ancient Scottish practice that is their term for "walking" -- because you are moving a piece of wet handwoven or hand knitted cloth in a sort of stepping motion (lift the fabric up, then slam it down on a hard surface) to provide enough agitation for the fibers to expand and the fabric to become tighter.
In the Scottish tradition, this process was accompanied by waulking songs, which women sang to set the pace. Waulking was followed by stretching the cloth on large frames known as tenters and attaching it by tenterhooks (hence the phrase "being on tenterhooks". . .)

So, it's like what we think of as felting, but the more correct term is fulling, with human beings providing the agitation that we get with the washing machine.  (Tidbit:  Felting is individual fibers manipulated with the use of a liquid and agitation. Fulling is woven or knitted cloth that is manipulated with the use of a liquid and agitation. So when we said we were going to felt thrift store sweaters to make insoles back in November, really we were going to full those sweaters.)

And here's the part you're just not going to believe: The liquid they used -- stale urine. Yep, you heard that right. They would pour hot, stale urine over the cloth right off the loom -- then slop it up on the table, and everyone would spend the entire day wringing it and beating it and passing it around the table so that each person had plenty of opportunities to wring and beat every square inch of the cloth.

Big surprise: in rural areas this was women's work, but men, ever mindful to be helpful, would hie on off to the pub every chance they got where they would save their urine over the course of the evening and bring it home to their wives. And apparently urine was saved at home, too, -- so kids, grandparents, everyone contributed! You can't make this stuff up.

In cities, being modern and sophisticated, fulling cloth was men's work. It was more likely to be done by stepping on the cloth ("walking" on it) in a tub or vat of urine. Even though fulling paid relatively well it was a low status job. If you know someone with the last name of Fuller, now you know what their ancestors probably did for a living. Wait a minute, I went to college with a Tiffany Fuller and she was a debutante so the stigma of the fuller's occupation did not live on to the current day.

Apparently the magic of urine is in the high concentration of ammonia -- ammonium salt compounds helped clean the fabric of oil and it made the medieval Scots' whites, whiter and brights, brighter. Eventually, substitutes were found for urine. Today we use soap.

Fulled cloth is more substantial than yardage straight off the loom. It is also water and wind resistant, and warmer in the winter, and cooler in the summer.

Here we are trying to get the waulking action down. Needless to say, we did not have "wet" cloth. We did get a sense of how this could be a great opportunity for neighbors and friends to socialize and catch up on all the local gossip!

This video produced by the History Channel is well worth the it's 6 minute running time.
 Barbara and Sharon -- Thanks for this fascinating program. Interesting and Fun!
The fulling process is what makes traditional Scottish plaids such fine wool fabric.