Waulking: An Experiment, Minus the Urine...



If you follow me on social media you may have seen a few reels that I posted recently of my friends and I waulking some handspun and woven fabric. The feedback from these videos has been pretty intense and there have been a lot of questions about the process that I would love to answer properly (and not just in a gazillion comments on the instagram post!) 

Waulking the Tweed is a traditional way of finishing the cloth (also known in English as fulling) before it can be made into clothing. When fabric is removed from the loom there are tiny spaces between the warp and weft threads which, as well as letting the breeze in - great if you live in a hot country but not so comfortable in northern Europe and Scotland in particular - tend to fray when cutting. 

Felting is the process by which fibres are forced to interlock together through friction: in the case of wet felting this is performed through rubbing the fibres together in soapy water and needle felting is so called because it uses barbed needles to adhere the fibres. Fulling is a form of wet felting which is performed on woven cloth and causes these tiny holes to disappear and the fabric to thicken, thereby making it more waterproof and insulating, great for woollen tartans used to make kilts...

Unlike felting with unwoven fibres, however, the shrinkage of the fabric is limited and controlled and the end product retains the movement and flexibility of the cloth which can then be used to create clothing. 

Although fulling had been performed manually for centuries across the world, for example there are plenty of records of this process being enacted in the Roman Empire by enslaved people, the process was mostly mechanised from the 11th century in Europe using water wheels. 

In remoter areas, including in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the manual methods continued and the traditional technique, known as waulking in Scots and a' luadhadh in Scottish Gaelic, is steeped with folklore and history and was, in Scotland’s Gaelic communities, an activity exclusively performed by women.

The waulking process was completed by the women of the local communities, generally between a dozen and twenty participants of all ages, who would sit on either sides of a board or table and pass a soaked length of newly woven cloth, or web, clockwise around the table, beating it to the rhythm of songs being sung. This process was performed with either hands or feet and was a strenuous activity due to the weight of the cloth and the length of time taken for the fibres to full. 

Songs that are centuries old have survived in waulking songs (known as òrain-luaidh) and, despite the Victorian-era romanticised image, these gatherings often ended up as a raucous event with songs which would address themes such as younger women’s courtships, matters of love, motherhood and general gossip from the local communities.

As the fibre used to spin and weave these cloths were processed in the grease ie unscoured or unwashed after shearing from the sheep, the fabric retained the lanolin and dirt which needed removing, and yes, this is where the urine comes in.

This was by far the most commented upon question I had on the reels that I shared, although there does seem to be some confusion as to the reasoning behind the use of pee-pee when waulking. Outlander fans will recognise this process from a season one episode filmed at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore but it was stale, not fresh urine which was used to clean the fabric.

Stale urine ferments over several weeks and breaks down into ammonium salts which among other things was used to clean the grease from fabric. This aged urine was known as wash or lant in English and the maighstir in Scottish Gaelic and was also used in bleaching, to soften leather in the tanning industry and in later years as a source of saltpeter for gunpowder. In fact, human urine was such an important commodity it was taxed by the Romans and actively collected in medieval europe from local townsfolk. 

It was also often used as a mordant in the dyeing industry but contrary to a number of comments I have received on the subject, its involvement in the waulking process had nothing to do with fixing the dye as this had already been performed before the weaving had commenced.

In the Gàidhealtachd (Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland) it is attested that men were often banned from attending the waulkings and unsuspecting gentlemen who happened upon a gaggle of ladies at the board would be victim to a variety pranks. According to poet Mary MacKellar: 


When a young man dropped into the house where the waulking was going on, he generally got a rough handling. He was summarily taken hold of by them and muffled up in the web, and thoroughly soaked with the lukewarm soapy water with which the web had been kept wet all the time


Bearing in mind this soapy water also contained the vital ingredient, the maighstir! Other anecdotes tell of the pail of stale urine being poured over the heads of unexpected visitors… 

These days thanks to the ready availability of wool washes and soaps the urine is no longer necessary (which some people seem weirdly upset about) and so when my lovely and talented friend Véronique asked me if I wanted to help her waulk her handspun and woven cloth we forwent the stale pee so as not to stink up my beautiful shop or ourselves.  

Although I have always wanted to try waulking and have been to several workshops in the past they have always focussed solely on the music and not on the purpose of the process. We gave the fabric a good soaking in Eucalan and after roping in my wee sister, Lizzi and pal Sofi to help with the heavy labour we got to work.

As per Gaelic tradition we made sure to pass the web deiseil around the table, or clockwise with the sun and although we couldn't remember any waulking songs that both myself and Véronique knew all the words to we made sure to continue singing as to avoid a clò bodaich which was a web fulled without an oral soundtrack - something deemed unlucky by the highly superstitious Gaelic community.

Traditional waulking songs generally featured one person singing the verse or a line followed by everyone joining in with the chorus which often contained vocables which are meaningless or contextless words such 'hu il oro, o hi ibh o'. Instead we opted for a few simple puirt à beul tunes (mouth music) so my sister and friend could join in and although it was deemed unlucky to repeat songs during a session these tunes are generally repeated multiple times as they are short and easily remembered. 

The total process of waulking the web which had been spun and woven by Véronique in her own designed tartan took us only about twenty minutes in total and the shrinkage in that time honestly blew us away. Understanding the theory is one thing but actually seeing it happen in real life is incredible and we all really enjoyed learning more about this traditional process. I have long wished to host a workshop on waulking in the shop so please let me know if this is something that you guys would be interest in below! 






Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published