The history of washing/laundering
Washing garments probably goes back as far as their invention. At first they were probably just washed in water sources close to the settlement. Then a realisation that clothes washed better in certain types of water probably came about. Very soft water is a mild detergent; for it is the lime and magnesia in hard water which makes grease removal more difficult. (Robertson 1986). Homer best describes early washing practices in the Odyssey. Note that the clothes were washed in troughs:-
“Nausicaa and her maidens reached the noble river with its never failing pools, in which there was always enough clear water always bubbling up and swirling by to clean the dirtiest clothes...They lifted the clothes by armfuls from the cart, dropped them into the dark water and trod them briskly in the troughs, competing with each other in the work” Homer, Odyssey, vi, 87
As people brought their clothes down to the local river and mothers went to wash their babies discarded nappies the discovery that river mud and stale urine made excellent detergents probably came about (Robertson 1986). When these detergents were discovered, washing clothes became a more complicated process. It no longer involved simply washing them in pure water. This development in laundering probably led to the art of fulling.
Raw wool can be quite dirty, as you can see from plate 7. My fleece was quite heavily stained and dirty. A fleece contains faecal matter, mineral dirt, leaves, plant stems and burrs, plant stains and most importantly wool grease. (Robertson 1986). Sheep have sebaceous glands which secrete a greasy, water soluble wax (from which lanolin is made), and sweat glands which produce a substance known as suint. (Goodwin 1990). Only when wool was plucked and spun into yarn and woven was it discovered that the grease interfered with the weaving. This grease had to be removed and the art of laundering was born.
As a scouring agent to remove the grease in my experimental washing process I chose stale human urine. “There is nothing to touch it for leaving the wool in fine, soft condition” (Goodwin 1990, 20). It is also cheap and readily available. For several weeks prior to the experiments, I gathered urine in large containers. When full I sealed the containers and placed them in a dark cupboard to allow the ammonia to develop. It is the ammonia that acts as a detergent. The ammonia took about 2 weeks to develop and when it did I was ready to start my experiments. I decided I would first fill the fulachta fian with water to test its retention. I filled it to the brim and left it for 24 hours. After 24 hours most of the water had leaked out but, there was some degree of retention as the trough remained about a quarter full. In the majority of ‘real’ fulachta fiadh water would seep in and out naturally as they are situated in marshy areas. In my case I needed to fill and empty it by hand. It took about ten minutes to fill and twenty minutes to empty. Now that I was sure that the urine that had taken me weeks to collect would not disappear in seconds, I was ready to start.
The washing experiment
Stage 1: I filled the fulachta fian half full with the stale urine. The mud and dirt that had fallen into the trough during construction turned the fluid a yellow/brown colour. I then placed half of my sheep’s fleece into the fluid, retaining the other half in case of unforeseen disasters and to compare and contrast with the finished product (Plate 8). The general rule with washing wool is to first leave it soaking in a detergent for twenty-four hours. Really dirty fleeces may take a while longer. I planned to leave it soaking in the urine for twenty-four hours. If at the end of the twenty-four hours it was appeared cleaner I would remove it and take it down to the river for the next process. If not I would leave in soaking for another twenty-four hours. As was the case, after twenty-four hours the fleece did not appear to be that much cleaner so I decided to leave it soaking overnight again (Plate 9). After forty-eight hours most of the fluid had left the trough (plate 10) but there remained just about enough fluid to cover the fleece, and at this stage the fleece did appear to be cleaner. Areas that were not covered in water and were exposed to the air seemed to be very clean and white, the water was also full of dirt that had come from the fleece.
Stage 2: I removed the fleece from the trough and bundled it into a large bag. I then carried it down to the river, where I proceeded to wash out the urine in the cold water (plate 11). I first immersed the fleece in to river for thirty seconds and then lifted it up, letting the water run out. I repeated this process several times. Then I started plunging and rubbing the fleece into the water, turning it around so I did not miss any parts. I rinsed and washed the fleece in this manner for about thirty minutes. Then I placed it into another bag and brought it back to the experiment site. I hung it on the drying rack so that it could drip dry (plate 12).
Stage 3: Several hours later I came back to start the warm water wash. This involved actually heating up the water in the trough with the rocks. I started by first building my fire. The hearth was a hole dug near to the trough. It was circular in form and had a circumference of c.1m. It was c.0.3m deep. I placed a ring of turf and sticks around the base and sides of the hearth. Then I placed my stones in a similar place. They were all sitting in a upright position. I then placed more wood and turf in the centre of the hearth which was empty. I hoped that the heat would radiate out from the centre and eventually meet up with the turf which was behind and under the stones (plate 13). I found that this was not the most practical way to make the fire. After 2 hours the turf placed behind each stone was still not alight and it was realised a change in tactics was needed. I gathered some more turf and sticks and built a fire on top of the stones, this way all the turf I had placed in the hearth stared to burn. This method was much more effective and ninety minutes later I was ready to start placing the stones into the trough.
Stage 4: About thirty minutes before I had filled the trough with a mixture of water and stale urine and I was ready to start getting more dirt out of the fleece (plate 14). When the stones were heated I began to place them into the water being careful not to drop them. My father had constructed a very simple device that allowed me to lift the stones from the hearth into the trough (plate 15 & 16). It basically consisted of two long pieces of wood which were rounded at the end-allowing me to pick up any stone. I placed twelve stones into the trough in quick succession. Only one stone shattered when it hit the water the rest remaining intact. Loud hissing noises were heard whenever a stone was placed into the water. When all the twelve stones were placed in the trough a bubbling/hissing noise could be heard as the water circulated around the trough. Steam started to billow out of the trough as the water heated further (plate 17). When the water reached boiling point a white froth developed on the surface, this was the detergent going into action (plate 18). I placed the fleece into the trough and immersed it into the water (plate 19). I let the water boil for a short while and then I stared to place some other hot stones into the trough at the rate of one every ten minutes. As I only wanted to boil the fleece for a short time, only three more rocks were placed into the trough.
Stage 5: After one hour I felt that the water would be cool enough to touch and I began the process of cleaning the fleece in warm water. The water was actually still very warm, but it was bearable to touch. I began to clean the fleece in the same way I had at the river. I lifted it out of the trough - letting the water drip out, and immersed it again. I then started rubbing the fleece together to encourage the dirt to come out. I continued this process for about 30 minutes. When I had finished. I hung the fleece on the drying rack so it could drip dry.
Stage 6: At last I had reached the final process in the washing experiment. This involved another trip to the river to wash out any remaining ammonia. This was done in the usual plunge and scrub manner to remove any remaining ammonia that could possibly interfere with the dyeing process. When I had rinsed the fleece I took it back to the drying rack for it to drip dry. This concluded the washing/scouring experiment.
What are fulachta fiadh? |
Arguments for cooking |
Arguments for bathing/saunas |
Arguments for textile centres/laundries |
A compendium of excavted fulachta fiadh | The study of textiles in archaeology | Bibliography |
The washing experiment | The dyeing experiment | The fulling experiment | Results and concluding thoughts |