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The fulling experiment

The history of fulling

The word ‘fuller’ and the French ‘foulon’ are derived from the Latin word ‘fullo’ the trade of scouring and felting cloth. When wool was plucked from the sheep and spun into yarn it was discovered that the grease interfered with weaving. The removal of this grease led to the development of fulling. Wool can be scoured with soft water, stale urine and naturally occurring alkalis washed from the ashes of plants and fullers' earth. Today, purpose made chemical detergents do the job slightly better but, until quite recently in the 19th century some, or all, of these agents continued to be used. The first evidence we have for fulling comes from a Neolithic settlement site in Cyprus called Vrysi. Lumps of fullers' earth were found here, scattered about the site and in purpose built plaster containers. It seems that it was used for fulling woollen cloth (Robertson 1986). The ancient Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all practised fulling. We know this not only from pictorial evidence (Fig. 9) but written evidence. Homer, recording events of c.1250 BC describes the use of hot and cold water and specially made fulling troughs:

“They (Hector and Achilles) reached two fair flowing springs...The one, indeed, flows with warm water, steam arising from it as of burning fire; whilst the other flows forth even in summer time like unto hail, or cold snow, or ice from water. There beside them are wide, handsome stone basins, where wives and fair daughters of the Trojans used to wash their splendid garments.” Homer, Iliad, xxii.

Our earliest account of Fulling in Ireland comes from Thomas Dineley (1681)-a man who recorded his observations while travelling through Ireland. He noted that : “The manner of tucking and thickening cloth without a mill is thus: they place the cloth double upon a large wicker or twiggen door, and work it with their hands and feet until it becomes thick by rowling, this they dash with stale chamberlye in working” (Robertson 1986, 231). In Ireland there are no naturally occurring deposits of fullers' earth so substances such as stale urine were used as a substitute. “In Ireland, urine was often collected by a man with two large jars in creels on an ass and a cart. Tubs for urine were placed outside of ‘apple houses’ these were celidhe-houses which sold apples” (Robertson 1986, 231). Pot ash was also being used in 17th century Ireland.

The mechanics of fulling

As we have seen in previous sections, woven cloth can go through a process called fulling, opening the fibres and changing the interwoven threads into fabric. It not only makes the cloth cleaner but also thickens it and makes it more water/heat proof. Different fulling techniques are used for different fibres. I will describe the process that I used for fulling my woollen dyed material.

The fulling experiment

Stage 1: Deciding that my woven cloth was ready to be fulled, I detached it from the loom. I had to be quite careful as fulled cloth can quickly turn into a piece of felt. I began the experiment by filling the trough with water and heating up the granite stones. After 2 hours the stones were hot and ready to go into the water. As fulling is a short process that needs very hot water I placed fifteen of the stones into the water in quick succession. Fulling also requires a detergent and I again used stale urine. When the water had heated up and the urine was added, a froth developed on top of the water. This was a sign that the detergent was ready and the water was hot enough

Stage 2: I placed the cloth into the trough and stirred it very gently with my invaluable large stick. The timing of fulling is very precise. If you leave the wool in for too long it will just turn to felt. Every thirty seconds I pulled out part of the cloth to check on the amount of fulling that had occurred, then returned it to the trough and gave it a gentle stir. The fulling process usually takes about 2 - 3 minutes (Robertson 1986). The spinning oils and lanolin are removed with washing. The heat and agitation begin the felting process in the wool, opening up the individual fibres and interlocking them together.

Stage 3: When the individual threads no longer moved separately, but began to join together, and the cloth started to look more like fabric, I took it out of the trough. I was not sure if it had agitated enough, but I though it was better to stop than continue, as you can always full the cloth further if need be, however, it is not possible to go back.

Stage 4: I let the water drain out of the trough and also removed some by hand with a bucket. When it was empty I refilled it with cold water to rinse out the fabric without agitation. I did this by immersing the cloth in the water and letting it float gently. I then took the cloth of the trough and squeezed any further water out of it and hung it on the rack to dry.

When the cloth had dried I could see straight away that my fulling experiment had worked. The cloth was visibly smaller and the weave was a lot tighter, suggesting that the cloth had shrunk. Before I fulled the cloth it measured 26cm x 11cm. I measured the fulled cloth and I found that it had shrunk by several centimetres as it now measured 23cm x 9cm (plate 30). So it seems that fulachta fiadh can be used for fulling cloth.

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 |