Category Archives: Textiles

Yikes!

I just realised, with a shock, that poor old Woolwinding has gone untended for ages. So while I am stupidly busy, I thought I’d do a few quickie posts which I could complete easily from my phone or tablet – just, basically, saying that I’m not dead, and neither is Woolwinding…

One of the things that’s keeping me busy is the prospect of summer and the pop-up makers’market in which I participate. As usual, it’s the things which need some sewing that are hanging about, waiting for me to just… just…

decide which fabric is going to make the lining of this felted bag. Classic (if mad) brocade, or the 1980s Collier Campbell?

Advertisements

Fulling cloth: stamping and stocks in Wales

We have a lot of water in Wales. I know it’s a cliché, but we do. Everywhere in the west of a northern continent does, whether it’s Seattle or Bangor; rainfall is a given. Mostly. It certainly is round here, and that means that there are lots of useful streams or small rivers:

IMG_1660

roaring down from the hills, just begging to be used.

It’s not surprising that fulling cloth was done away from the house while other textile processes stayed at home, given one of the easiest and cheapest raw materials to obtain for fulling was stale urine, but it’s the sheer number of fulling mills that leaps out at you in Wales, once you know what you’re looking for.

I’d not realised it, but my house almost equidistant between two fulling mills, and that’s two even in my small area, two within three miles of my home. Well, they were fulling mills once; one is now a private house, and the other is a pub. The river in the shot above, the Ysgethin, is the one which flows (or roars, rather worryingly) close by the latter, and which provided power for the fulling stocks which were once there. The other was part of a smaller operation but was again situated next to a mountain stream – where cloth would once have been ‘walked’ – though there was evidence of two pits, possibly used for treading cloth, before the house was developed. The giveaway can be an element in a name: a pandy is a fulling mill (pl. pandai) – as in Tonypandy, for instance – but watch out for the mutation which changes the initial letter in some circumstances to a b, so you get ‘bandy‘ instead. In the case of the pub, the giveaway was some large information boards. I managed to walk past them several times without taking them in…

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There were hundreds of small fulling mills; every district had one, and many had several. In his magisterial book, The History of Wales / Hanes Cymru, John Davies notes that 111 were established in the country during the fourteenth century. They spread north and east from the south and, despite the upheaval of the rising of Owain Glyn Dwr, a further 62 were built before 1500. (Flemish weavers settling in Pembrokeshire have been credited with spearheading their development, but it’s not certain how significant their role actually was; moving fulling out of the house would have been a logical process.)

In my neck of the woods, Meirionydd, the first reference to a fulling mill is from 1545, when Maes y Pandy (note the name) near Dolgellau crops up in a legal document. Between then and 1700, there are records of a further 38 being established, and  another 30 between 1700 and 1810.

fulling mill

Many fullers, like that fuller from Pompeii in the previous post, were part-timers: in this case, they were part-time farmers, with the pandy one of the farm buildings. And sometimes fulling mills were developed with existing corn mills, and the same person looked after both processes (as at Coed Trewernau in Powys, where a fulling mill and corn mill are recorded together in the 1630s). The domestic cloth trade was particularly important in Meirionydd as, incidentally, was sock and stocking knitting: ‘Almost every little farmer makes webs, and few cottages in these parts are without a loom’ wrote Arthur Aikin in 1797.

It’s not surprising that fulling was the ‘first woollen process to be mechanised’. The introduction of fulling stocks must have been generally welcomed: fulling using the feet was time-consuming, unpleasant, exhausting and damaging to the health. But it wasn’t a process from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, oh no: this mechanisation goes back as far as 1135 in Britain, with records of water-powered mills in Cumbria. Stocks went on to be in use until the twentieth century, and there is a film of some rather basic ones in use which can be seen at the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre.

Fulling mill

They all work on the same basic principle. Cloth is put in the ‘box’ – you can just see it behind the stocks (D) in the picture above – and is pounded alternately by a pair of hammers, powered by the energy from water. The back of the hammers is shaped in such a way that the cloth is constantly turned, ensuring that it is completely fulled.

It’s not at all surprising that many fulling mills later developed into full-scale industrial enterprises. First fulling moved away from the home and into the mills, then prepping the fleece. This can be seen in the history of many. Take a mill at Cwmpengraig: carders, water-driven, were introduced into a building which had been in use as a fulling mill. In the 1820s, when it was known as Coedmor, a spinning jack of 40 spindles was added. It continued as a carding, spinning and fulling mill until 1878 when it was rebuilt as a ‘fully comprehensive mill’. It no longer exists as a mill, having been burnt down twice, most recently in 1951. (Fire was a constant threat; lots of grease from the wool and the machines; lots of timber in the buildings.) Trefriw, near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, is another example – but one which is happily thriving.

And what of fulling stocks? Well, they were gradually replaced by rotary machines in which the cloth, ends sewn together to make an endless loop, passed between weighted rollers. The ‘rotary mill’ was patented in 1833, increased production and ensured more control over the process. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all fulling was a hugely industrial operation, as illustrated by this last image, from the county archives:

Fulling

Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service

The box in the foreground is the rotary milling machine, and the man is William Edwards, who was the fuller at Pandy Gwylan in Maentwrog: another fulling mill just a hair’s breadth from where I live. And this one is recorded as also having a ‘dye house’. That’s a whole other story!

Fulling cloth: smells and stamping in Rome

I’ve had an astonishingly ‘crafty’ summer. Plus, there’s work (bechod) and, what with one thing and another, blogging has taken a bit of a back seat. But I’ve still been brooding on fulling. I realise lots of people will know all about this, but I didn’t. Well, I knew bits, but only bits. I didn’t realise, for instance, that urine had ever been taxed and, quite apart from why, how? I have to admit that I still don’t understand the fiscal process. How on earth do you tax pee?

Ahem. Fulling cloth – kneading the woven cloth until the fabric thickens as the threads felt and close together, while also cleaning it – was one of the earliest cloth-making processes to be mechanised, but that wasn’t until the early middle ages. Before that it was largely down to feet.

fullingRoman fulleries had their slaves treading away in booth-like structures, and similar processes – often called ‘walking’ (Ireland and Wales) and ‘waulking’ (particularly in the Hebrides) – have persisted as part of a commercial process almost into the present.

There can seem to have been an excess of fullers in some Roman towns, but that’s probably down to a form of sampling bias. A fuller’s workroom / shop is one of the easiest places to recognise, which may make them seem more prominent than they might have been at the time. Maybe. Probably not, though: Romans did not wash their clothes (or anything else made of cloth) at home. Fulleries are completely distinctive, with their booths, vats and large sinks.

Few trades leave clearer traces behind them:

fullery in Pompeii

Fullers (preparing cloth before it went into use) and laundries (not just cleaning cloth but often refurbishing it too) generally seem to have been the same place. Fullers, with common Roman snobbery towards the ‘working classes’, were a source of amusement to the elite, and Cicero’s detractors often teased him with being the son of a laundry owner. Fullers might also have been part-timers; one piece of Pompeiian construction graffiti states that ‘Mustius the fuller did the whitewashing’ – so he clearly had a sideline, or maybe he was moonlighting to make ends meet. Also in Pompeii is a house with an ‘oversized’ dining room which had a lot of graffiti celebrating fullers; Mary Beard has suggested (in Pompeii) that it might have been where they went for after-work drinks, and why not?

It was a smelly trade, though, which makes the fact that fulleries could be next to elegant houses rather surprising, to us. It was pongy because of the importance of pee in the cleansing process, and that is why the emperor Vespasian taxed human urine – it was a levy on the textile industry, and specifically on the fullers; nicely stale urine was a source of ammonium salts which helped to whiten the cloth. It was collected in large clay pots which were placed in strategic locations – outside shops, public urinals, road intersections (!) – though the fullers deliberately avoided some, notably the pots outside inns. That’s because post-piss-up pee is lower in nitrogen and not so effective. The things you learn.

First, the fabric was soaked in a heated mixture of old urine and water in a fulling stall, and then the fullers – or more likely the slaves – would go into the stall, rest their hands on the sides and start stamping. Once the fulling process was complete the fabric was thoroughly rinsed (thank heavens), wrung out (took at least two people; a toga could be nearly 7 metres long) and then spread out over frames to dry. Once dry, the nap was raised by using thistle heads, and then trimmed to a constant height using ‘cropping shears’, which are often represented on gravestones.

Fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus, Pompeii

Incidentally, there is evidence that any dyeing often took place before weaving the cloth, which is probably not surprising given how throughly the finished fabric was worked afterwards. The effectiveness of the fulling process can be seen in reports of the spotless white togas of senators; they were woollen, and – naturally – subject to this process for cleaning as well as finishing the cloth in the first place.

If you were of more humble status your clothes were more likely to be dull and brownish rather than white, largely because they would not be so expensively produced or laundered. Harriet Fowler (in Women of the Roman Republic) thinks they may have been produced / cleaned separately, probably in different establishments, which seems highly likely to me – you’d probably be using less of the taxed constituents, maybe watering them down more, if you were doing it for people who couldn’t afford much. There were different types of fulleries: broadly, small local ones, often near market places, and huge imposing ones which clearly had many more workers / slaves. Bigger, smarter places for those who could afford them? Also highly likely, I think. (The parallels between the Roman world and our own just get stronger and stronger – for instance, they had their celebrity chefs and obscure equivalents of things like birch-sap reductions too). And, just as a final note, the slaves who did the treadling did so in bare feet.

stained glass franceMoving on, rather hastily, to Wales, though the stained glass with a fuller treading away at top left comes from France. The other panels are the next stages of cloth finishing, too.

It may seem that Ancient Rome and Mediaeval Wales have not got that much in common (apart from some vocabulary the Romans left behind, now preserved in the Welsh language), but fulling, as elsewhere, is one thing: the fact that it was almost the only part of the textile production process which not done at home. Prepping fibre, spinning, weaving: yes, all done in your home (or in the home in which you worked as a domestic servant). Fulling: nah. Not surprising, really, even when Fuller’s Earth was being more frequently used. Fulling still involved a lot of stamping about in – well – stale piss. Or it did, for a considerable time. And then came fulling stocks, which must have been a relief….

Main source for Rome: Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo, OUP, 2013. Wales next (and this time without a gap of several weeks!)

Not so full of it?

Or maybe not quite full enough. Oh, I’m sorry, enough with the terrible puns. Yet again, life has got between me and blogging, but it’s not just life. I got ever so slightly obsessed with fulling. Fulling cloth, that is. Processing it to close up the threads and make it more solidly useable.

I have been diverted from the ways of righteousness by research, partly started by Mary Beard pretending to be a Roman fuller and having a jolly old time assuring us that the slaves who did it probably had a jolly old time too (there may be reports of them singing as they fulled, but I’m not sure that singing the occasional song equals being an ecstatically happy bunny, totally thrilled with your lot). And then there are fulling mills all around me, too – no longer, generally, in use as fulling mills. But astonishingly there were thirty established in Meirionydd – where I live – between 1700 and 1810, and they joined the ‘at least’ thirty-eight already in existence.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. We have the raw materials (baaaaaaa), the skills (spinners and weavers abounded), and of course something else was abundant and necessary:

Ysgethin

No, not moss. Water: fast-flowing streams, although admittedly the Ysgethin doesn’t always flow this fast. The old walls here show attempts to control and channel the river in spate, and they are there because the Ysgethin Inn, which is downstream of this, was – you guessed it – once a fulling mill.

So excuse me while I carry on a bit more musing and thinking and investigating the past of local hostelries. I won’t be long. Apart from anything else, Mary Beard’s magnum opus is due back at the library soon…

Woolly Wales, part the second

Hey ho, I dunno; you have a heavy workload and then when it eases off a bit you get ill – flaming contact dermatitis from synthetic fleece taking forever to shift. Not too ill, thank heavens, though I am off to the GP this morning and may well come back with bubonic plague, surgeries being what they are at this time of year. Ahem. Back to fleece. The real stuff this time, which is just as well.

Before I get myself all distracted by the history and politics of the wool industry in Wales (first-ever mail order retailer, riots, involvement of the Chartists, etc), I thought it might be a good idea to have a further whip round the National Wool Museum. If you’re careful and not like me, the route takes you round the process in a systematic way. If you are like me, you zoom from one area to another crying ‘I’ve got a modern one of those!’

wool museum again

(see that skein winder?) and ‘I never knew that!’ and playing with an interactive model of sheep shearing designed for seven-year-olds.

I was much taken with the light in some areas, noticeably on the spinning floor,

spinners

where the mule takes up considerably more room than the various great wheels they also have displayed (and no, you can’t use them). I’d love to see the mule working – which it does – but we weren’t there at the right time. Once I pitched up at Brynkir mill near me when their amazing (1905, I think I remember being told) mule was running, and it was astonishing: so smooth, so hypnotic. Bet it wasn’t so astonishing once you’d been spinning for a while, mind. You’d probably have started in the mill where your parents worked at about the age of 10, and would most likely have been on the carders. You’d have been poor (generally, except during the first-world-war boom, and even then you’d still have been pretty poor) and, as one commentator put it ‘weavers marry young and die young’.

More in another post, ahem…

Some pieces of kit called to me, not just the various great wheels (‘a piece of equipment that could be constructed by any competent country carpenter’). Also in the same room as the spinning mule is this, a machine for ‘raising the nap’ of the woven cloth with teasels:

teasels

This ‘teasel gig’ contained 3000 prickly seed heads and was electrically powered, which seems like a curious – no, that’s not the right word, interesting is better – combination of the the traditional method of working and the modern. I wonder how long it continued in use? Our helpful guide was chatting to other people by this stage, but the next time I go I will make sure to ask.

Along the way, I fell in love with flannel. Really. Astonishing fabric. Everyone knows and loves the Welsh double-weave ‘tapestries’, but flannel strikes me as their somewhat overlooked little sister, and not so little. It’s been going for much longer (as far as anyone can tell) and it kept the mills going too, for decades. It clothed miners, soldiers, ordinary people; it even saw off the last invasion of Britain – the French mistook the red flannel of the women’s clothing for soldiers’ uniforms and fled. At least that’s the story; personally I think they’d probably run across irate Welsh women before (try barging into a queue for tea) and were being circumspect.

weaving red flannel

It’s beautiful stuff, good flannel is (and yes, a flannel loom is narrower than what we’ve all come to think of as a ‘normal’ loom). Incidentally, the weaving sheds also had to be light enough for the weavers to see what they were doing – but the windows are opaque up to a certain height,  so they couldn’t also see what was going on outside. Keep your eyes on your work, you!

The tenter area, where the cloth was finished, isn’t quite so light, and the tenter box – the blue-walled structure – barely needs light at all:

tenter area

Right at the end of the museum, if you’re organised and progress as you should instead of going back to front, is a sewing shop and the reconstruction of a market stall, and an exhibition gallery. Here, even though the light is very subdued, you can just see the fact that some of the blankets have been woven on narrow looms, something which would be much more practical for a handloom weaver in a domestic context. Rather like the taatit rugs of Shetland, they’ve been made in two halves and sewn together down the middle.

fabrics

It’s hard to see, but in the second section from the left, for instance, the fourth blanket up is like that. In the middle section there’s another, the one immediately above the red and white geometric one: the check doesn’t quite match up at the join. I don’t care; I want the lot.

How soon can I go back, I wonder?

Ouch ti pouch ti

First, let me apologise. ‘Ouch ti pouch ti’ is family slang – but essentially it just means ‘ow’. And ‘ow’ is something I’ve been saying quite a bit lately (along with a few other things), because I developed contact dermatitis. No, I’ve not been near poison ivy because we don’t have it this side of the pond; I’ve not suddenly developed a sensitivity to the cat; I’ve not sprayed myself with cleaning fluid.

I cuddled a fleece cushion.

I pulled a muscle in my right shoulder, and almost the only way I could be comfortable when lying down was if my arm was supported – hence the cushion. Small, convenient, not filled with feathers so it held its shape: perfect. Except for the consequences, that is.

I didn’t realise anything was amiss until I woke with the cushion almost sticking to me and the beginnings of an angry rash (no, there won’t be any photographs, so anyone who blog-surfs at breakfast can carry on eating). This rapidly deteriorated – I didn’t expect it to hurt quite as much as it did – but it’s finally responding to the steroids. Now the swelling has gone down somewhat the culprit is even more clearly defined: I have a clear zipper mark where the fleece didn’t come into direct contact with my skin. My doctor had never heard of a link before, so I hit the internet and discovered that I’m not alone. This not-uncommon reaction has been blamed on polar fleece being treated with fire retardant (possibly the case with my cushion), on the way it is manufactured, on the fact that it can get very hot. It all got me thinking: how much did I know about polar fleece? Not a lot, it turned out.

polar fleece 1We’ve all got fleeces, I bet. I have – had – a fleece throw which went on the bed when it got cold. I’ve got a couple of hats, gloves I wear when scraping ice off the car, a crappy garden fleece, a walking fleece, an almost smart fleece – and that’s even though I’m a knitter and spinner. They’re handy. I keep one by the door, chuck it on when I go to get logs. And not as bulky as a big sweater, either. Nice and light. But what are they made of?

Oil.

Really. Oil. They’re polyester, which is made by reacting one petroleum derivative (terephthlic acid) with another (ethylene glycol, aka antifreeze). These create a polymer, which becomes thick and syrupy as it cools. It’s forced through tiny holes in a ‘spinneret’ – a metal disk – forming strands and, as these come into contact with air, they harden. The chemical name for this polymer is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET – yes, that’s the same stuff that is formed into plastic for soft drink bottles. And that’s how come some fleeces are made today from recycled bottles, and many more have at least an element of recycled material.

polar fleece 2The fibres are spun together, and collected onto huge spools. They are then mechanically knitted on a circular knitting machine into an enormous tube. Fleece is, of course, fuzzy. That’s because the resulting material is then fed through a ‘napper’ which raises the surface, and then to a shearing machine, which cuts the fibres – as in the manufacture of, say, velvets. The resulting fabric is then finished (if necessary), which can involve spraying it with waterproofing or fire retardant or something to set the texture. This could have been the source of my dermatitis.

But that’s not the end of the story. So fleece can be green with its recycled content, even though it’s made from petroleum derivatives and we might be better off using what oil we have as a source of power? Er, no, not really. The Guardian described synthetic microplastic as ‘the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of’ in a 2014 piece. It’s worth clicking on the link but, very briefly, the problem is fibres.

Mark Browne, a ecologist researching shoreline sediments, noticed something incredibly common: lots and lots of tiny synthetic fibres. Everywhere. He found them in the largest quantities near sewage outlets, so the source was clear: human activity. (It’s OK, you can go back to your croissants: washing machine waste water goes into the sewage system too.) They were ‘microplastics’, used in clothing. And further sampling showed that around 1,900 fibres can be washed off a single garment in a single wash. Of course, they don’t just sit there doing nothing. They can find their way into the food chain…

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with all my fleeces now. I do know one thing, though: after a rather reckless experiment involving a fleece scarf, I’m not going to be wearing any of them any time soon.

Shetland highlights, 3: taatit rugs

We were very lucky to fetch up in Lerwick just as an woolly exhibition had opened at the Shetland Museum, and it was fascinating. A post ago I mentioned taatit rugs very briefly, so now for a bit more….

rug show 1Taatit rugs are pile bedcovers, and follow a very northern tradition. Making them died out in Shetland during the last century, but they were relatively common in the nineteenth century and the Museum has some from the mid-eighteenth century too. They didn’t belong in the smarter homes; they belonged to ordinary people and were used, often heavily.

I’d heard of them, but I’d not seen one except briefly at the Crofthouse museum four years ago, and I was intrigued. They’ve got a woven base (a muckle wheel / great wheel was used for spinning the wool for taatit rugs; the wool is thick and usually 2-ply throughout),

rug groundand the ones in the exhibition were in a mixture of natural colours, not just white. I think I fell just as much in love with the grounds as I did with the rugs themselves!

One intriguing thing – they needed to be wide, but a big loom was impossible in the average Shetland establishment at the time. So the grounds were woven to double the length needed, then cut in half (I think this is how it went – one large piece of cloth rather than two shorter ones), and the rugs were actually worked in two halves which were then sewn together down the middle. They could then be unstitched for washing and restitched once dry, as well.

The pile is a bit different:

pile on rug

and generally looked to me as though it had been slightly more finely spun, but I may be wrong.

They were put together rather like a rag rug, with the yarns doubled up and sewn into the backing fabric, going round  a couple of yarns in the base – difficult to describe, but if you turned one over (which I did, discreetly), you see something that looks like a hyphen on the back. Apparently when they were new the pile could be as long as 4cm. Then the rug was then hemmed and the two halves sewn together along the selvedge. Some were hemmed as a whole, but that must have made the dismembering / reassembly process very awkward and it doesn’t seem to have been common. They differ from rag rugs or clootie rugs, of course, in that the pile is spun wool, not woven cloth.

Origins? Much speculation, but they seem to derive from shaggy rugs and cloaks present in Scandinavia and Iceland, and there was a recreation on display to illustrate the point.

repro rug

(I remember a Celt wearing one like this in Asterix Legionnaire, hee hee, though there’s no evidence of them ever being worn in Shetland, er, sorry about that diversion!)

They were real family pieces. As you walk into the foyer at the Museum you are greeted by one taatit rug which went to New Zealand with its family when they emigrated in the nineteenth century; it has been sent back to its homeland by the descendant of its original owners. They were used as bedcovers, generally in rural families, and often in a box bed – and there is considerable speculation (though no concrete evidence) that they were used upside-down: pile side innermost, for extra warmth and comfort. Certainly that’s so in Norway, and the grounds there often have designs on the ‘back’ as well so they would show up. They were also used there as warm covers for sailors in open boats; in Sweden they might keep you warm on a sledge.

The dyes are natural ones, often local or at least locally grown. In later, early twentieth-century rugs, there are some synthetic dyes, but straight fleece colours are also comparatively common. The exhibition has samples of the lichens and plants that would have been used to create colours like these, and research has shown that a huge range of dye sources were used – many more than had been assumed to be present.

rug 3

Some are marriage rugs, with the couple’s initials in the design; others have design elements designed to protect the sleepers from all sorts of nightly horrors, like the mara – the hag – who would sit on your chest and crush the breath out of you, but who could be easily be fooled due to her inability to count to more than three (so you put more than three elements in a design, presumably, and she counted again and again rather than suffocating you).

rug 4

That should do it (this is the oldest rug in the exhibition, from about 1760).

I love things like this. They are so ephemeral, the sort of things that disappear into the background and simply do not survive in any great numbers. And yet they are so evocative of a time and place and – ergh – lifestyle. It’s lovely to see such an excellent exhibition celebrating the ordinary – and also the extraordinary, for their very survival.

Time for a revival?

If you’re in Shetland before 19 July, do go along. It’s fascinating – more information can be found on the Museum’s website, here.