A few months ago I hatched a plot with Miriam Block, Director of the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum, for a short public history presentation. The idea was to participate in a series of events going on in the town of Winooski in the month of January to commemorate the start of a new decade by looking back 100 years to the 1920s. Playing to my own strengths, I volunteered the idea of a short costumed dress history presentation about the clothes being worn in Vermont’s textile mills in 1920. The thought was that this would form an interesting contrast to our popular idea of twenties fashion, which tends to have a lot to do with beads, fringe, and flappers, and not much at all to do with factory work. I, of course, had not a single one of the garments I would need to do this, but at least I could sew everything by machine, right?
I’ve been busily researching and sewing for the past month, and though I’m still a few garments away from the full look, the outer-most layer is finally completed, and so I wanted to share a preview.
For someone who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costuming, the 1920s is something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to primary source material, but that doesn’t actually mean it was easy to find the sources I need for this particular project. I am trying to create the clothing worn by working-class women – often immigrants – who were employed in the textile factories of northern New England, and information on that specific demographic is harder to track down than I had hoped. Luckily for me, the Champlain College Library has a pamphlet in its special collections called “Burlington, Vermont: the Advantages it Offers the Workman’s Family,” which was put out by the Queen City Cotton Mill. It was designed to advertise the mill to prospective employees and it shows a series of images of the mill’s workers. Queen City Cotton was located in Burlington’s South End, and therefor was only a few miles away from the Champlain Mill, where the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum is now located.
With those photographs as a starting place, I perused the 1918 and 1922 Sears and Roebuck catalogs for the types of garments which were available to American women at the time. Then, thanks to the wonderful librarians at the Winterthur Library, I was able to look through a series of pamphlets on dressmaking published in the teens and twenties by Mary Brooks Picken of the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences.
The one piece of clothing which was clearly in evidence in all three sources was a smock-like garment known as a “house apron,” which the women in the Queen City Cotton Mill clearly wore to protect their clothing from getting dirty while on the job. Though Sears and Roebuck and Mary Brooks Picken both show this apron as an outer-most layer, worn presumably while carrying out house chores, the mill workers wore it topped with a second apron, this one generally dark in color, and with large pockets to accommodate their tools.
Woman’s Coverall Apron shown in the Sprin 1922 Sears and Roebuck Catalog
From Mary Brooks Pickens directions for making a Kimono Apron, Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, and Mary Brooks Picken, eds. Aprons and Caps. Scranton, Pa: Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, 1922, page 14.
From Mary Brooks Pickens directions for making a Kimono Apron, Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, and Mary Brooks Picken, eds. Aprons and Caps. Scranton, Pa: Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, 1922, page 15.
Close-up of spinning room workers from the Queen City Cotton Mill, ” Front Cover COMMENTS AND TAGS (0) SHARE FacebookTwitterEmailPrintPinterestLinkedIn GEOREFERENCE Burlington, VT, USA [44.4758825,-73.212072] Lakeside Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401, USA [44.4612588,-73.2176722] + − BURLINGTON, VERMONT: THE ADVANTAGES IT OFFERS THE WORKMAN’S FAMILY,” page 10.
I found one particular style of house apron in all three sources. It was a simple design, with attractive detailing at the neck and sleeves, and so chose to reproduce that garment. Stay tuned for updates on the rest of the outfit at the 26th approaches, and if you’re in the area, please come to the presentation! There will be tea and cookies and lots to learn about old clothes and Vermont history.
Close-up of spinning room workers from the Queen City Cotton Mill, ” Front Cover COMMENTS AND TAGS (0) SHARE FacebookTwitterEmailPrintPinterestLinkedIn GEOREFERENCE Burlington, VT, USA [44.4758825,-73.212072] Lakeside Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401, USA [44.4612588,-73.2176722] + − BURLINGTON, VERMONT: THE ADVANTAGES IT OFFERS THE WORKMAN’S FAMILY,” page 10.
This past Friday and Saturday I attended a small conference called “Teaching Textiles” which took place in a room on the top floor of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Human Ecology. Human ecology,* as a field, is concerned with the world which people make for themselves. As a material culturalist (not to mention a craftsperson), this totally delights me. (And in fact, the SoHE’s Design History program was one of the places I applied when I was looking into graduate programs back in 2016.)
The Teaching Textiles Conference was an opportunity for scholars and makers to come together to talk about how textile knowledge is transmitted. It also highlighted the fact that, at least when it comes to textiles, the majority of scholars are in fact also makers. This was in evidence throughout the conference, as the audience diligently worked on one or both of the two craft projects provided by the event’s organizers: a tiny palm-sized loom, laser cut from lightweight plywood, and a conference bag printed with an embroidery design and accompanied by floss and a needle.
I presented about my project to teach myself the craft of fulling, which was part of my thesis research last year. Aside from talking about the project itself, my goal was to share how it was possible to integrate craft work with academic scholarship, something which my adviser and I had discussed at length as I was writing last winter. By the time I stood up to speak however, it was pretty clear that I was preaching to the choir. Everyone attending this conference seemed to agree on this point: our scholarship about the material world is improved when we, as scholars, spend some time interacting with that world before we sit down to write. Amy Hare, who teaches contextual studies for the Royal School of Needlework’s degree program, made the point that this goes the other way as well: makers’ work is also more meaningful when informed by scholarship and the historical record.
Though this is not [or should not be] a particularly ground-breaking assertion, it is one which continues to benefit from amplification. While material culturalists and historical craftspeople tend to be very aware of the benefits of both making and reading, plenty of traditional historians and modern craftspeople are less tuned in to how crossing these disciplinary boundaries can foster new ways of thinking. I would posit however that textilians** are uniquely situated to cross that line, if only because of how easy it is to stitch while sitting in a lecture. The small fifth floor room which housed Teaching Textiles for two days was a perfect chamber for that amplification.
I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from this gathering before I arrived, but it quickly became clear that while the number of attendees was small, the quality was extremely high. Participation was, by and large, limited to people who were presenting (and there were 20 of us!) and about a dozen faculty and graduate students of the SoHE. This small group meant that conversations could easily include everyone and run through both days. As we worked individually with our needles, we also worked collectively to build community and shape big ideas.
In that space, we listened to each other present on our various research projects, an act which inspired me, at least, by illustrating several new ways in which to cross the line between research and making. In doing that, we sat together in community, and passed knowledge from woman to woman, an act which is so fundamental to textile crafts that it was in fact the topic of our gathering. I left Madison with the feeling that I had made new friends, and with a strengthened conviction that it is worth while for me to dedicate myself to helping others see the connections between the world of the mind, and the world of the hands. I like to believe that this is true of all of my fellow attendees as well.
Many thanks to Dr. Marina Moskowitz and Amanda Thatch for their leadership and organization of this wonderful event.
*The SoHE at UW Madison was once the Home Economics department. The two ideas are connected, and it was a home economist in fact who first coined the word “ecology.”
** A term of Linda Eaton’s coinage, of which I am especially fond because, since it lacks a dictionary definition, it is as aptly applied to textile craftspeople as to textile historians.
One of my favorite things which I learned in grad school was the practice of close looking, or careful, prolonged observation of a single object. Though I learned it in the context of curatorial work and historical research, I think close looking has something to offer for a lot of people. It is an observation skill, but also one which forces you to slow down, and focus your concentration on a single thing for a long period of time. Because of this, it can also be a really great way to center yourself and make meaningful connections to the world around you.
How does close looking work? As an example, let me tell you about the close looking exercise which I was assigned by my professor of prints and paintings, Winterthur’s Associate Curator of Fine Arts, Stephanie Delamaire. Stephanie assigned each of us to spend two hours alone with a single piece from Winterthur’s print collection. We were instructed to keep a watch, pencil, and paper at hand, and write down our observations as we made them, along with the time at which we came to each discovery. At the beginning, this was an easy assignment. I knew that later I would be asked to write a description of the object, and so I ran through all of the things I knew I needed to make note of: What type of paper? (laid.) How was this printed? (It was a mezzotint – and intaglio process popular in the 18th century.) What did the print depict? (A satirical scene of a married couple fighting.) As the two hours wore on, however, my observations began to thin out, occurring only every few minutes. However, they didn’t stop coming and they didn’t diminish in quality, rather, they were less what I thought I was supposed to be observing, and more based on my own questions and experiences of the piece.
Two hours is a long time to stare at any one thing (and Stephanie, forgive me, but I think I actually gave up 1:45 minutes in), but this exercise helped me see the value in really taking the time to observe a single object in great detail. At other times in my grad courses I did similar exercises as part of a group, which was a very different, but equally valuable exercise, as it allowed me to benefit from the various interests and expertises of my seven classmates. Winterthur’s Curator of Furniture, Josh Lane, was particularly good at setting my cohort down in front a chair or chest of drawers (often literally sitting on the floor with it turned upside down in front of us) and making time for five or ten minutes of spit balling about what we saw before asking us to make conclusions from our observations. It was this permission to take my time that I found most empowering, and which I try to take out into the world wherever I go.
Who looks closely, and why?
Despite my assertion that everyone should practice close looking because it’s good for everything, I do think there are some placers where it’s especially useful. Below is a short list of professions who might use close looking, and what they might get from it. (And readers, I’d love to hear who you would had to this list!)
Museum curators use close looking to better understand the pieces in their collections. Close looking often reveals details about how, when, and by whom the object was made. It can also help to show how the object was used, and what it meant to the people who used it.
Museum educators use close looking to help visitors engage with objects and art. By asking visitors to slow down and make their own observations about what they see (rather than reading the label, or even walking right by), close looking gives people time to find something which interests them in the object, and to develop their own opinions about it. (Here’s a great exercise for close looking with school kids in museums from the MFA Boston)
Museum visitors use close looking to make personal connections to what they see, and to have meditative experiences. Rather than relying on information provided by the museum, visitors who take time with museum objects may draw connections between what they observe and their own experiences. They also use close looking as an opportunity to focus on a work of art and allow outside distractions to drop away, much like a meditation exercise.
Antiques dealers use close looking to identify the age and value of objects, and to ascertain whether they are authentic or fake. They often rely on long experience looking at other similar objects, and build extensive visual vocabularies, which they can reference when determining whether a piece really is what it says it is.
Makers use close looking as a source of inspiration, and as a means of understanding how other makers have solved similar problems in the past. Close looking can reveal clever construction techniques or show where others chose to cut corners. It can also highlight to properties of different materials, or inspire new designs.
Historians use close looking to transform objects into primary historical sources. As opposed to using things merely to illustrate a point, the information gathered through close looking can help historians make new observations about objects, which can then become the basis for new historical arguments.
Teachers use close looking exercises to help students build skills in observation, analysis, and interpretation. History teachers may use close looking to help students use historical artifacts as primary sources. English teachers may use close looking to help students build their skills in descriptive writing. For all teachers, close looking provides a way to help students engage constructively with things beyond words, pictures, or videos, and create an opportunity for tactile learning. (For more on this, see this great blog post on close looking in the classroom.)
I finished my masters thesis last month and over the last few weeks I’ve been sharing it with friends and colleagues who are interested in my research, or at least polite enough to show an interest in my most recent pursuits. My pal Ethan, with whom I have carried on a delightfully intellectual friendship for many years now, asked for a copy. A few pages in he sent me this note:
“Your prose is, if I may say so, extremely readable for an academic piece, which is no small feat.”
“Ha!” I was delighted by this feedback from a friend I respect, but I also thought: “of course it is!” I’ve spent years figuring out the best ways to explain dry and technical stuff (how fabric and clothes are made, and why anybody should care) to reenactors (I love them, but…) and tourists (who, as we used to say, leave their brains at home when they go on vacation). I love nothing more than explaining how something is made in a way that makes the most sense to the largest number of people. Clear and readable writing is kind of my thing.
And that got me thinking. Five years ago, when I graduated from undergrad, what were my literary ambitions? Did I dream of putting down elegant and flowery prose, or pounding the page with impenetrable terminology designed to show how much I knew? What kind of writer did I want to be? What about ten years ago, when I graduated from high school? What about in sixth grade, when I was back in the classroom for the first time after three years of homeschooling, in which time I painstakingly learned to read with the help of a tutor who specialized in helping dyslexic kids?
The answer, of course, was that I never dreamed I would enjoy writing. I was dyslexic. I was flat out bad at the mechanics of it all. Writing was slow and painful. My dream was that it would be less of those things.
It was in seventh grade, in a writing class for homeschooled teens, when I first became aware that being bad at physically putting words on the page was different from not having anything to say. It was a fiery ninth-grade humanities teacher (thank you. Really, thank you, Mr. Blynt) who first sparked in me the desire to impress someone with my words. It was the Foundation Year at King’s, where there was a 1500 word essay due every other Monday morning, that refined my work. It was sewing instructions and costume guidelines that taught me that there was a place for short sentences and easy descriptive language. And it was this blog that gave me a chance to let fly with words when inspiration or injustice meant that I had Something To Say.
Over the past two years, the crucible that is grad school melted all this down. The self doubt of the dyslexic kid, the late reader, the crappy speller, burned off the top in thin wisps of smoke. With it went the perfectionist’s need for third, forth, and fifth drafts, and at least some of the craving to impress people. That which was left, distilled and recombined, was a dense soup of self-confidence and ability that tapped out 30,000 words this winter — good words, that are easy to read and have something to say.
Let me say that writing this post first occurred to me a couple of days ago, a few minutes after Ethan’s comment appeared in my inbox. It was then that I asked myself what kind of writer I had wanted to be at 23, 18, 12. It made me cry, and my eyes are watering now too, because of all my plans for how my life would go, it never occurred to me that I would love spilling words onto a page. It is a sweet, sweet victory to go from being the one girl in second grade who cannot ever seem to copy down the letters fast enough, to turning in your masters thesis.
Perhaps most rewarding of all is the fact that I’m not craving a break from my keyboard. Rather, I’m craving the time for new projects — time to let the bright thoughts and clear language in my mind manifest itself on paper. This is the bigger victory: the looking-forward towards new projects with anticipation and glee; the knowledge that now is the moment when I can ask myself what kind of writer I want to be, not as a pipe dream but as a clear ambition; and the awareness that, having come this far, I can surely make it happen.
If you’ve been following the Flannel Project, you know I’ve been working to produce a few lengths of cloth which closely mimic early-19th-century finishing techniques. You can read all about why I’m doing this here, and about my first few experiments here. This post, however, is about the process I went through to finish the two large lengths of cloth that are at the heart of this project.
The Objective: 1) To shrink two, 12.5-yard, lengths of cloth down to 9.5 and 11 yards, respectively. That’s 76% and 88% of the original lengths. 2) To work through the complications which early American fullers faced, in order to better understand their work.
A Note on Measurements: When Justin first began weaving the cloth for this project, he informed me that he normally measured the cloth on the loom, to keep track of how many yards he had woven. He usually marks not 36″ but 41″ yards. He does this because when the cloth comes off the loom it is no longer under tension, and tends to shrink, and also because he washes most of the cloth he weaves before he delivers it to the customers. That extra 5″ a yard is designed to compensate for the finishing. I didn’t really need Justin to compensate for shrinkage (since keeping track of shrinkage was the whole point of my project) and we weren’t exactly sure how much the cloth was going to spring back when it came off the loom, so I told him to just mark 36″ yards. When the cloth eventually came off the loom, each “yard” lost a little over an inch.
When I fulled the cloth, I used Justin’s thread yard markers to count out 12.5 yards. I did this because it was much easier to track the shrinkage of the cloth using the yard markers, than to have to stretch out the cloth and measure the full length each time I wanted to check the shrinkage. This meant that, strictly speaking, my pieces were slightly shorter than 12.5 yards.
In reality, I suspect that the fuller who processed William Guthrie’s cloth in 1822 probably measured it himself when it arrived at the mill, rather than relying on measurements made by the weaver. In that case, I should really have measured out 12.5 yards using a yard stick and disregarded Justin’s thread markers. As it is, I was still able to accurately measure the degree of shrinkage of the cloth from the length it was when it “arrived at the fulling mill” (i.e. after it was woven but before it was washed) to when it was “fully finished.” I simply calculated my numbers using a 34.8″ yard.
Washing: I first washed the cloth to get rid of the grease still in the yarn. I followed the directions from the yarn manufacture, using fairly warm water and dawn dish detergent, and tromping on the cloth in the bathtub until the water ran clean.
Hemming the edges: I finished each end of the piece using a serger sewing machine. Alternatively I could have hand hemmed each end, or sewn the cloth into a loop, as is done when waulking cloth.
The washing machine: I used a front-loading washing machine to full the cloth. While it feels strange to use a piece of modern machinery to replicate a historical process, in reality, this allowed me to control several important factors, such as water, temperature, and how long and fast the cloth was agitated. In the end, I believe the washing machine was a good choice because it allowed me to replicate many of the qualities of a set of early fulling stocks on a small scale.
The cycle: The machine was set on a warm wash and cold rinse. If I had been able to, I would have used warm water for both the wash and rinse, but that was not possible on the machine used. I was also unable to test the temperature of the water mid-cycle. Though this was frustrating from a scientific standpoint, I realize that most country fullers worked almost exclusively in the winter, and that water temperatures must have fluctuated wildly, as hot water was introduced into the fulling stocks only to cool to air temperature.
Soap: As with washing, I used Dawn dish soap as the fulling agent or lubricant. It is my understanding that soap, urine, or fullers earth in this context both continues to clean grease from the wool, and helps to lubricate the fibers, so that they can slide over each other, and become ever-more tangled and felted. As the process went along, I found that the addition of a single generous squirt of soap before each washer load began meant that the cloth was continuously slightly sudsy. According to period sources, this was what I was looking for.
Agitation/compression of the cloth: To agitate the cloth, I relied both on the action of the washing machine, and on “thumpers,” or groups of hard rubber lacrosse balls sewed into small bags. Though the first fulling tests had used individual balls, with many more yards of cloth in the washer, these proved insufficient. Balls grouped together were more successful. In total, I used four small lacrosse-ball pyramids, each made of four balls sewn into a cloth bag. In future experiments, I think it would be worthwhile to attempt to increase both the number and size of these “thumpers.”
Time: My “flannel for men’s wear” required a total of 30 loads in the washing machine. It took several loads for me to realize that additional thumping agents, beyond my original handful of dog toys, were needed, so only at that point did I make and add the thumper-pyramids. Every three or four loads I pulled the cloth out of the machine, checked it over, and untangled it. This allowed me to observe the texture of the cloth, and get a sense of how well the yarns were “coming together” or felting to each other. At this times I also measured between the yard marks, to gauge how much the cloth had shrunk. On average, it took three loads in the washer for the cloth to shrink one inch per yard.
It took four days to complete the first piece of cloth.Twice, I left the cloth out to dry overnight. In drying, the cloth lost about a yard per inch off of the length wet. This allowed me to stop the fulling process one inch shy of my desired final length. I then let the cloth dry to length. This piece shrank from 436″ to 330″ which is 75.7% of the original length, less than half a percent away from my goal of 76%.
My “flannel for women’s wear” required only 11 loads in the washer. This piece involved significantly less trial and error, since I had largely worked out the kinds in the system when finishing the men’s wear flannel. That said, I was clearly somewhat overconfident at this point. This piece shrank from 434″ to 368.5″ which is 84% of the original length. In Here I overshot the mark by 4%, since my original objective was to shrink the cloth to 88% of it’s original length.
Expertise and Troubleshooting: Both pieces of cloth developed a slightly dimpled texture in the fulling process. Though it was hard to see under the fuzzy surface, this texture felt almost like seersucker to the hand. I’m sure that this effect could have been controlled for, and the fact that I was unable to determine what caused it was a good reminder that, despite my hours of experimentation, I am truly an amateur playing a professional artisan’s game.
Tentering: Textiles are typically dried stretched on a frame after finishing. Known as tentering, this process causes the cloth to dry to a regular size, and helps to stretch out any deformations that might have occurred during finishing. For this project, I did not have a tentering frame. Instead, I used a method shown me by Kate Smith and Norman Kennedy at Eaton Hill Textiles. I smoothed the cloth around a tube (they typically use a wooden board) and let it rest rolled up, so that the fibers can settle into place. For my cloth, I also stretched the cloth in width by hand prior to rolling it, to tug it into shape.
Ideally, I would have left the cloth on the roll for a day or two, but I ran short on time, and so was only able to leave it rolled for half a day. From there I air-dried the cloth.
In a historical context, the cloth would likely have been napped, and possibly also sheared at this stage. For the purposes of this experiment, I didn’t do either of those things. This would also be the ideal moment to dye the cloth. For the present, however, I have chosen to leave the cloth white.
Pressing: The final step of the project was to press the cloth. Though ironing with a domestic steam iron certainly improved the texture of the cloth, to smooth the surface and flatten out the bumps which developed during fulling required more pressure. I was able to use Eaton Hill Textile’s cloth press to do this. Their equipment mimics the effects of a period cloth press, which relied on both heat and prolonged pressure to create cloth with a smooth finish.
The Final Result: The transformation the cloth underwent through this process was truly remarkable. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to portray that through images alone. However, I will say that the fulling process made the cloth significantly softer – before washing, the material was stiff and scratchy to the point where it would have been almost impossible to wear it next to your skin. After fulling, the material is so soft that it could be made into baby blankets. The material is also much denser. This is much more true of the men’s wear flannel than the women’s wear flannel, but both fabrics are thicker and stiffer. Finally, the pressing transformed the cloth from slightly textured to firm, smooth and crisp under the hand.
As I’ve been working on the Flannel Experiment for the past month, I’ve been reflected on each stage of the project over on Instagram, where I find it easy to share findings and ideas as they occur to me. In order to make it easier to keep track of that “photo diary,” I’ve chosen to share all of those posts here in chronological order. My hope is that this will make it easy to follow along with my thought process and learning throughout this project.
How exactly does one go about reproducing the effects of a several hundred pound, 8 foot high, water powered machine using only things you can find in your house? This was my challenge on Monday as I headed off to Eaton Hill Textiles in Marshfield Vermont, to meet with Kate Smith and Norman Kennedy and to do some experimental fulling.
This was the next step in a project which I introduced in my last post. Head on over there to learn more about why and how I’m doing this project. To see images of the entire process, check out my photo diary of the project, as documented through Instagram. To read about the fulling process for the two large pieces of cloth, go here.
The biggest motivator for this piece of experimental archaeology, or “making as learning” research was to connect the knowledge I have gathered from a wide range of text sources and from examining a variety of extant textiles, to the actual physical act of finishing a piece of woolen cloth. My goal was to force myself to think through every step in the process not in a theoretical way, but in a practical way. Hopefully, I will be able to transform this new knowledge for others in a meaningful way as part of my thesis.
My project is to reproduce a finishing process on a piece of woolen cloth that was traditionally produced using water-powered fulling stocks, composed of a pair of massive wooden hammers which, when illustrated seem designed to repeatedly pound the cloth. At the moment I don’t have the resources, time, or space to reconstruct such a machine at full (or even half) scale, and so I talked through my options with my favorite problem solver: my father.
As he and I read and looked at the primary sources closely, we realized that there was more to fulling stocks than just pounding on cloth, which, at first glance, appears to be what the machine was made to do. The stocks were designed to hold a specific volume of cloth, and the hammers were stopped before dropping their full force on the cloth, so that they compressed the cloth as much as they pounded it. Several descriptions state that fulling stocks, when well-built, turned the cloth in the machine, so that it would be processed evenly. From this we gathered that the cloth needed to be on the move, and that while pounding force was probably a factor in fulling, compression might also work just as well.
In my research, I have also gathered a lot of information on other factors in fulling, such as how wet the cloth should be, what temperature is ideal for fulling, and what sort of fulling agents (such as soap or urine) should be used, and in what quantities. I had a pretty good idea what most of these variable might effect, but it was all theory. I needed to get my hands dirty (well, clean is more like it, since there was a LOT of soap involved) if I really wanted to understand how all of this worked.
Scouring the cloth to remove the grease, an important first step to enable the wool to felt.
An attempt at fulling with feet! I tromped on one sample piece in a tub full of warm sudsy water.
Some Like it Hot.. or Maybe Not?
None of my, Kate, and Norman’s initial tests were successful. We tried pounding the cloth with mallets to simulate the force of the fulling stocks, but couldn’t sustain that for long enough to see results. Running it through a washer cycle with cold water, and stomping on it in a tub of warm soapy water both had a small effect, but nothing really significant. For a while there it seemed like this cloth just didn’t want to full. Luckily Justin and I had been careful to select a type of wool for this project that was conducive to felting. I was pretty sure we had a problem with the technique, not with the material.
Our final test was to wash one of our sample pieces in the washer on hot. After a triple-long cycle, this seemed to be showing results, and so we repeated that process again. Once dry, this sample had shrunk down to 3/4 of its original size, just as I’d been hoping, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. It was fluffy. At first glance it looked more like polar fleece than wool. And despite the fluff, you could still easily make out the cloth’s weave structure, something which is not true of the heavily fulled historical woolens I’ve examined. When I laid it flat I realized this sample had also shrunk irregularly: the middle had shrunk more than the edges, leaving what looked like a three inch ruffle around the entire piece. The good news was that this cloth was, in fact, capable of shrinking up to the degree I was looking for. The bad news was that getting the cloth to shrink wasn’t the same as a good finish. (This aligned with my expectations and advice I had received from a variety of people. Despite this, it was a valuable experiment, especially as a comparison to the final test I did.)
I took all four test samples back home with me and began my own round of experiments. First off, I tried a few other finishing techniques, to see what would happen to the hot wash sample if I napped it and pressed it. Attacking the surface of the cloth with a dog brush helped to bring order to the ridiculously fluffy surface, but still didn’t make it look like the historical textile I’d been assuming we’d achieve at the end of this process. Pressing with a hot steam iron and as much force as I could muster helped a lot though. This entirely knocked back the fluff, improving the look of the cloth. Still, the cloth wasn’t as dense or stiff as I’d anticipated, and the fact that it had warped in the felting remained.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
At this point, a well-timed message from Justin reminded me of an important fact. He was reading through another early-19th-century textile manual with a section on fulling and brought up a reference to exactly how long cloth used to spend in the fulling stocks. This wasn’t a matter of half an hour’s pounding with mallets. We’re talking hours on end of continuous compression and agitation. This made me suspect that my first few fulling tests had failed not because there was something wrong with the technique, but because we hadn’t kept at it long enough.
I put a sample piece in my parent’s front-loading washer and this time I set it on warm, rather than hot. I also added half a dozen hard rubber dog toys which I hoped would fall on the cloth as it tumbled. I told myself not to even worry about whether or not it was shrinking until after half a dozen cycles. Finally, after 20 cycles (that’s 16.5 hours in the washing machine!), this warm wash sample had shrunk as much as a the hot wash sample had. This piece, however, was much more like what I had been hoping for. It hadn’t warped as it felted, and though the surface was still soft, it was no where near as fluffy as the hot wash sample had been. This cloth was also denser; the weave structure was harder to discern, and less light shone through it when held up to a window.
So far, this project has been invaluable for thinking through the clothing finishing theory I have encountered in my research. Without attempting reproduce the results of a water powered fulling mill, I likely would not have taken the time to understand the nuances of how the machine actually works. Though several sets of directions for building fulling mills were published in America during my period of study, none that I have found appear to go into sufficient detail to build a really good machine – that information certainly belonged to the millwrights, but it never made it into the books. Thinking through the process of using the machine forced me to work through the missing information.
I’ve also had a chance to see that there’s more to fulling cloth than shrinking it. Because my inspiration for this cloth (Hannah Wilson’s fulling mill day book) lists only the length of the cloth before an after fulling, it was on me, and my experience of handling historical textiles, to know that the shrinkage produced from a hot water wash could be improved upon.
Patience was another important lesson to be had from these tests. There’s a reason that fulling was mechanized all the way back in the middle ages – getting good results is tedious, physically demanding (if you don’t have mechanical assistance!), and very time consuming!
I’ve still got two much bigger pieces to full. (UPDATE: read about how I did that part of the project here.) One will be fulled the same amount as the hot wash and warm wash trials, and the other piece about half as much. The final test (which probably wont happen till spring) will be to turn that cloth into garments, and see how they perform! My motto for this project? – It’s Not Finished ‘Till It’s Finished!