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.
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.
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. 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!
This project has been generously supported by funds from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design’s Craft Research Fund; the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies; funds provided by the Society of Winterthur Fellows, and by thesis research funds provided by the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.