The Flannel Project: Fulling the Cloth

IMG_3491If 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.

A measuring tape pinned to the cloth while it was still on the loom.

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.

The Technique:

Washing or scouring the cloth in the bathtub.

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.

Every few loads, I removed the cloth from the washer, untangled it, and folded it accordion style, before returning it to the washer. 

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.

“Thumpers” made of four lacrosse balls sewn into pyramidal muslin bags. 

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%.

The fulled and very fuzzy men’s wear flannel, drying on a clothes rack.

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.

IMG_3457Tentering: 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. 


Men’s wear flannel prior to pressing (still quite fluffy and fuzzy).

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.


Men’s wear flannel after pressing (much thinner and smoother).

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.

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. 

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