There is a lot of interest concerning the
art of felting. There are few preserved articles of information that can tell us all the
facts. However, there is a cultural heritage in this art. Some of it has been
preserved through family stories, writings among religious sects, encyclopedias of days of
old, and research.
While doing family genealogy, I was
surprised to learn that a distant branch of my family, some back several
hundreds of years, were "Waulkers". These were people who felted
wool. More importantly, there was a certain cadence of this process which lends
itself to a musical rhythm. Thus, we have "Waulking Songs".
The Waulkers were in more recent
terminology, Fullers. Fulling was done by walking over the near finished
fabric. O.K., there are different thoughts on that.... Felting vs. Fulling and woven
fabric vs. compressed. However, let's talk about the common laborer's song.
According to the songs, waulking is a shrinking of the cloth.
There are many ways of waulking
cloth. Yes, sometimes it was walked on. Other times in other settings it was
rolled around a log or pole and dragged behind horses. More modernly, well, about
150-200 years ago, many people (particularly women) sat around a long narrow table.
The wet, chemically prepared fabric (usually soaked in hot urine) was laid on the
table. It could have been felted into a long band of fiber or perhaps sewn, but the
women would grasp the cloth and knead it in a slow rhythmic thumping fashion. If you
could imagine mom or grandma kneading bread, you can get a fairly accurate picture in your
mind of just how this process worked.
It is during this thumping that the
humming started, then the poems recited to the beat of the thumping and soon it is a
song. I imagine mystical and melancholy and with a lovely soft sadness. However, I
have heard it said the the beat ended up being reminiscent of an African drum dance.
There is a wonderful collection of
Waulking songs called:
"The McCormick Collection of Waulking Songs" by John L. Campbell and Francis
It is published by Clarendon Press Folksongs .
I am told that it is very hard to find. It is also said to be enchanting.
Here are a few links that I have collected
just in case you are interested.
you may need to cut and paste these into your address search line.
Jo Morrison has given me
permission to link
her wonderfully informative webpage concerning waulking.
I love this page!
She also has a recording the
waulking songs which can be found here.
Watch out for the Whistlebinkies!
Men who sit on their binkies and whistle!
Here is an old waulking chant:
THE CHANT OF THE WARPING
Thursday of beneficence,
For warping and waulking,
An hundred and fifty strands there shall be
Blue thread, very fine,
Two of white by its side,
And scarlet by the side
Of the madder.
My warp shall be very even,
Give to me Thy blessing, O God,
And to all who are beneath my roof
In the dwelling.
Michael, thou angel of power,
Mary fair, who art above,
Christ, Thou Shepherd of the people,
Do ye your eternal blessing
On each one who shall lie down,
In name of the Father and of Christ,
And of the Spirit of peacefulness,
And of grace.
Sprinkle down on us like dew
The gracious wisdom of the mild woman,
Who neglected never the guidance
Of the High King.
Ward away every evil eye,
And all people of evil wishes,
Consecrate the woof and the warp
Of every thread.
Place Thou Thine arm around
Each woman who shall be waulking it,
And do Thou aid her in the hour
Of her need.
Give to me virtues abundant,
As Mary had in her day,
That I may possess the glory
Of the High King.
Since Thou, O God, it is who givest growth,
To each species and kind,
Give us wool from the surface
Of the green grass.
Consecrate the flock in every place,
With their little lambs melodious, innocent,
And increase the generations
Of our herds.
So that we may obtain from them wool,
And nourishing milk to drink,
And that no dearth may be ours
Of day clothing.
White the sheep that gave the wool
Green the pastures where they fed
Blue the skies above the pool
Where at noon they made their bed
Sing the garden of the sea
From whose flowers we won the dye
Sing of sea-tang wild and free
From our misty Isle of Skye
Light the hearts that love the sea
Brown the face that seeks the sun
Brown and happy, here we are
Singing till our task is done
Move the web towards the sun
Round the table, thump and rub
Stretch and clap till all is done
Stretch and clap and thump and rub
Now is waulked the web we spun
Winter storms may rave in vain
Bless the work by which we won
Comfort from the wind and rain
MYTHICAL ASPECT OF
WAULKING INVOLVED GODDESSES
There are some who believe that the
processing of fibers
started with the goddesses of Celtic mythology.
In the Scottish Gaelic memory,
the "waulking women" were called na mnathan luaidh.
The waulking process started with
three leading women.
The first was the song-woman or in Gaelic, the ban dhuan.
Americans might distinguish her as similar to our
Native American "Wise Woman".
When was the song leader and sat at the top of the table or stone.
As she grew in age and could not keep up with the movement
and action required to waulk the wool,
she would take a place of honor and still was allowed to lead the
Many groupings of women refused to waulk if there was
not a wizened ban dhuan.
Hearty songs, sad songs, songs of
war, womans work,
love, children were commonly called the Úrain luiadh.
Some groups of workers would ban anyone from singing
if she did not have a voice to please the Gods
otherwise the loireag, a mystical water sprite would bother
causing her to miss a beat and intrude on the rhythm of the work.
O'ran luidhs, were never repeated or the fibers would revert
back to their original condition and the lengthy and tiring
process would have to begin again.
The second woman of waulking was
the ban luathaidh.
She was the leader of the actual waulking and
led the ceremony to it's completion.
The third woman had the job of making
sure than everything
was done in the correct order. She was called the ban dhlighe.
She also judge when the waulking was finished
and made the pronouncement.
She made sure that the waulking was only done
in a certain sun following process.
She would lead a ceremony of consecration and thanksgiving
to the goddesses who were
watching and dedicate the ceremony to the Ancient Gods.
Once the waulking process was finished there followed
a ceremony of consecration dedicated to the Ancient Gods.
The three waulking woman would fold
the cloth in a very special way.
The would turn it and pass it and give it a tri-god blessing.
The men were always glad to see the
waulking ceremony end as
they had been banned from the house and often the property
because they were bad luck and might draw the attention of
the goddesses away from the work.
The rest of the evening and early morning hours of the next day
were celebrated with food, ale, dancing and fun.