Waulking the Cloth
[intro] Far from the byres where the family’s animals were kept, with chimneys to draw the smoke from the fireplace up and out of the house, the ‘Rooms’ of Auchindrain’s houses could be cosy and welcoming places. Socialising, and communal activities like waulking cloth, would take place in this part of the house. [/intro]
[details] ‘Waulking’ is the final process in the making of cloth. The newly-woven cloth, stiff and scratchy, is soaked then thumped rhythmically by hand. This shrinks and softens it, leaving the cloth both water and wind resistant. Women would gather together in each other’s homes or barns to waulk (Luaidh in Gaelic) the cloth, singing rhythmic songs to coordinate their movements. It was an opportunity for the township’s women to socialize, as well as to work.
Traditionally, the cloth was soaked and tramped in maistir – a mixture of water and urine. Urine contains ammonia, which fixes dyes and softened the cloth. The cloth was washed and wrung out. Then the thumping and pounding began; the women sat around a long narrow table with the cloth forming a loop between them. Each woman took hold of a section. Using the base of their hands, they pushed the cloth forward, pulled it back, and passed it onto the next person.
The process started slowly while the cloth was wet and heavy. The pace increased gradually as the cloth dried out and became lighter and easier to work with. The finished cloth was rolled up to the accompaniment of a clapping song. It was wrapped around a board for several days to stop it from twisting out of shape, and finally hung out to dry.
It took skill and practice to get the timing of song lines right, creating a regular rhythm to lead the waulking. Women composed the waulking songs themselves – they are a rare glimpse into their lives and concerns: war, mourning, clan relations and marriage. The process of waulking was also therapeutic. The songs expressed emotions and the thumping of the cloth released frustration. Singing whilst waulking cloth is thought to be unique to Scottish culture. Many of the surviving songs are extremely old. Multiple versions often exist, because the songs were passed on from woman to woman, instead of being written down.
To find out more about the spinning and weaving of cloth, click here.