Friday, November 14, 2008

Waulking the Wool with Slighe nan Gaidheal

I made a journey up to Bellingham the other night to visit the Whatcom Weavers Guild. They had some very special guests that evening. A year or two ago I joined a very wonderful group in Seattle to learn Scott's Gaelic, the Slighe nan Gaidheal. I will take a stab at spelling out the pronunciation here with apologies for any inaccuracies, schleeah nawn gall. They came up to talk about waulking wool as well as having us do an actual waulking of the wool. If you would like more information about Slighe nan Gaideal click on the link
So, for those who do not know what waulking is here is my explanation; Waulking is a traditional method of fulling or shrinking woven wool cloth by pounding so that it is weather-tight and warm. As the process is labor intensive, people came together to pound and full the wool. In Scotland, the waulking was accompanied by songs and traditions to make the work go easier. Originally, the wool was soaked in stale urine to set the vegetable dyes that were used. Not a pleasant smelling process but since your very life would depend on the good wool fabric, one did what was needed! We used water on the wool fabric that Nancy, a Whatcom weaver had woven for the waulking. The lengthwise ends of the fabric were sewn together to form a long tube and we gathered around the table with the fabric in a circle as shown in the photo at the top left.
The Slighe members kindly gave us a demonstration of the pounding method and started us off singing Gaelic waulking songs. It is very challenging to capture the rhythym and movement in still photos. If you are interested go to and enter "waulking" into the search box and there will be several videos that pop up. I haven't had a chance to check them out yet but you will probably be able to see and hear what is depicted here.
The singing and pounding went on for five songs or so and the fabric was lifted, pounded down on the table, lifted and passed clockwise, boom, boom BOOM...boom, boom, BOOM. Now, bear in mind I was busy taking pictures so I might not be giving the rhythm quite right and I lost track of the number of songs.
I was even persuaded to put the camera down and join in. The energy is wonderful. Here you see Nancy, the weaver of the fabric, at the top center of the picture.
After each song a person uses their knuckles end to end to measure the progress. We started with a width of 31 knuckles and ended with 26. The fabric shrunk roughly 5 to 6 inches in the width!
When the fabric is finished it is ceremoniously patted and wound on a board to dry with a special ending song. The finished fabric looked absolutely beautiful. What a huge difference the waulking makes. We didn't waulk the fabric until it was weather-tight but it was nicely fulled.
It was a very interesting and fun meeting. It is always wonderful to connect to the traditions that have shaped our art. A big thanks to Nancy, the Whatcom Weavers Guild, and Slighe nan Gaidheal for a terrific cultural evening.
I know my explanation about waulking here was very sketchy. I wanted to get the pictures in and a bit of the feel of the evening. I may have to do another post with a bit of the historical and cultural background to fill it out. In the meantime, check out the links listed above! -Renee
An additional note, I need to figure out how to post several pictures and get the words to go around them properly. Sorry for the odd spacing.-R

1 comment:

Alice said...

What an interesting post! I have always wondered about waulking.