Until the advent of machine finishing in the middle of the 20th century, the process of shrinking woven wool cloth (tweed) to give it more thickness, cleaning it, folding it, and giving tension to it, was done at each weaver’s house. It was a day-long celebration of song and honoring of the weaver. As long ago as the 13th century, the women of the Highlands and Western Isles would gather for the waulking of the wool after the cloth had been woven and taken off the loom.
Lengths of tweed that were 70 yards long were sewn together at the ends to form a loop of cloth. Sitting around the waulking board, the women would pull the fabric in front of them from the right and pound it against the board before passing that section on to the woman to the left, thereby keeping the cloth moving clockwise. Pots of asmaistir, household ammonia—stale urine that had been collected for just this purpose– were poured on the cloth to set the colors of the dyes and to clean away the oils used in the dressing of the wool. By the time the women were finished, the cloth would be a bit narrower than when it came off the loom and it would be softer and more water resistant. They kept their rhythm by singing songs, never repeating any of them in any given session, for that may bring bad luck. Oftentimes, milk was offered to the fairy-woman, the Ioireag, who was believed to be present at a waulking. In Scots Gaelic (Ghàidhlig), the process of waulking is called luadh (“loo-ugh“), and the songs were orain luaidh (“or-ine loo-ie”).
When the tweed was to its desired width, the women would begin to fold it, still keeping their rhythm. Upon completion of the waulking, there was a ceremony to consecrate the cloth. The oldest woman present led the next two oldest women in the ceremony. She took the folded cloth and turned it half a turn clockwise saying, “Cuirim ca deiseal” “I give a turn sunwise.” She would release the cloth for a moment and the give it another half turn, “am freasdal an Athar” “dependant on the father.” The next two women followed the same process, but said “in the name of the son”, and “in the name of spirit”. The fact that milk was offered to the Ioireag during the walking shows the melding of the ancient ways with the modern ones.
I have been writing Weaving the Magic Thread since February, 2014. For the most part, it has been the telling of the ways in which I wove the various strands of my learning, my love, my motherhood, and my spirit, to form the pattern that is my life. That 65-year long pattern has been set, and I have been slowly cutting threads to remove it from the loom for the past couple of years. From now on, I will write about the process of my waulking: the cleaning, the setting, the folding and the ceremony.