Waulking with Norman Kennedy – A Glimpse into the Past

Recently, my husband and I were introduced to the series “Outlander“. According to Starz, the series “…follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world where her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate relationship is ignited that tears Claire’s heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.” The show caught our interest and  we watched the entire first season within a couple of weeks. Now we are anxiously awaiting the second season to come out on Netflix.

This introduction was fortuitous because on one of the episodes Claire gets introduced to the practice of waulkinga process applied to wool tweed that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to Thistle and Broom.

They explain:

Waulking of cloth was done by pounding the material against a board or trampling it with feet, more often the former than the latter. Six to fourteen women, one on each end and equal numbers down the sides, would sit around the waulking board, or, as often, a door was taken off its hinges was set up. The cloth would be pulled towards you and beat on the board then passed slightly to your left before pushing it back, moving it in a four-time clockwise direction. Cloth that was initially eight (middle) finger lengths wide would be three inches narrower when the process was complete in addition to being softer, thicker, and more tightly woven.

You can see the scene from “Outlander” here:

Anyway, the scene was timely for us because in a few weeks we were going to the Taos Wool Festival where much to our surprise, Norman Kennedy was giving a demonstration on waulking. His presentation was complete with the songs that he heard and sang that accompanied the process. When Mike saw that this was taking place he signed us up right away.

Norman Kennedy
Norman Kennedy

The event took place at the Harwood Museum on Friday evening in their amphitheater. A table was set up on stage with seats enough for Kennedy, the weaver and nine participants from the audience. Participants were chosen by tickets and with each round of waulking, the event coordinators drew nine new names. I just happened to be the last person chosen so I got to participate as well.

Lisa waulking
Lisa waulking

Once the wool was woven it had to be felted into a tight cloth. This was especially important for the sailors because back in the days before 1950 (when machines took over a lot of the waulking process, according to Thistle & Broom) there were no rain slickers. Wool  can hold about 30 percent of its weight in water before the wearer starts to feel damp, so getting a tight cloth for sailors was truly important.

The fun thing about waulking was that the group sang cultural songs to keep time during the process. Waulking is hard work. Wet woolen cloth, which is heavy, was arranged into a long, roughly rectangular shape. Participants felted it by pounding it on the table and handing it to one another. Your arms are working overtime and on that night it took four times to get the fabric felted to the right point. Can you imagine doing this all day? The singing and the group work made waulking a great social event. Kennedy told us that people would do the waulking, have a dance afterward and go home the next morning to do the milking. One woman even said that she would rather go to a waulking than a wedding anytime.

Here is a video that Mike took on that evening. I don’t remember what language Mr. Kennedy sang the song in but other songs were in Gaelic, English, Scotch Gaelic and French.

You can see the video here:

After the waulking was completed, Mr. Kennedy sang a few songs. The ones that I wrote down were “How Pleasant and Delightful”, an English song and Young Donald, a Scotch Gaelic tune.

It was a delightful evening and a great start to the wool festival. Just participating in bit of fiber history helped deepen what little understanding I have of it at this point. As I mentioned earlier in the post, most of the task of waulking was taken over by machine around 1950 so it is good that Mr. Kennedy and shows like “Outlander” are giving us a glimpse into the past.

This is not an affiliate link, but if you are interested in more information, Interweave Press has a DVD and a download called “From Wool to Waulking: Spinning Wool and Creating Cloth with Norman Kennedy.”

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