Waulking the Tweed
Waulking is an essential part of the production the woollen fabric known as tweed. What it does is raise the nap (making the fabric slightly "fluffy"), set the dye and shrink the fabric (giving it it's characteristic feel and enhancing its waterproof qualities).
Waulking by hand is not now done commercially, but at one time it went on, in one form or another, all over Europe.
Tony Robinson included waulking (or 'fulling') as one of his Worst Jobs in History. His description is not quite what we would recognise as the Scottish waulking tradition, though!
In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, transport costs for sending newly woven tweed away for mechanical waulking were prohibitive, so waulking by hand (or, in some cases, by foot) continued right into the twentieth century. It became gradually rarer and rarer and now is only carried out for cultural and social reasons.
There is a large body of songs, known as Oran Luaidh in Gaelic, which women (and in occasional cases, men) sang while engaged in waulking.
They include extemporised, flirty songs, centuries old, historical songs, enigmatic songs, composite songs, emotive songs and practically x-rated songs, all featuring repetition, alternation between soloist and chorus and above all an indefatigable rhythm.
I teach and demonstrate waulking for courses, classes and workshops, often alongside my brother, Alpin Stewart. It's amazing what a group of completely uninitiated participants can achieve in an hour and a half! See below for some images of previous workshops and classes.
Don't worry, though - the stale urine used traditionally during waulking to set the dye (not as smelly as it sounds, fresh urine would have been so much worse!) is not something we use in the workshops. Water is a perfectly effective substitute on our well-waulked demonstration twee.
I worked with designer Charles Jeffrey when he launched his debut women's wear collection, reimagining waulking in a bold filmic context. Described in Vogue online as "a secret ceremony... Drenched in a sanguine, almost hallucinogenic light, six figures are seated around a wooden table. They begin to sway and moan in almost religious ecstasy as they pound and rotate an amorphous coil of damp cloth. The air in the confined space is heavy with the dank odour of sweat and smoke, and the members of this strange order rise and fall with a growing intensity. Their collective voice reaches an exhausted, giddy climax." Check it out here: