Fulling or tucking or walking ("waulking" in Scotland) is a step in woollen clothmaking which involves the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker. The worker who does the job is a fuller, tucker, or walker. The Welsh word for a fulling mill is pandy. This is used in several place-names.
Fulling involves two processes—scouring and milling (thickening). These are followed by stretching the cloth on great frames known as tenters and held onto those frames by tenterhooks. It is from this process that we derive the phrase being on tenterhooks as meaning to be held in suspense. The area where the tenters were erected was known as a tenterground.
Originally, this was literally pounding the cloth with the fuller's feet (hence the description of them as 'walkers'), or hands, or a club. From the medieval period, however, it often was carried out in a water mill.
In Roman times fulling was conducted by slaves standing ankle deep in tubs of human urine and cloth. Urine was so important to the fulling business that urine was taxed. Urine, known as 'wash', was a source of ammonium salts and assisted in cleansing and whitening the cloth.
By the medieval period fuller's earth had been introduced for use in the process. This is a soft clay-like material occurring in nature as an impure hydrous aluminium silicate. This seems to have been used in conjunction with 'wash'. More recently, soap has been used.
The second function of fulling was to thicken cloth by matting the fibers together to give it strength and increase waterproofing (felting). This was vital in the case of woollens, made from short staple wool, but not for worsted materials made from long staple wool. After this stage, water was used to rinse out the foul smelling liquor used during cleansing.
From the medieval period, the fulling of cloth often was undertaken in a water mill, known as a fulling mill, a walk mill, or a tuck mill. In Wales, a fulling mill is called a pandy. In these, the cloth was beaten with wooden hammers, known as fulling stocks. Fulling stocks were of two kinds, falling stocks (operating vertically) that were used only for scouring, and driving or hanging stocks. In both cases the machinery was operated by cams on the shaft of a waterwheel or on a tappet wheel, which lifted the hammer.
Driving stocks were pivotted so that the 'foot' (the head of the hammer) struck the cloth almost horizontally. The stock had a tub holding the liquor and cloth. This was somewhat rounded on the side away from the hammer, so that the cloth gradually turned, ensuring that all parts of it were milled evenly. However, the cloth was taken out about every two hours to undo plaits and wrinkles. The 'foot' was approximately triangular in shape, with notches to assist the turning of the cloth.
The first references to fulling mills are reported in Persia from the tenth century. By the time of the Crusades in the late eleventh century, fulling mills were active throughout the medieval Islamic world, from Islamic Spain and North Africa in the west to Central Asia in the east. They appear to have originated in 9th or 10th century in the Islamic world, either in the Middle East or North Africa. Mechanical fulling was subsequently disseminated into Western Europe through Islamic Spain and Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The earliest known reference to a fulling mill in France, which dates from about 1086, was discovered in Normandy. The earliest reference in England occurs in the Winton Domesday of 1117-19. Other early references belonged to the Knights Templar by 1185.
What caused Don Quixote and Sancho to pass a hilarious night of fear together? "Six huge Fulling-Mill Hammers which interchangeably thumping several Pieces of Cloth, made the terrible Noise that caus'd all Don Quixote's Anxieties and Sancho's Tribulation that Night." — from Don Quixote by Cervantes.
Popularly, ‘fulling’ is called ‘felting’ or ‘boiled wool’ by those practising fabric production crafts today (as distinguished from non-woven felt). One can create fulled (felted) fabric at home by beating a sweater in an ordinary washing machine set on hot, with the load size as small, using heavy agitation and soap. The heat, water, and agitation cause the scales of the hair fibres to open up and lock together. The shrunken result is dense, durable, and irreversible.
Woollen fabrics (unless treated), some blends including wool, or almost any animal hair will felt; but synthetics, acrylics, or materials made of plant fibre such as cotton will not. For example, the "mats" that form in cat fur and human hair "dreadlocks" are formed by a similar process of locking the microscopic scales of the hair together.
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- Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 30, 2005.
- E. K. Scott, 'Early Cloth Fulling and its Machinery' Trans. Newcomen Soc. 12 (1931), 30-52.
- E. M. Carus-Wilson, 'An Industrial Revolution of the Thirteenth Century' Economic History Review, Old Series, 11(1) (1941), 39-60.
- Reginald Lennard, 'Early English Fulling Mills: Additional Examples' Economic History Review, New Series, 3(3) (1951), 342-343.
- R. A. Pelham, Fulling Mills (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, mills booklet 5, c.1958)
- A. J. Parkinson, 'Fulling mills in Merinoneth' J. Merioneth Gist. & Rec. Soc. 9(4) (1984), 420-56. so that the
- D. Druchunas 'Felting, Vogue Knitting, The Basics', Sixth & Spring Books, NY. (2005) 10.
- Jones, Gareth Daniel Rhydderch of Aberloch, reproduced from The Western Mail July 17, 1933 accessed at  June 19, 2006
- Adam Robert Lucas (2005), "Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: A Survey of the Evidence for an Industrial Revolution in Medieval Europe", Technology and Culture 46 (1): 1-30 [10-1 & 27]
- Lucas, Adam (2006), Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, Brill Publishers, p. 278, ISBN 9004146490
- J. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine (2nd edn, Pimlico, London 1992 repr.), 14.