‘WAULKING’ THE TWEED
Waulking is a finishing process that is applied to woven wool tweed. In Gaelic language, the process of waulking is called luadh (“loo-ugh”) and the songs of waulking are known as orain luaidh (“or-ine loo-ie”). There were four parts to the waulking process. The first, similar to the fulling process, entails shrinking the fabric so it thickens to give a degree of wind and waterproofing. Then cleansing the cloth, folding the cloth, the process of giving it tension, after which came a rite of consecration. Waulking was a day long project and once begun it had to be finished in one session.
When cloth had been woven and removed from the loom, a session was planned. The waulking women assembled at the house of the owner of the cloth after breakfast. The tweed, up to 70 yards long, was sewn together at the ends to make a continuous loop and then it was soaked in human urine, fualor graith, which was saved in each house for this sole purpose. The ammonia served to deepen and intensify the dye colours but also to remove residual oils used to dress the wool.
Waulking of cloth was done by pounding the material against a board. Women would sit around the waulking board and the cloth would be pulled towards you and beaten on the board then passed slightly to your left before pushing it back, moving it in a four-time clockwise direction. Cloth would be inches narrower when the process was complete in addition to being softer, thicker, and more tightly woven.
Accompanying this work were waulking songs, òrain luiadh, a musical form unknown elsewhere in Western Europe. Waulking was measured by song – not time – it was never said, “it will take another half-hour” but rather “it will take another song”. The songs, which have common themes of love, war, hunting and sewing, are very rhythmic and were composed to keep the beat as the cloth was being waulked. The best singer, the ban dhuan, would sing out the verse and then everyone would join in the chorus. The verses and choruses (sometimes there are up to 4 choruses) are very short, sometimes only a few syllables.