Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the course of my intellectual meanderings, I sometimes come upon some truly strange information.

Case in point: one of the texts I'm teaching makes a reference to "a fuller" washing cloth.

Since I've never claimed to know it all, I'll freely admit, I had to look up what fulling, in fact, was.

Fulling is the process of cleaning woolen cloth to get rid of oils or impurities and make it thicker.

The woolens are first scoured: in ancient Rome, this was done with... urine.

If you're thinking, "oh, gross! not my sweater!", you should know that the ancient Romans often used urine as a mouthwash.

They got it (the idea, I mean, not the urine) from the ancient Greeks.

While I realize that nothing I say will change the fact that it still sounds quite gross to all of us today (we prefer the lovely green chemicals mixed with alcohol and artificial mint flavoring provided by Johnson & Johnson), urine is sterile (unless you have an infection, of course) and it contains ammonia, which is a powerful cleanser.

Urine was actually used quite a bit throughout history, for medicinal purposes. And in ancient Rome, it was used so often and for so many purposes that it was taxed.

Better not tell Congress or the IRS.

Okay, enough of the pee-talk. With regards to the history of fulling, scouring is eventually done with a kind of clay. Today, they use soap.

At least, I hope so.

The woolens were then milled or thickened.
In Scotland and elsewhere, fulling was carried out by pounding the cloth with your hands or feet (called "waulking"). There is an entire tradition of Scottish "waulking songs" that were sung by women to set the pace and pass the time.

Usually, one woman sang the verse (my guess is, the one who could actually carry a tune) and the other women sang the chorus. The songs often start out slow and then the tempo picks up.

They're usually simple, beat-driven songs with lots of meaningless words or vocables (as in the use of "HEY, hey, hey, hey, hey, HEY" at the start of Train's "Soul Sister," for example).

They would NOT be singing "American Pie" or "Stairway to Heaven."

The cloth was then stretched on frames called "tenters." These tenters were then attached to hooks.

And this is where my day picked up: I discovered that this is the origin of the use of the phrase "on tenterhooks" as a way of describing a state of suspense.

This also explains why, when I have to clean the kitchen or sweep, I like to put on Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."