Whitening Fabric before the Advent of Bleach: Meet The Fullers

Engraving of Scotswomen singing a waulking song while waulking (fulling) cloth, c. 1770.

Engraving of Scotswomen singing a waulking song while waulking (fulling) cloth, c. 1770.

A couple of posts ago I commented on how my petticoat, made of unbleached muslin, showed through white fabric with a yellowish cast. Which lead Alison, a reader, to ask a very good question: “How did they bleach down to white in the regency anyway?”

My first response was that I didn’t know, but I’d research it and find out. As it turns out, I did know part of the story – I’d just forgotten. But I didn’t know about the key development that made getting such white whites possible in the Regency years.

So, Alison, this one is for you – more than you ever wanted to know about whitening fabric in times past.

Warning – the process of fulling has a ginormous “yuck” factor, so if you are in the least bit squeamish about bodily fluids this is the place to stop, or skip down to “Charles Tennant”, below.

A Brief History

Certain fabrics, mostly cotton and wool, were prepared for use by means of a process called “fulling.”

There are several Biblical references to fulling (2 Kings 18:17; Isaiah 7:3 and 36:2; Malachi 3:2; Mark 9:3). The first references to fulling mills are reported in Persia from the 10th century. They appear to have originated in 9th or 10th century in the Islamic world, either in the Middle East or North Africa.

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 (an English administrative document) of 1117–19. These mills became widespread during the 13th century and occur in most counties of England and Wales, and also throughout Scotland.

Fulling and The Fuller

Fulling or tucking or walking (“waulking” in Scotland) is a step in clothmaking which involves the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool, but also cotton) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker. The worker who did the job was a fuller, tucker, or walker. In Scotland they were known as “waulkers.”

Depending on the part of England where they lived, three surnames developed for people who completed this part of the operation: Walker in the north and midlands, Fuller in the south-east and Tucker in the south-west.

If your last name is Fuller, Tucker or Walker somewhere in your past is an ancestor who did this work to keep him/herself and the family – along with the family name – alive. (Read on and be thankful you missed it.)

Stained Glass Window in Notre Dame. Cloth-making guild. Gothic Anonymous, 14 c, France. Samur-aux-Auxois, © Kathleen Cohen

Stained Glass Window in Notre Dame. Cloth-making guild. Gothic Anonymous, 14 c, France. Samur-aux-Auxois, © Kathleen Cohen

There are two steps to fulling: scouring and milling (thickening).

Scouring came first

In Roman times, fulling was conducted by slaves standing ankle deep in tubs of stale human urine (i.e., urine that was collected and left to sit a while) 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. (Gives a whole new meaning to washing clothes, doesn’t it?)

The poor chap standing in a tub of stale urine is the fuller.

The poor chap standing in a tub of stale urine is the fuller. (Notice the stream nearby.)

By the medieval period, ‘fuller’s earth’ had been introduced for use in the process. This is a soft clay-like material occurring naturally as an impure hydrous aluminum silicate, just in case you’re interested. It was used in conjunction with wash.

Thickening is the second step

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 (i.e., carded) wool, but not for worsted materials made from long-staple wool.

To thicken the cloth, a fuller had to stamp on the wool, while knee-deep in stale urine, for between seven to eight hours. (Just imaging having to live with that smell 24/7.)

The Romans might have used slaves; but in the Middle Ages it was a skilled profession done by freemen. If a fuller did not stamp on the wool properly, it would easily gain holes and be ruined.

Felting of wool occurs from mechanical agitation, such as stamping or clubbing, because the microscopic barbs on the surface of wool fibers hook together, somewhat like Velcro.

The cloth was then exposed to sunlight for many months, laid out in places known as ‘bleaching fields.’ A bleachfield was an open area of land (usually a field) used for spreading cloth and fabrics on the ground to be bleached by the action of the sun and water. After this stage, the cloth was rinsed with water and hung to dry on tenterhooks to prevent warping or sagging.


A Stinky Business

Needless to say, fulling was a smelly, dirty business. In 1512, the Council of Aberdeen, Scotland, decreed that waulkers (fullers) whose job it was to cleanse and thicken the cloth should not hang it to dry over the walls of St Nicholas Church or within the kirkyard (churchyard). Fullers, like dyers and tanners, seem to have worked near the Loch (lake), using the water and polluting it in the process.

Would you like to see a live demonstration of the process? This was my introduction to fulling. It’s from the British TV series “Worst Jobs of the Middle Ages”, which I used to watch. Even the host, Tony Robinson, has a hard time of it without retching. But it really drives home how absolutely disgusting the work was. Don’t watch it if you’ve just eaten. Deep breath, here we go.

So, who saved us from this wretched, horrible task, let alone the tax on urine?

A Heartfelt Thank You to Charles Tennant

Charles Tennant (3 May 1768 – 1 October 1838) was a Scottish chemist and industrialist. He discovered/invented bleaching powder and founded an industrial dynasty.

He was quick to learn his trade (weaving) but also to see that the growth of the industry far surpassed the development of bleaching methods, which were very primitive. An important aspect of the industry was bleaching cloth, which was done in bleachfields. While batches of cloth lay out in the bleaching fields, huge quantities of unbleached cotton piled up in the warehouses.

Photograph of a painting of Darnley Bleach Fields and Upper Darnley circa 1800 artist unknown

Photograph of a painting of Darnley Bleach Fields and Upper Darnley circa 1800 artist unknown

Charles left his well paid weaving position to try to develop improved bleaching methods. This led him to start his own bleaching fields in 1788, at Darnley (near Barrhead, Renfrewshire).

Once he acquired his bleachfield, Charles turned his mind and energy to developing ways to shorten the time required in bleaching. Others had already done much work on this problem and managed to reduce bleaching time from eighteen months to four by replacing sour milk with sulphuric acid in the bleaching process. (Needless to say, not so good for the land.)

Further, in the last half of the eighteenth century, bleachers started to use lime in the bleaching process, but only in secret due to possible injurious effects from the lime. (I tried to find out what these injurious effects were, but no luck.)

Charles had the original idea that a combination of chlorine and lime would produce the best bleaching results. He worked on this idea for several years and was finally successful. His method proved to be effective, inexpensive and harmless. He was granted patent #2209 on 23 January 1798. He continued his research and developed a bleaching powder for which he was granted patent #2312 on 30 April 1799.

Immediately after granting of the patent on bleaching, Charles and his partners purchased land just north of Glasgow, to build a factory for the production of bleaching liquor and powder. It was close to a good supply of lime, and since the area was rural, the land was cheap. Additionally, the nearby canal provided excellent transportation. Production was swiftly moved from the bleachfields in Darnley, to the new plant.

From the first it was a roaring success. Production increased from 52 tons the first year, 1799, to over 9,200 tons the fifth year. Later a second plant was built, raising production of bleaching powder alone to 20,000 tons by 1865.

Whew! Any questions?

Note: information for this essay was collected and cobbled together from a number of sources, including the City of Aberdeen website, wikipedia, YouTube, the BBC, learninghistory.com, http://www.jerankin.com (The Worst Jobs in History) and http://www.princeton.edu. Not all of the writing above is my original work.


10 thoughts on “Whitening Fabric before the Advent of Bleach: Meet The Fullers

  1. Fascinating reading! Regarding the possible harmful effects of lime, it could be that some types of lime (quick-lime) reacts with water to form alcaline products and heat. Not very pleasant to get on your skin in other words..

  2. Ha! I have a friend with the last name Walker. I can’t wait to tell him about possible past of his ancestors! Thanks for the interesting and well written article on this! 🙂

    • My pleasure! I love doing research – almost as much fun as sewing. In the interest of full disclosure, the information was cobbled together from a number of sources and not all of the writing is mine. I condensed, re-organized, re-wrote the confusing parts and generally turned it into a story that addressed the question at hand. But thanks for the compliment.

    • I haven’t been able to find a source of information about how much it cost, but I know it was relatively steep. I keep reading that the reasons domestic staff didn’t wear white was because 1) it would have been a challenge to their place in society and 2) white would have been too hard to keep clean in the course of their duties. I rarely read the mention that white cloth was expensive and beyond their meager earnings.

    • Here it is, from Smithsonian.com:

      “Urine gives you a whiter smile: Urine was a key ingredient in many early medicines and folk remedies of dubious effectiveness. But one use–and those who’ve tried it say it works–is as a type of mouthwash. While “urine-soaked grin” isn’t the insult of choice these days, a verse by Roman poet Catullus reads:

      Egnatius, because he has snow-white teeth, smiles all the time. If you’re a defendant in court, when the counsel draws tears, he smiles: if you’re in grief at the pyre of pious sons, the lone lorn mother weeping, he smiles. Whatever it is, wherever it is, whatever he’s doing, he smiles: he’s got a disease, neither polite, I would say, nor charming. So a reminder to you, from me, good Egnatius. If you were a Sabine or Tiburtine or a fat Umbrian, or plump Etruscan, or dark toothy Lanuvian, or from north of the Po, and I’ll mention my own Veronese too, or whoever else clean their teeth religiously, I’d still not want you to smile all the time: there’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish: in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re the more full of piss.

      The poem not only reveals that Catullus wasn’t a fan of Egnatius, but that Romans used urine to clean and whiten their teeth, transforming morning breath into a different smell entirely. The active ingredient? You guessed it: ammonia, which lifted stains away.”

      If you’d like to read the complete article, here’s the link:

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