The job of a fuller was to clean wool in preparation for it to be made into cloth. This ancient occupation involved pounding the wool with sticks or walking on it to cleanse it and to whiten the fibres. It was so unpleasant a job – it involved wading in tubs ankle-deep in urine which because of its high ammonia content was found to be a powerful cleansing agent – that in Roman times it was an occupation reserved solely for slaves. Urine was very important to the process and consequently was taxed – perhaps this is the origin of the phrase to spend a penny.
The lot of a fuller improved in mediaeval times when urine was replaced by a soft clay-like material containing ammonium silicate, known as fuller’s earth, but because of the high ammonium content must still have been a smelly and unpleasant process. Once the fulling process had been completed – it thickened the cloth by felting or tangling up the fibres and made the material waterproof – the foul-smelling washing liquid was removed before the next process began.
This involved stretching the material on great frames known as tenters to which it was attached by hooks called tenterhooks. The phrase being on tenterhooks, that is being in suspense, came from this process and the area where the tenters were erected was known as the tenterground.
From the 11th century onwards the fulling process became more mechanised and was carried out in water mills known as a fulling mill or a walk mill or a tuck mill. Wooden hammers known as fulling stocks or fulling hammers were used to strike the cloth and the hammers were raised and lowered by the cams on the shaft of a water wheel. They struck the material which was placed in a tub with the cleansing agent horizontally and the mechanism turned the cloth so it was struck evenly. However, every two hours or so the cloth was taken out to undo any plaits or wrinkles.
The earliest reference to a fulling mill dates to around 1186 in Normandy.In England one is first recorded in the Wilton Domesday of 1117-1119. They were widespread in 13th century England and Wales which had a flourishing wool trade at the time and place names in Wales with Pandy in them bear testament to the trade.
An unpleasant and smelly job to be sure but one was vital for the burgeoning wool trade in mediaeval Britain.