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Waulking the Barga Tweed

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Jimmy Hutchison and Erika Cragg have been busy weaving a length of tweed for the Waulking of The Tweed, which will happen in Piazza del Comune, as the climax to the student concert for the Barga School of Scots Music, Song and Dance on the afternoon of Friday 6th September. 

In the quest to weave The Barga Tweed, we have picked colours which represent Tuscany and, Barga in particular, and Jimmy and Erika have woven two beautiful samplers with a variety of different designs using the chosen colours.

The final design for The Barga Tweed will be chosen from one of these samplers, and woven during the forthcoming year for presentation to The Mayor and The Town of Barga at next year’s school.

The exciting news is that these two unique samplers are going to be auctioned in Barga during the school. The tweeds will be on display during the week of the school and the results of the auction will be announced during the final concert.

The auction is being conducted as a fundraiser to help pay for all the wool which has had to be purchased and for all of Jimmy and Erika’s time in weaving the cloth.

What’s waulking?
Not a spelling mistake! Waulking (in Gaelic luadh) is the technique of finishing the newly-woven tweed by soaking it and thumping it rhythmically to shrink and soften it – all done by hand in the old days. The songs served to keep the rhythm and lighten the work.

Waulking was the final stage in the long, laborious process of producing homespun cloth

When Harris Tweed comes off the loom it is stiff and rough, and the weave is quite loose. Waulking thickens and softens it.

Nowadays, of course, this is done by machinery, but formerly everything was done by hand – or even feet.

The cloth was soaked in what we call “household ammonia” (stale urine) This useful chemical, known in Gaelic as maistir, helped make the dyes fast, and to soften the cloth.

Waulking songs
Waulking was a widespread practice, but it seems that only in Scottish Gaelic culture was it accompanied by singing. Or, at least, it is only here that the songs have survived.

This was a very ancient tradition, and some of the songs are centuries old.

Being passed on orally, they have been transformed into many differing versions, which adds to the interest.

Many of the songs are loosely structured – in order to make a song last long enough for the work, lines might be imported from another song, or perhaps a few lines of improvisation could be thrown in.

One woman sings the verse of one or two lines. It seems effortless, but takes a lot of skill and practice to get the timing exactly right.

The rest join in the chorus, which in the oldest songs are composed of meaningless vocables. Later songs may have some words in the chorus as well.

The waulking would begin with a slow song, increasing in speed as the cloth dried, and the women got warmed up. In Uist and Barra, after being waulked the cloth was rolled up, and patted to smooth it out to the accompaniment of a clapping song (oran basaidh) which was a fast, cheerful song, sometimes an improvised “pairing off” song, when the names of those present would be linked with local young men.

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