Fulling Mills, What Are They?

Fulling mills and fulling is part of the woollen cloth making process and involves cleaning and milling woven cloth to produce a material that is thicker and denser, and therefore warmer and often water repellent.

The practice is similar to that of felting, but with felting, the practice is done on loose fibres, whereas fulling is worked on woven cloth.

The milling part of the process uses a combination of friction and pressure to encourage the rough surfaces of the wool fibres to hook together.

This was originally achieved by pounding the fabric with a club or with the feet or hands, but the process was mechanised in the medieval period in the form of fulling mills, also known as tuck mills, walk mills, or in Wales, pandies.



The term ‘fulling’ comes from the Latin fullō meaning a person who fulls cloth, and there is plenty of evidence of the practice taking place in ancient Rome, though it can be traced even further back to Mesopotamia.

Sturminster Newton Mill
Sturminster Newton Mill. The present L-shaped building consists of the south and north wings. The south wing, which sits firmly on the river bank, was last rebuilt c.1650 on a centuries-old site. The north wing, which juts out into the river, was originally a completely separate fulling mill built in 1611.

In Ancient Rome, where garments were much simpler and could be worn straight off the loom, fulling was an optional part of production and was done to improve the quality and appearance of the fabric, or to clean previously worn items.

In the original process, the first step was to soak the fabric in aged urine and a clay material called fuller’s earth, which got its name from its use in this process.

This alkaline solution would dissolve grease and other impurities, cleaning the fabric.

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While the fabric soaked in this solution, the worker would trample the fabric underfoot, and this pressure and friction would aid the cleaning process and also encourage the fibres to bind more closely together.


The fabric would then be rinsed, before being dried thoroughly, after which it would be brushed with teasels to raise the nap and then sheared and polished to improve the feel and appearance of the fabric.

Until recently, there was an opinion amongst scholars that fullers were likely to be looked down upon, perhaps because of the use of urine in their profession, or because they were often the butt of jokes in comedies of the time.

Alresford fulling mill
Alresford – Fulling Mill. This fulling mill dates from the 13th century. A fulling mill was used to pound wet woolen cloth after it was woven thus making it shrink and tighten. Image Credit: Chris Talbot CC BY-SA 2.0

However, the fuller was trusted with his customers’ personal possessions and doing the job well required considerable skills, including knowing exactly how to treat different types of fabric, such as how much cleansing agent to use, how long to soak the fabric, and how much pressure to use.

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Recent research has therefore posited that this was in fact a well-respected profession, as evidenced by epitaphs highlighting the value of their work. For larger businesses, this respect was of course only accorded to the lead fuller and not to the workers or slaves.


Although it was no doubt the Romans who introduced the practice in England, by the medieval period fulling was part of a cohesive production chain, and since then the process of making cloth from wool has changed very little until relatively recently.

The fibres from woollen fleeces would first be sorted by quality, then the fibres would be carded and slubbed (wound onto bobbins), before then being sent to spinsters to spin the wool into yarns.

The yarn would then go to a webster to be woven into cloth, then to a fuller.

By the mid-18th century, the phrase on tenterhooks came to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, i.e., figuratively stretched like the cloth on the tenter. Cloth being stretched on a wooden tenter with the tenterhooks visible. An undyed cloth suspended on a wooden frame by small hooks.


As fulling shrinks the fabric, it would then be stretched across enormous frames, known as tenters, to dry outdoors.

The hooks that attach the fabric to the frame are known as tenterhooks which is where we get the phrase ‘to be on tenterhooks’, meaning to be in a state of suspense.

The tenter frames, also known as racks, were set up in tenter grounds or tenter fields, and many street names bear evidence of this to this day, such as Rack Lane in Exeter and Tenter Street in Sheffield.

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The next step was to brush the fabric with teasels to raise the nap, which would then be sheared to improve the feel and appearance.

The fabric would then be ready for dyeing, and from there would go to tailors to be cut and turned into clothing.

Tenterhooks on what may be the world's last remaining 18th-century tenter frames at Otterburn Mill, Northumberland.
Tenterhooks on what may be the world’s last remaining 18th-century tenter frames at Otterburn Mill, Northumberland.

The Fulling Process

The purpose of fulling the fabric was to make it more practical for use in clothing and to prepare the fabric for the next stages in the process.

After weaving on a loom, the fabric would have an open weave, often making it impractical and uncomfortable to use for clothing.

In addition, grease was often used by the weavers to facilitate weaving on the loom, and this often left oily residues, which if left would inhibit the adhesion of dyes to the fibres of the fabric.

Fulling mill machinery
Fulling mill machinery – hammers heads that would pound the wool.

The first stage of fulling is known as scouring or cleaning. This would remove dirt and impurities found naturally in the wool, as well as removing any residue left from the weaving process.

The fabric would be submerged in a mixture of water and a cleansing agent, such as stale urine, fuller’s earth or plant extracts, or soapwort would be added.

The cloth would then be pounded, which could be done by hand or using a club or mallet, but was mostly done by trampling underfoot, hence the alternative term for the process, ‘walking’ or in Scotland ‘waulking’.

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This was a labour-intensive process and involved the fuller walking in tubs of liquid, often urine, for several hours.

Tt is perhaps unsurprising that mechanisation came early on, well in advance of the Industrial Revolution.

fulling mill stocks
Fulling stocks (19th century) as Otterburn Mill Northumberland

Role of Cistercian Monks and the Knights Templar

Evidence suggests that Cistercian monks were at least partly responsible for the introduction and proliferation of fulling mills across Britain.

The Cistercian order was established in France in 1098 by a group of monks who wished to observe Benedictine Rule more strictly.

Cistercian monks first arrived in England in 1128, establishing their first monastery at Waverley in Surrey.

All monasteries were established the same way, with 13 monks sent out from the mother church to establish an abbey.

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They aimed to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle, dedicated to manual labour, including agricultural work.

The abbey would always be located near a river to provide not just water for cooking, washing and bathing, but also to power fulling and corn mills.

Around the same time, the Knights Templar were establishing preceptories – monasteries with working farms – across the north of England.

Alresford fulling mill
Alresford – Fulling Mill This fulling mill dates from the 13th century, a fulling mill was used to pound wet woolen cloth after it was woven and thus making it shrink and tighten. Image Credit: Chris Talbot CC BY-SA 2.0


Established in 1119, the Knights Templar were one of the most skilled fighting units in the Crusades.

Although the primary role of the order was military in nature, the majority of members took responsibility for supporting the knights and managing their finances, thus an early form of banking.

A nobleman who wanted to fight in the Crusades could leave his valuables with a templar preceptory until he returned.

Equally, a pilgrim could leave their valuables at a preceptory, obtain a credit note and present this on arrival in the Holy Land to obtain funds of equal value.

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The earliest recorded fulling mills in England seem to have been at Temple Newsham in West Yorkshire and Temple Guiting in Gloucestershire in 1185, both established at temple preceptories by the Knights Templar.

Over the next century, both the Cistercian monks and the Knights Templar travelled across Great Britain establishing monasteries and thus spreading the idea of fulling mills across the land.

Introduction of Fulling Mills

By the 14th century, fulling mills were common across the country.

The fulling mill worked in a similar way to the manual process, with the fabric passing through a trough of cleansing liquid.

Instead of being manually fulled, the fabric would be beaten by a series of shaped hammers known as ‘stocks’, which were attached to a camshaft and driven by the water wheel.

The head of the hammer was shaped in such a way, with a rounded end and notches, that the fabric slowly turned, resulting in even fulling across the fabric.

The fabric would be fulled in the trough for two hours, before being taken out and wrung out to remove the dirt and grease.

It would then be returned to the trough with fresh cleansing liquid and fulled for another two hours. It would then be taken out and attached to a tenter frame to dry, stretch and bleach in the sun.

Bourne Mill, Colchester, Essex
The architecturally dramatic Bourne Mill, Colchester, Essex

Fulling mills were more common in areas where sheep farming occurred, for obvious reasons, and were often sited where the river had a strong current, so often appeared on higher ground away from established towns.

Their Fate

Some accounts further note that fulling mills were noisy, with the sounds of the force of the water and the hammering of the stocks, and cite this as a further reason for their appearance out of town.

Interestingly, some fullers initially resisted the mechanisation of their trade.

Not only did they place value in the old traditional techniques, but there was also the inevitable argument that, as the mill could do the work of several men, it was doing skilled craftsmen out of a job.

Derelict fulling mill, Cerne Abbas, Dorset
Derelict fulling mill, Cerne Abbas, Dorset

There is evidence in London, Bristol and Leicester of ordinances being passed that prohibited the cloth being taken out of the city to be fulled at a fulling mill.

However, it seems that by the middle of the 13th century, fulling in the traditional way was almost obsolete in England, though there is evidence that it continued in Scotland until well into the 18th century.

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During the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), there were many changes to the woollen cloth-making industry. In the late 18th century, the processes of carding, slubbing and fulling were often consolidated into one building, using simple machines powered by steam.

This was the beginning of a move towards consolidating all parts of the cloth making process into one enormous building.

Effectively a cloth making factory, and water alone could not provide the power needed for manufacture on this industrial scale.

This along with the invention of the rotary milling machine in 1834 led to the decline of fulling mills, which became obsolete at the beginning of the 20th century.