The Last Sardinian Orbàce Fulling Mill 0 Comments

The Last Sardinian Orbàce Fulling Mill

In our Sardinian stories we have encountered the orbàce, a typical fabric of Sardinia (but also used in Sicily), a fabric that is obtained through a characteristic process that dates back to antiquity, already used by ancient Rome, in specific workshops, the fullonicae, for the clothing of roman soldiers. To make a material thicker and denser, compact and waterproof, the fabric was immersed in water by tapping it with the feet (saltus fullonicus), adding smectic clay. The impurities were then eliminated by washing them with aged urine, and then the dried  fabric was  brushed with thistles or porcupine skins to raise the hair. 

This process is called Fulling, consisting of compacting the woven wool fabrics through shrinkage and felting. The small spaces between the weft and the warp close, because the microscopic cortical scales, covering the hairs surface, interpenetrate. In Sardinia, to eliminate impurities, it seems they did not use urine but the cloth was soaked in hot soapy water and therefore great pressure was exerted with bare feet to ensure that the fibres were incorporated, and then rinsed with plenty of running water.

Fulling was a very demanding job, but already in the Middle Ages fulling mills were introduced, which in Sardinian is called "sa cracchera", where the fabric would be beaten by a series of shaped hammers driven by the water wheel instead of being hit by the feet.  The origin of the word "orbàce" could be "albagio", a name used for rough cloth, or it derives from the Arabic al-bazz, cloth, canvas. 

In Sardinia there is the last working fulling mill in Europe, with which the orbàce was processed, the fulling mill of Tiana, 163 km from Gabbiano Azzurro Hotel & Suites, 2 hours and 20 min. by car, in a small Barbagian village. It has been restored and put back into operation, to become an animated museum where you can watch the processing of orbàce, in an ancient Sardinian textile history immersion.

The Tiana fulling mill, which utilised the Rio Tino’s running water, was a primary part of a production chain involving the Sardinian community. All year round, women brought woven wool fabrics to Tiana from various regions of the island to be transformed into orbàce.

In Sardinia, entire villages produced orbàce (for example Arbus and Gonnosfanadiga in Southern Sardinia’s province) which was the fabric, black or grey because it was dyed, most used for traditional men's clothing. The cloaks were in orbàce, large, foot-long coats split in the back for riding; the common gabbanella, a small coat for summer and winter, as it protected from both heat and cold; is ragas, a kind of kilt; the borzachinos, shoes tied to the calf; the headdress (sa berritta) in a sack shape.

Important for the shepherds was the saccu de coberri (covering bag), two pieces of black orbàce cloth, applied one over the other, joined on one side, used to protect themselves from the rain and the cold, in which the shepherds enveloped themselves during winter nights. It was a coat, a bed blanket, a mat, a carpet, in winter and in summer, always and everywhere.

"Little Ananias almost always followed his friend and brother Zuanne with the big ears: both constantly barefoot, with gaiters and woollen jacket, long and dirty thick canvas trousers, and sheepskin cap". (Grazia Deledda - Ashes)


Written by Daniela Toti

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