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The Fullers’ Soap

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.”

Malachi 3:1-4

I’m told I’m wrong about this. But no matter. I’m going to make my case anyway. Even if it is wrong because I can’t stop thinking about it.

I made a phone satchel this week for my new iPhone. I have trouble keeping the phone on me, so as usual I’d solve that problem with one of my two favorite coping methods: knitting.

Knitting as a process itself is pure bliss. But to be practical about it, my favorite construction method is really felting or, rather, fulling. Felting is what you do when you make a whole piece of cloth. Fulling is what you do when you make the garment and then shrink it to size. You knit something in wool about double in every dimension and through alternate hot and cold baths, friction, and soapy water the whole thing shrinks to a completely different looking item.

Felt is one of the oldest known ways to make cloth. They discovered it by some poor schlep sticking raw wool fibers into his shoes to keep his feet warm. By the end of the day, the heat, sweat, and friction had created something more sturdy and resilient than before.

Like with these Stetson hats.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whsCa9R9a4o[/youtube]

I knit the thing with just a hunch about its future purpose. More instinctive art than exact science, I imagine the approximate proportions and the general design. And just run with it, changing as I go and incorporating mistakes as . . . well, challenges.

I wish I had taken a picture of the purse, post-knitting but pre-fulling. It was pretty ugly. It looked homemade. You could see each stitch and every tucked-in yarn tail. Every flaw was as plain as day. Yet you could see a vision of its final purpose too.

Then into the wash it goes. About 6 times. Friction, soapy water, and heat turns a floppy, gargantuan purse into a tidy little wallet. The stitches disappear. The curling that inevitably happens with a knitted garment is no longer a problem. It’s resilient now — strong and durable. And, in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s much prettier.

You need the soap. The oily soap makes the wool’s fibers slippery enough to “stand up” and the friction makes them connect. When cool and dry, the fibers lock and form the felt.

The NIV translates Malachi’s words as “launderer’s soap.” But the KJV and ESV choose “fullers’ soap.” The latter image is very different than the former. From my vantage point, that Soap is not just cleaning, but strengthening. It’s not only purifying, but also perfecting. The Knitter of our bones and sinews has a end purpose in mind for His creation. We start out floppy and misshapen — a kind of Burkean burlesque. But life’s friction and heat under the Fuller’s watchful eye and, of course, with His Soap make something entirely new.

It’s redemptive.

5 thoughts on “The Fullers’ Soap

  1. I think the way you see this passage is valid. I had always been taught that it was simply about cleansing and purifying. Of course, I had no idea about what the fulling process was. My teachers probably didn’t either. We are cleansed by the refining fire and fuller’s soap, but we are also made new. When metal is refined in the fire, it is made stronger, as the impurities are removed.

    We are being redeemed and remade. The final product will be so much more beautiful than the beginning. This fits with the concept that we are continually being “saved,” that it’s not just a one time event.

    1. Fred ..you are correct about being cleansed and made new, but we are saved once…Christ died once for all the process of santification is what we are in where are being conformed to the image of Christ on a daily bases.

  2. Interesting. I wonder if there isn’t an additional parallel in that you felt (untreated) wool, and Bible frequently compares us to sheep (“all we like sheep”). Of course, I may be totally off there, but it’s an interesting thought all the same.

    On a side note, nerd that I am, as soon as I saw the picture of your satchel I immediately wondered if it had been felted, and what type and weight of wool and needle size you had used. ANY time I see any knitted item, even mass-produced stuff in stores, I immediately start analyzing it, down to deconstructing the stitch pattern in my head. You have no idea how excited I got when I scrolled down to see you describing the felting process!

  3. I don’t know if you are still using this site since it is 2 years old now. I like your analogy. Very much. Is it possible I could purchase a before and after sample of something being felted for a Bible study?

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