17 April 2013

Teasels for carding - a myth?

As you may soon realise, if you haven't already, I'm terribly flighty when it comes to crafts and projects. I've put down my needle and thread for the time being and dusted off my spindle and spinning wheel for the first time in ages. With that, I got to thinking about fibre preparation in the medieval period, and so to that oft-repeated 'fact' that "teasels were used for carding wool".

I've heard that fact repeated several times on the re-enactment circuit and it always struck me as being a stupid idea. I've tried half-heartedly to card wool fibre with teasels and the general outcome is that the ends of the teasel head break off in the wool, resulting in wool fibres that are still tangled but are even more filled with vegetable matter than they were to start with. So, how does one card with teasels?

The clue is in the name, as one can see in the OED:
Teasel: 1. A plant of the genus Dipsacus, comprising herbs with prickly leaves and flower-heads; esp. fullers' teasel n. D. fullonum, the heads of which have hooked prickles between the flowers, and are used for teasing cloth (see 2); and wild teasel n. D. sylvestris, held by some to be the original type, but having straight instead of hooked prickles.
There we can see that there is a species of teasel named the fuller's teasel, fullers being the tradespeople who fulled (essentially felted) the cloth after weaving, but also maybe did other treatments e.g. raising the nap. This, I think, is our next clue. To go back to the OED:
1. a. An implement for raising a nap on cloth, consisting of teasel-heads set in a frame (obs.).
    b. An iron instrument with teeth, or (later) a wire brush, used for the same purpose.
2. a. An instrument with iron teeth, used in pairs to part, comb out, and set in order the fibres of wool, hemp, etc., one of the cards being held in the hand, and the other fastened to a 'stock' or support.
    b. In later use a sort of wire brush for the same purpose, consisting of a strip of leather, vulcanised rubber, or similar material, into which short steel wires are inserted. These strips are fixed on a flat surface or on the cylinder of a carding-machine, and the wool is passed between two sets of them working with each other.

I think the confusion comes between definition 1, which can be teasel-based but is used for raising the nap of woven cloth, and definition 2, which is not teasel-based and is used for ordering the fibres of wool before spinning. (Note that this entry of the OED was first published in 1888; we now call these implements 'carders' not 'cards', but at the time this entry was written the former term referred to the user of the implements not the implements themselves.)

So, can we see any medieval evidence of this distinction? Possibly - contrast these two images.

Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add. MS 42130), c. 1320-40, Lincolnshire, England.
Spinning with a 'Great wheel' and carding. Some theorise the red lines over the circle are rolags.
Note how the carders look very much like modern ones, except possibly they are flat not curved.
Mendel Hausbuch, f. 6v, c. 1425: Peter Berber, Carder.
This clearly shows two teasel-based cards being used to raise the nap on woven cloth.

Here is a later example showing similar tools to those used by Peter Berber.

Carding wool using teasel frames.
Coloured print. George Walker, c. 1814, England.

Note how the cards used in the latter two images are very similar to this:

"Teasel cross"
National Trust Inventory Number 117317.14
On display at Lavenham, Suffolk.
The teasel cross, also known as a teasel hand, was superseded by the teasel gig. This consisted of a large cylindrical drum which was coated in teasel heads. A beautiful example is on display at the National Wool Museum, Dre-fach Felindre, Wales (see photos here). Information at the museum describes how the teasel gig's teasels were maintained and replaced by an specialist 'teasel man' who travelled from mill to mill.

The teasel gig itself was later superseded by a similar machine which used metal teeth instead of teasels. This  development would probably have had the medieval London Clothworker's Guild turning in their graves. Their ordinances often refer to malpractice whereby clothworkers resorted to using wire-toothed cards as a substitute for teasel cards, resulting in inferior cloth (see here).

Thus, in summary: teasels were used in 'cards' for 'carding' wool. However, these were cards for carding (i.e. raising the nap) of woven wool, not cards for carding (i.e. ordering the fibres of) wool fibre. There is evidence for the use of these in medieval Europe. However, note too that the teasel heads do not appear to have been used singly but were instead mounted on a small, hand-held wooden frame.

This is not to say that teasels were never used to order the fibres of wool prior to spinning, e.g. in prehistory. That is outside of the scope of my brief discussion. However, I think it is reasonable to claim they were not used in this way in 14th and 15th Century Europe.

Do you have any medieval evidence for the use of teasels for ordering fibres of wool prior to spinning? I would love to know.

(The Lutterell Psalter is from the British Library. The Mendel Hausbuch is from here. Teasel cross is from the National Trust Collections.)


  1. That was very interesting. If English has only one word for cards, whether with metal teeth for carding wool or teasels for carding cloth then once the related crafts have become rare it is no wonder the two get mixed up in people's minds.

    Teasels are used in regions in which they grow, so one doesn't find that kind of cards in Scandinavia. Cards with long metal teeth have been generally associated with Vikings.

    In German regions teasels were used for carding cloth to get a nice nap. (As seen in the Hausbuch picture.) As carded cloth is a staple in present day Tracht ("national costume" for lack of a better word) teasel cards are used in present day "tracht"-cloth manufacturing.
    Teasel based equipment for carding cloth has a different name from instruments for carding wool which makes a mixup less likely.

    It is also entirely possible to prepare wool for spinning without cards. Special cards would have been an investment, and something that would not have been acquired in poorer regions. We should not forget that England was far ahead economically to rest of Europe until well in the 19th C. England was also the main wool exporting region in Europe in the MA which in turn would make sophisticated equipment like metal cards (as seen in Luttrell psalter) a household item in England as opposed to mainland Europe.

    Nails driven into a board would also do the job, this is documented. Beating the wool is also documented in some German regions prior to 1700. Beating gets the dirt out, after that fluffs are formed by hand and spun directly. (I have done that, it is surprising what a smooth yarn you can get.)

    1. Interestingly, the OED entries make no distinction between cards for raising the nap of wool fabric, cards for carding wool fibre or Viking-style wool combs - all THREE are referred to as 'cards'. (Wool combs are also seen in the Mendel Hausbuch and the references I've read/heard indicate that they were still in use in the later middle ages but that using them was a male-dominated craft.)

      That's interesting to know that teasel-carded cloth is still being made. I wonder if they use antique teasel gigs.

      Good point about England's wool trade. Also, note that the Luttrell Psalter is from Lincolnshire, and Lincoln was one of the major medieval wool ports of England.

      I had heard of 'bowing' the wool, to beat it and treat it that way. I think there are nail-based cards in the York medieval finds (or, at least nails theorised to have been from cards).

  2. Oh, just wanted to add: Teasel is the emblem for the Guild of Clothmakers. Now there's a clue...

    1. Yes! Definitely. I had written about that, but it seems to have got lost in the editing process...

  3. The Fuller's Teasel is a sub species of the common wild teasel. it has white flowers instead of pale lilac.The heads of fullers teasel are much harder than the wild species; the heads of the wild species are useless for anything as they are far too soft.
    i met a lady who worked in Nuneaton, UK, in a woolens factory. Her least favourite job was to cut the teasel heads in half and fix them to the drums for brushing mohair jumpers. She told me that it cut her hands to pieces.
    Metal teeth would have not produced such a fluffy finish and would be more likely to damage teh clothing.

    1. Thanks for the comment. ^_^

      I was thinking of trying to make a teasel cross, but I figured the same as you - it just wouldn't work with wild teasels and fullers teasels are very hard to find.

      It's very interesting to know that teasel heads were being used to finish cloth within living memory. It's quite amazing that despite this, there is still such confusion about the use of teasels in "carding".

  4. hi!I do raise the nap with natural teazels! I live in the Nort of Sweden. Se my homepage at www.svenskull.se I also sell the Fuller´s teasel. Se new handwoven blankets raised with teasels on my facebook: Svensk Ullberedning AB -Ruggugglan

    1. That is very interesting. It's nice to know that the old ways are still practiced by a few.

  5. my grandfather was a teasel farmer in upstate New York. The teasel was used to comb the wool fabric. In the 1960's wire replaced the teasel. If you visit the Creamery in Skaneateles NY there's an exhibit on the teasel farmers in the area and it's use in the wool industry.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It's interesting to know that teasels were used so recently there.

  6. Large drums covered with teasels are still used here in the Scottish Borders for raising the nap on finished cloth. I've seen them in both a finisher's business and in a weaver's mill. The teasels are brought in from England to replace damaged ones. Louise, Galashiels

    1. How interesting! Thank you for your comment. ^_^

  7. ....read all this with much interested my maiden name is Carder so presume my ancestors were 'Carders of wool'?! think they lived around the Cambridgeshire area for around 400 years and find it amusing that my mothers maiden name was Cotton! Tina :)

    1. Yes, probably either carders of wool fibre (preparing it for spinning) or carders of wool cloth (raising the nap after fulling). There are also lots of British place names derived from carding, e.g. Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire.