2 May 2013

Teasels: a quick note

I wrote before about my theory that teasels being used to card unspun wool was a myth (at least in medieval England). I've come across a few more pieces of evidence which I thought I would share with you:

Firstly, I hadn't realised before, but the Mendel Hausbuch also has an image of a teasel cross maker:

Mendel Hausbuch, f. 166v, c. 1545: Jacob Schpensetzer. Source.
Showing an empty, half-finished and finished teasel cross.
This is quite nice as it clearly shows how they are made. This example has two horizontal wooden slats and uses teasels with uniform stalk lengths.  This is unlike the extant National Trust one I showed before, which has an alternative construction where alternate long and short stalks are used to produce two rows of teasel heads attached to a single horizontal slat.

The other useful source I found is an article available here. (Ryder, Michael L. (1994 for 1993) Fascinating FullonumCircaea, The Journal of the Association for Environmental Archaeology, 11 (1), 23-31.)

This fascinating review summarises the origins of the cultivated teasel, the history of its cultivation and its use in textile working. I had not realised that teasels were historically a commercially cultivated crop (though it is unclear if this dates back as far as the medieval period). The growing and processing of teasels for the woolen industry was evidently a highly specialised and involved process.

From the article, a few key points jump out:
  1. The teasel in question is not the wild teasel, which has straight bracts (spines), but the cultivated 'fuller's teasel', which has curved/hooked bracts. Thus, any interpretations should use the latter sort of teasel if possible.
  2. Raising the nap of cloth is an ancient practice, with some indications that the Ancient Greeks and Romans treated some of their cloth in this way (though not necessarily with teasels).
  3. Raising the nap of cloth via teasels, and subsequently shearing the nap to an even length, was an established practice in "the Middle Ages" and was carried out by fullers [as I conjectured before].
    1. (The Fuller's Guild and the Shearmen's Guild amalgamated into the Cloth-Workers Guild in 1528 - however, the Clothworkers' Company has a fuller's teasel in its coat of arms to this day.)
  4. There are several examples of teasels or teasel crosses in medieval carvings.
  5. The 'teasel cross' can also be called a 'teasel hand', a 'hand teasel frame', a 'teasel-bat' or a 'friezing-bat' - the latter referring to the cloth 'frieze' which had a raised nap. (It's unstated which of these names, if any, were used medievally.)
  6. There is no reference in the article to teasels being used medievally to card unspun wool. The closest reference is this: "The verb to card is apparently derived from the Latin carduus (a thistle) because thistle heads were used in the first hand cards (which were later set with wires). In Iceland, however, the word for teasel is used for card. But hand cards were a medieval invention and Wild (1970) considers that the Roman term carminare for the teasing-out of wool cannot refer to the process we know as 'carding'." (p. 29-30). [If one considers that 'to card' can also mean 'to raise the nap with a teasel cross', then I think at least etymologically this is thoroughly debunked, particularly as raising-the-nap-carding is more than a millenium older than untangling-unspun-wool-carding.]
Finally, there is a lovely 14th Century piece of evidence from Langland's Piers Plowman (1377) :
'Cloth that cometh from the weaving is nought comley to wear till it is fulled ... and with teasels scratched'
Overall, I think the evidence against medieval teasel-based carders for unspun wool still stands.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that the idea that teasels are being used in the fulling process is strengthened, while there is as yet no evidence for (or specifically against) wool straightening / organizing with them. Interested by this. Thanks.