The surprisingly important history of teazels


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What links these scruffy weeds growing in a Bristol park, with this weird building in Wiltshire, farming in Somerset and this medieval guildhall in Exeter? And why were they vital to the medieval economy of not just the West Country or England, but all of Europe? I accidentally discovered the answers to these questions when I got strangely obsessed by a single random sentence on Wikipedia. As you do.

The Somerset Levels are a low-lying area of coastal wetland that has been mostly reclaimed into agricultural land, although as you can see in this panorama, mother nature is continually trying to re-reclaim them as wetlands.

One day, I was reading the Wikipedia page about the Levels when the following statement piqued my interest:

An unusual crop is the growing of teazels around the River Isle near Chard on the heavy clay soils around Fivehead. These are used to provide a fine finish on worsteds and snooker table cloths.

This intrigued me, because I know the area a little bit and for starters, nobody local would describe Fivehead as near Chard, but more to the point, I’ve never seen any teazel farms there. If you didn’t know, teazels are these big thistley thingies, also known as teazles, teasels, or teasles.

I made a mental note of a potential future video about this “unusual crop”, and promptly forgot about it until a few months later when I was once again cruising around Wikipedia, this time on the page for Trowbridge, Wiltshire, when my eye was caught by this unusual perforated brick building, the Handle House. I was delighted when the caption informed me that it was built for the storing and drying of teazels used in the woollen industry.

Well, that’s perfect, I thought, I've got a proper video on my hands now. It’s dead easy for me to visit this Handle House by train to film the place where they were used, so now all I need to do is track down a teazel farm where they’re grown, and I’ll cover both ends of the industry.

Unfortunately for me, to cut a long story short, Wikipedia turned out to be not entirely accurate. I’ll come back to that story in due course, but suffice to say I soon gave up looking for a teazel farm, and shot this footage of wild-growing teazels instead.

These ones are Dipsacus fullonum - or should that be full-oh-num? Latin isn’t my strong point - they’re a native species here, so they grow whether anybody farms them or not. In fact, I didn’t even need to head to the Somerset Levels to find them, these ones are in Bristol. You can tell I filmed this in Bristol because the Clifton bridge is visible in the background, as is legally required. There are even teazel sculptures at the Northern Slopes, although if I’m honest I found fewer of the real thing there than at other Bristol parks and nature reserves.

The “fullonum” in the binomial is a latin version of the old common name, fuller’s teasel. Fullers were the people responsible for processing wool, still a common occupational surname, alongside Tucker and Walker, other related jobs, even though the jobs themselves aren’t very common any more. The “teasel” part of the name derives from the same root as the word ‘tease’, as in, tease out the fibres of the wool. So with this purpose embedded in their very name, it seems fair to assume people had been using the prickly seed heads of these wild plants to work wool for about as long as a subsistence wool industry had existed - which is a pretty long time. According to the British Wool trade association, sheep were introduced to Britain around 4000 BC, and the first evidence of wool being spun and made into cloth was a couple of thousand years later.

However, as the process of textile manufacturing became increasingly industrialised, a cultivar was developed, Dipsacus sativus, which had stronger, neater barbs. This took over the name fuller’s teasel, with dipsacus fullonum becoming more often known as the wild teasel. I saw it suggested in one source that the Romans introduced this cultivar to Britain, but another claimed Romans used hedgehog skin for fulling instead, and suggested the refined sativus teasel was introduced from Europe closer to the 13th century. Despite the cultivar being grown on a huge scale for decades if not centuries, it seems no escapees can be found in the wild today.

The barbed teazel heads were mounted inside wooden frames called ‘handles’ to form giant 2-dimensional combs, which were repeatedly dragged across wet wool in order to raise the nap. This inevitably made them damp, and a soggy teazel makes for a bad teazel, which is why buildings like this were constructed with this perforated brickwork to draw an air current through and dry out the stocks of teazels.

Trowbridge’s Handle House was probably built between 1843-1848, and is said to be one of only two such buildings remaining in the UK. Or possibly one of only one such buildings, depending on who you believe. What do you know, the other candidate is also in the West Country, just outside Shepton Mallet. Interestingly, Historic England’s listing of this place names it the Silk Drying Barn, which you might think means it was clearly for drying silk and not teazels, but actually the same listing says it’s locally known as the handle house, which seems rather telling. The local Darshill & Bowlish Conservation Society, who recently completed a thorough heritage assessment of their local mills and historic buildings, and to whom I am very grateful for allowing me to use these photographs, seem to be in no doubt it was [originally] a teazel-drying facility. And frankly I trust them more than Historic England on this one.

Adjacent to Trowbridge’s Handle House is the mill itself, which as you can see is currently undergoing transformation into ‘the ultimate in urban living’. It would be easy to snark at the predictable and vacuous sloganeering of the property development industry, but looking at the semi-derelict state of some of the other old mills here, I think this sort of conversion maybe isn’t such a bad fate, providing it’s done suitably respectfully. The Handle House itself is also for sale although it’s hard to see what this could be converted into, with walls like that.

As if the perforated brickwork wasn’t curiosity enough, Handle House also sits on a bridge over the River Biss, making it a doubly delightful oddity. As you can see, the river isn’t exactly a mighty torrent, which severely constrained the capacity of Trowbridge’s wool industry in the days when water-power was the only option for powering mills.

In a previous video, I looked at the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal, built around 1800, which connected the Somerset Coalfields to the Kennet & Avon Canal, which passed just north of Trowbridge. This completely changed the game for Trowbridge by providing a ready source of fuel just as steam power was coming into its own, as well as a means of exporting the finished product, of course. Such was the resultant boom in mechanised textile production here that in the early 19th century it was described as the “Manchester of the West”.

Nearby Bradford-on-Avon, likewise, had a booming textiles industry, with mills such as this one, Abbey Mill built at the start of the 19th century. Warminster, too, had traditionally generated significant wealth from wool and clothing manufacture, although it was declining by this point. Meanwhile, down in Devon, Exeter had been one of the country’s biggest and wealthiest centres of wool and cloth manufacture, trade, and export since the 16th century. So the West Country had the mills, the coal, the ports, it definitely had the sheep, and of course it had the teazels - all the ingredients for this industry to thrive.

Some of Somerset’s teazel crop didn’t have far to travel, therefore. And there was a huge teazel farming output in Somerset - the claim on Wikipedia wasn’t complete fiction. It’s just that the cited source is dated 1968, and not to be Captain Negative, but when making a claim in the present tense, a source from over fifty years ago doesn’t seem the most solid basis. And even in this 1968 text, the wonderfully-named neighbouring villages of Curry Rivel, Fivehead and Curry Mallet are described as the last small remnant of an industry now almost entirely given up to French, Spanish and Italian farmers.

It didn’t take too much digging to feel pretty confident that the present tense is unjustified. An oral history archive conducted an interview with Fred Cousins, born 1915, who used to harvest teasels as a way of earning extra cash in his spare time. He recounts that teasel harvesting was tough work - owing to their spikiness, you had to be fully clad in protective clothing and gloves, even in the height of summer. They’re also biennial, which made them somewhat challenging for farmers as there was nothing to harvest, and thus zero income, for the first year after planting, and all the more risk of a rogue storm or flood wiping out the crop before it could be harvested and sold.

In fact, farmers were sometimes sufficiently dissuaded from teasel growing that they rented out their fields to specialist subcontractors sometimes known as ‘tazzle men’, who shared the financial risk as well as bearing the practical burdens of working with this prickly crop.

This is despite the fact one Somerset landowner observed in 1699 that “a good acre of teazels is as good or better than a good acre of wheate” in terms of profitability, with an acre supporting around 16,000 plants, which would produce around 200,000 heads, which would sell for about £6 per pack of 20,000 at this time - although I should note that prices were extremely volatile, swinging from 2 to £20 per pack, which is another major reason why many farmers were cautious about this crop.

As for the decline of teazel farming, thanks to the South West Heritage Trust I can let Fred tell it in his own words:

"And of course labour, money, rose and that, see, wages rose and that, and the teasel price didn’t come up to the standard, and therefore all these old teasel growers died out and of course they gradually dwindled away."

"Well, the last one ever grew 'em round there, you know, every year was Mr Mell at Fivehead there. That was the last one ever grew 'em, I don't think he grown - well, he's getting on, mind, he's seventy odd, I don't think he's bothered the last couple of years."

Bearing in mind this interview took place in 1987, it seems fair to conclude that teazel agriculture in South Somerset is very much a matter for the past tense in 2022. The other main area of teazel farming was around Blagdon and Ubley, but it had already long since died out there. In 1913 Blagdon Parish magazine noted the death of Mrs Louisa Wilkins, aged 95, who was quoted as regretting the fact no teazels were grown in Blagdon any more. It’s not entirely clear why North Somerset’s teazel agriculture vanished so much earlier, but a nematode pest called the eel-worm is suspected.

So by now it was clear to me I wasn’t going to be making any films about present-day teazel farms in Somerset. But my research had revealed to me that teazels were no small, local curiosity: the importance of this historic trade was far bigger than I’d imagined. As the 19th century progressed and the industrial revolution went through the gears, the scale of the textiles industry in the north, especially Lancashire and Yorkshire, came to completely eclipse the West Country.

Although teazels had been introduced to Yorkshire in the 18th century, becoming quite widely grown there, local harvests were insufficient to sate the Northern mills’ vast appetite, and Somerset teazels were considered a superior teazel anyway, so a lot of the Somerset crop was traded up north.

But this wasn’t just a national trade. Teazels were an international commodity. In fact, if there’s one thing I’d like this video to get across clearly is that teazels really were a genuinely big deal. Like, I admit, when I stumbled on this topic my initial reaction was a sort of “haha, isn’t that quaint, people grew funny little thistles to do their funny little pre-industrial weaving” kind of amusement, but having read up on it a little bit, I’ve come to realise how patronisingly misplaced such a reaction was.

As far back as the 14th century, teazels crop up as a significant element of national and international trade and economics. Demand from the Low Countries saw so much of the English teazel harvest exported there that English fullers found themselves with a shortage - in response, in 1326 Edward II specifically banned their export in the Ordinance of the Staple. Despite this teazel protectionism, England found itself needing to import additional teazels to meet demand, with 18,000 teazels landing in a single consignment in Exeter in 1331, as just one example of the scale of this trade.

In short, teazels were vital to the English wool trade, and it’s almost impossible to overstate how important the wool trade was to the medieval English economy, or even the economy of Europe as a whole. In this era, English wool was the most prized in Europe. As one historian put it, "[n]o form of manufacturing had a greater impact upon the economy and society of medieval Britain than did those industries producing cloths from various kinds of wool.”

This was big business. Seriously big business. One visitor to Exeter in 1698, Celia Fiennes, claimed that the Friday cloth market there “turns the most money in a weeke of any thing in England”, with 10 to 15,000 pounds changing hands. Whether or not this is strictly true, I can’t really verify, but there was certainly a vast amount of money knocking around, so much so that Exeter also became one of the major centres of banking outside London.

Unsurprisingly, with so much money and influence associated with the wool trade, professional guilds arose, at incredibly early dates. The Worshipful Company of Woolmen in the City of London, for example, goes back to at least 1180 - older than the office of Lord Mayor itself.

Back in Exeter, the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen was founded… erm, well… actually even they don’t know exactly when. There’s a record of their existence from 1452, but said record implies they've been around for decades already. It’s equally hard to give a specific date for their marvellous Tuckers Hall - it probably began construction in the late 1400s, when they were given that land, but the first floor wasn’t added til 1576 and there are 1600-and-something dates visible on the woodwork inside, so clearly it was extended and adapted over several centuries.

Much as it’s a magnificent building in its own right, I came here more specifically because you can see teazels all over it. There’s even a wild one embedded in the wall outside, down at ankle level which I would’ve breezed right past had I not been tipped off to its existence by an online article.

In the main hall, there’s always a vase of fuller’s teazels. They also feature in the Coat of Arms - that’s a bunch of teasels in the top red bit, above a pair of weaver’s shuttles and a pair of shears. As such you get stylised teasels reproduced all over the place - from this modern glass door to the stained glass windows in the main chamber.

Exeter’s wool trade died long ago, but the Incorporation still exists, with membership broadened to non-weavers, fullers or shearmen, and activities now focused on the charitable. 2020 saw the 400th anniversary of their Royal Charter, and they celebrated by installing a new set of railings depicting the cloth-making process “from sheep to ship”. By now you should be thoroughly unsurprised to see a resplendent teasel as part of this installation.

But perhaps you’re thinking, OK, great, teazels powered the medieval wool industry, but surely they were rapidly rendered redundant upon the arrival of the industrial revolution. Well, not really. Rendered redundant, ultimately, yes - metal combs were developed for mechanised napping of cloth and I dare say the fabric you’re wearing right now never went anywhere near a teazel. But rapidly, not so much. Of course, automation occurred, and the hand-held teasel combs were replaced with teasel gigs like this one in the Trowbridge Museum, but considering how many teazels were needed to fit out one of these contraptions, this technology hardly reduced the demand for the seed heads. And these teazel-toothed machines were commonplace well after metal combs existed. When metal met resistance in cloth, it tore the cloth; when teazels met similar resistance, the teazel barb would snap. Sometimes, it’s hard to beat mother nature when it comes to clever engineering.

Hence, the construction of this Handle House as late as the mid-19th century - serving a steam-powered mill, in a town with a railway service, but even in that modern world, there was still no better technology for napping wool than packing together a bunch of spiky seed-heads from a plant.

Indeed, there is frequent suggestion in the sources I read, that teazels are still used by boutique or specialist cloth producers to this day - the billiards and snooker cloths that wikipedia mentioned, for example. As far as I know, if this is true, then their teazel needs are satisfied by overseas farmers, because all the evidence suggests to me that the age of Somerset teazel farming is over. But if you happen to know, or even own a teazel farm still operating in the West Country, please do let me know in the comments - I would be absolutely delighted to be wrong.

Oh, and speaking of being wrong - as for wikipedia, don’t worry, I fixed it.

Anyway, that’s all for this video. Thanks as always to everyone whose work I built on in making this video, as always I’ve put the full list of clickable sources on my website. And thanks to you for watching; I hope you were as ridiculously fascinated by this rather obscure topic as I was, although I rather doubt it. Still, if you enjoyed the video, why not give it a like, and subscribe in case I make any more. Cheers.