My alter-ego is a yarnster, someone who mucks about with wool and such like. A soggy Sunday visiting friends in west Wales gave the perfect opportunity for a trip to the National Wool Museum, which satisfied the wool enthusiast in me but also piqued my amateur botanist side too.
A wool museum might seem an unlikely place to encounter plants… apart from adding colour in the dyeing process, but the natural dye garden is currently under re-development. No, I was intrigued by the use of plants in the actual conversion of wool to yarn.
After shearing and sorting, the first step of the process is willowing as the fleece is too ravelled for immediate spinning. In the industrialised age, it is the willowing machine which combs the wool, teasing out the tangles with a metal-toothed roller. This transforms the wool into a kind of candy-floss cloud of fibre. Of course, this was originally done by hand: the wool was thwacked on a ‘felking board’ using sticks. These were probably cut from willow, and most likely explains the name of the activity.
Another combing task was carding, and turns the soft fluffy fibres into ‘rolags’ or ‘rovings’. By hand, this was done with carding bats which had metal or wire teeth. But the earliest carding bats had teasel or thistle heads. The scientific name for thistle is Cardus from which the word carding is derived. The Welsh for teasel is ysiau’ r cribwr and translates as “the vegetable of the carder” or “the carder’s plant”.
After the wool has been spun and woven into cloth, teasels play another role: they are used to “raise the nap”. That is to say, they are again given a combing function, applied to the surface of the cloth to give a fluffy appearance. This finishing technique melded nature and machine as teasels were used in the Teasel Raising Gig – it used 3000 teasels in an iron frame over which the cloth passed.
The replacing of teasel heads was a very skilled job, so much so that a “Teasel Man” toured the mills replenishing teasels in the gigs as required. The dried flower heads had to be positioned carefully in order that they gave an even finish to the cloth.The majority of teasel heads were bought from specialist gardens in Somerset. But eventually, the teasel raising gigs were replaced by the Moser Raiser which substituted metal teeth for the teasels.
The Latin name for the fuller’s teasel was Dipsacus fullonum subspecies sativus (now simply D. sativus), indicating its place in the fulling and finishing process. This is different from the wild teasel (pictured in the header image) which has weaker spines. Unsurprisingly, one of the vernacular names for teasel is “brushes and combs”.
It is always pleasing to be able to combine different interests. Even more so if it is in an unexpected way, like at the wool museum.