From your seat at the bar you see the landlady greet the two ‘rustic-looking’ gents like old friends, and bemoan how time has flown-by since last year. With pints in hand they take a table at the far end of the room, the landlady turns to you and says ‘they’re tazzle-men from Somerset – customers’ll start arriving within t’hour. It’ll get right busy!’
If you were in The Angel pub in Leeds on an early spring evening between 1830 and 1850 you may well have seen such an encounter. The ‘tazzle-men’, coming mostly from the south west of England or from the West Riding were teazle sellers who used the Inns of Leeds and Huddersfield to meet their customers (and at times to store their goods).
The Angel is a pub in Leeds city centre that is still today pretty much unchanged since Victorian times. Other Inns that the dealers used have long gone, though the since modernised ‘Ship’ and ‘Horse and Trumpet’ are still there. But what is a teazle? And what were they used for?
You have most likely seen teazles growing wild on waste-ground or as ornamental plants. They are up to 2 metres tall, with egg-shaped flowers on separate spiky stems. In summer their flowerheads wave in the breeze, the hundreds of pale blue florets on each head attracting all sorts of insects. If you look closely at the pairs of spiky leaves, you see that where they join the stem they form a sort of bowl that catches rain-water, and in this a variety of insects get trapped and drown. On poor soils the plant is able to benefit from absorbing the products of decomposition in these water-filled bowls. At the end of summer the mature spiky flowerheads contain hundreds of seeds which are a favourite of goldfinches. It’s the ‘soft but spiky’ nature of the dry flowerheads – in particular the large central one called the ‘king’ – that made this plant so useful.
Since Roman times or earlier, the process of ‘raising’ the surface of woven woollen cloth was used to ‘soften’ the surface. The cloth would be stretched over a frame and brushed with teazles that had been fixed into some sort of wooden holder. The word ‘combing’ is reserved for the process of separating and aligning fibres prior to weaving. The brushing pulls-out the ends of some fibres, to produce a softer surface and make it more suitable for blankets or coats for example.
During the 18thcentury the process was refined by cloth manufacturers in the West Country to produce a particularly fine finish. This entailed brushing fine woollen cloth in several stages – an operation that could take days for a single length of cloth. In the early 1800s this labour-intensive process was gradually being replaced by a mechanised one, in which rows of teazles mounted in frames were fixed round a rotating drum (a ‘gig’) over which the cloth was pulled. This was quickly adopted in the Leeds and Huddersfield area – despite the protests and damage caused by ‘luddites’ objecting to the loss of work. Indeed by 1820 the mechanised brushing of woollen cloth using teazles had become a significant ‘finishing’ industry in Leeds, and the area began to dominate the UK production of fine woollen cloths, reaching a peak around 1850.
During this time a significant development that improved control of brushing, was the use of ‘spindle’ teazles, which had been drilled out and mounted on pins so that they rotated as they brushed. Although the use of teazles produced very satisfactory results, they wore and broke with use, and required regular replacement. The large number of teazles required by the industry can be judged by the fact that in 1840 one particular mill purchased 21 million heads. To meet the demand for these teazles, by 1850 in addition to supplies from the West Riding and South West England they were being imported from France, Spain and America.
You probably wonder why there wasn’t something more robust to brush the woollen cloth with. In fact, over the years there had been trials with machines that used metal teeth of some kind, but these were always found to be too robust, tending to rip the cloth if a fault or knot was encountered, when this would simply have broken the spike of a teazle. It wasn’t until 1880 that a machine using metal teeth was deemed to be successful, built by a company called Moser.
The use of machines using metal teeth and the declining demand for fine woollen cloths after 1850 steadily reduced the market for teazles, although there were short peaks in demand when military uniforms were needed during WW1 and 2. By the 1900s there were only some specialist manufacturers still using teazles, for the manufacture of materials such as cashmere, mohair, billiard cloth and tennis ball cloth. In 1970 a mill in Huddersfield still had an annual requirement for some 6 million heads.
So, visit The Angel whenever it’s possible, but you’ll be there a while if you’re waiting for ‘tazzle-men’.
By Rob Welborn, volunteer at Leeds Industrial Museum