Sunday, September 15, 2013

Teasing History Out of Whole Cloth

Fuller's Teasel (c) John Ashley
Sunset over a field of dried teasel stalks at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
As our September sun shortens its path across the fall sky, this summer's green teasel plants have already dried out and blended in with the older rank-and-file of winter-resistant stalks. These wind-blown teasel stalks persist for years after the plant has died.

Fullers' Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is not native to Montana, not even to North America. It was brought here to do a job, and its persistence reminds us of teasel's Old World history, one that weaves through events as diverse as the Luddite Riots and the invention of the push lawn mower.

Teasel in bloom (c) John Ashley
Fullers' Teasel flower head
Teasel plants are biennials, so the seedling grows into a rosette that does not flower in its first year. After storing carbohydrates in a two-foot long tap root, the plant bolts in its second or third year, sending up a 2' to 10' tall woody stalk that is tipped with 1-35 flower heads. On average, a single teasel plant produces 3.9 flower heads and 3,333 seeds. Each flower only opens for one day, and the blooming progresses up and down from the center of the flower head.

The small, purplish flowers are separated by stiff bracts. And it was these flexible spines in dried flower heads that led to human cultivation of teasel that pre-dates the Middle Ages.

It appears that some of the straight-spined teasel was selectively bred to grow curved spines. And tools made of these teasel heads were used to raise a nap by pulling or "teasing" the individual fibers of wool cloth, which were then shorn to make wool cloth feel velvety smooth. There's also some evidence that teasel was used in this way by the early Romans and possibly by the ancient Greeks.

Straight-spined teasel was introduced into North America in the late 1700's for ornamental gardening. Curved-spined teasel was being cultivated in New York state by 1840 and Oregon by 1907. As wild and free escapees, the hardy teasels spread west and east across the U.S., arriving in Montana sometime in the late 1930's.

Cultivated teasel crops were harvested in August, as soon as the seeds fell out. Armed with a short, curved knife made from the blade of an old scythe, one hardy worker could cut 20,000 green teasel heads in a day. Heads were sorted by size and bundled (40 heads to a bundle of large "Kings," 50 heads to a bundle of smaller "Maidens"), then dried for three weeks.

Teasel hand tool
Before industrialization, teasel heads were tied to small, wooden hand frames used by a class of highly-skilled (and well-paid) artisans called, "fullers." The woolen nap was raised by fullers and trimmed by "croppers" multiple times to produce a high-value commodity. But industrialization of this cottage industry meant the artisans' hand tools would be replaced with round rotating drums of teasel heads, and the highly-skilled croppers' 60-pound hand shears would be replaced with a spinning, spiral-bladed cropping machine (a design that would become the basis for the first push lawn mower). Even the teasel itself would eventually be replaced by flexible wires.

Fullers and croppers at work
The artisan textile workers didn't take kindly to the undermining of their occupations, or to the inferior quality of the machine-made product. So in the British cities of 1811, in a time before standing police forces, these fiercely independent workers formed resistance groups and secretly trained for rebellion. They became known as "Luddites," named for a fictitious leader, General Ludd.

The Luddites warned manufacturers to remove these new low-quality machines from their factories and return workers' pay to previous levels. If their demands were refused, they destroyed the machines or set fire to the factory. But the politically powerful manufacturers, backed by the ruthless British government of aristocrats - and its army - brutally crushed the Luddite uprising in 1813.

This was one of many defeats leading us into the Industrial Revolution, when the wealthy and powerful few laid out their framework for corporate control over the working class. This form of industrial capitalism is still at work today, from the never-ending squeeze on labor unions, to the forced imposition of new technologies like synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

It's worth pausing in our frantic, modern lives to lean against a faded fence post and look out across a field of Montana's hardy teasel stalks, just to ponder these things. Artisans with teasel brushes and steal shears hanging from their workroom walls, standing up for a once-respected working life. It's hard to imagine today's over-worked, below-living-wage corporate employees standing together to fight for anything, much less a way of life that they've never known.

Such a teasel-inspired rebellion will never rise again, of course. But like those dried stalks in September, our working-class desires for respectable and sustainable work still stand through these economic winters.

Fascinating history of teasel cultivation and textile use here.
In-depth description of the Luddite movement here.