Tazzle Man Returns


From ‘Costume of Yorkshire’, 1814, Courtesy Yorkshire Ancestors


Today I’m re-visiting the subject of a recent blog post.

Killingbeck, Leeds gent George Walker (1781-1856), toured Yorkshire in 1813-14, recording the clothing of the ordinary man and woman for his book, ‘Costume of Yorkshire’.

Plate XXIII showed a teasel field, and was sketched/painted in the village where I grew up.  Many of Walker’s illustrations had inaccurate details in the background; a market cross where there never was one; churches with spires that should have had towers, etc. But he has got the Sherburn church and topography right. The teasel field workers were gathering the teasels into a makeshift hut, to dry them out before they’d be taken along the road to Leeds, 14 1/2 miles away (along the old Great North Road).

Yesterday, driving through the village we found a neglected patch of field, containing many teasels.  Bad phone camera picture but you can see the church in the background, and it is a similar orientation to Walker’s picture but slightly more distant from the church. Probably one or two fields along and further out of the village. (Click to enlarge).

Sherburn-in-Elmet, teasels growing wild, 201 years after 'The Teasel Field'.
Sherburn-in-Elmet, teasels growing wild, 201 years after ‘The Teasel Field’.

It’s amazing to think these teasels may be descendents of those grown in this area in Napoleonic times…

Incidentally, Walker doesn’t exaggerate the steepness of the hill behind the church. It looks less dramatic in my photo due to the distance and angle, but Walker got it right. The precise field where he sketched is an acre or two higher than where I stood with the camera, today.

My only relative in the village around Napoleonic times was a farmer/saddler, James Roodhouse. (Recently found on tax returns for ‘Huddlestone’, so he was either a tenant at Huddlestone Hall, or a farm there – fairly remote from the main village, but within sight of the church).  His sister was my great X 5 grandmother, Hannah Cleveland nee Roodhouse. The other Roodhouses farmed in both Wombwell and Cawood.

View of wild teasels, looking across field towards Little Woods.
View of Finkle Hill wild teasels, looking across field towards Little Woods.

The old saddlery was just next to the crossroads, at the start of Moor Lane; a five minute walk from where this picture was taken.  (Since writing this I have found the Roodhouses at Huddlestone, though, not in the vilage as such – September, 2017).

Sherburn is built on a crossroads with the four main roads being Kirkgate, Moor Lane, Finkle Hill and Low St.  I grew up on a lane just off Kirkgate, (pronounced the Yorkshire way, ‘Kerr-gate’), but this picture was taken up Finkle Hill, just out of the village.

This second photo shows the teasels in the field, looking not up towards the church but across to Little Wood. Just to give a sense of how many there are!  Apologies for the poor photo quality – I was using a phone camera and facing into the sun, so I couldn’t even see what I was shooting at the time!

It remains to be seen if these teasels are feasibly the kind used in the Leeds wool trade. According to Wikipedia:

The genus [dipsacus] includes about 15 species of tall herbaceous biennial plants (rarely short-lived perennial plants) growing to 1–2.5 metres (3.3–8.2 ft) tall.

But how to figure out what sort of teasels these are?  Also according to Wikipedia:

The Fuller’s Teasel (the cultivar group Dipsacus fullonum Sativus Group; syn. D. sativus) was formerly widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.[7] It differs from the wild type in having stouter, somewhat recurved spines on the seed heads


Different teasels illustrated below. With its recurved spines, it looks likely the Sherburn teasel is dipsacus fullonum. (AKA “common teasel” or “fuller’s teasel”).

Walker wrote:


The Teasel, or Dipsacus sativus, is a plant much cultivated in the east part of the West Riding, though from the impoverishing nature of the crop, which requires two years to bring it to maturity, it is seldom approved by the proprietor of the soil. It is however an article of essential importance to the Clothier, who uses the crooked awns of the heads of this plant for raising the nap on the cloth. In the autumn of the second year the heads of the plant are cut off, carefully dried, and after being fixed upon long sticks, are conveyed away for sale. Temporary sheds are usually erected in the teasel fields for the work-people employed, who not unfrequently for very interesting groups.

The question is: are these dipsacus fullonum  garden escapes from 20thC flower arrangers, or escapes from the cultivars grown in these fields two hundred years ago?  It is not close to any houses (open fields all round) – so I suspect the latter – also as you can see, just the sheer number growing in the bit of fallow field, suggests they’re not a casual garden escape. Dipsacus grows easily from seed and would come back every year on an undisturbed bit of land; even if the land was cultivated for decades they might survive then re-invade from the verges (and this field borders the road so will always have had a verge). Walker called them ‘sativus’, but there seems to have always been some confusion around the nomenclature.

The specific name ‘fullonum’ and the common name ‘Fuller’s teasel’ both imply that this species was used in fulling, the process of shrinking and thickening the cloth after weaving (Ryder, 1993). Clapham et al. (1962) used the name D. fullonum ssp. sativus instead of D. sativus for the plant with stiff recurved spines that was long used in the textile industry.


http://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/119605  describes some confusion over the nomenclature.

At the time Walker was writing, fullonum was seen as a sub-species of sativus.

By the time Walker was writing, teasels were used to raise the nap on cloth manually, as well as attached to machinery. Teasels were sometimes mounted on a cylinder used to dress cloth, called a gig mill. Although in Walker’s illustration of croppers, the teasels were mounted on small frames, used to raise the cloth by hand – which was commoner in Yorkshire and the likely fate of most of the teasels grown in Sherburn.  Lipson wrote:

… In the West Riding, where most kinds of machinery were introduced more easily than elsewhere… opposition was even more protracted than in the West Country. At the end of the eighteenth century the gig mill, although not unknown in Yorkshire, was still very exceptional, and the majority of cloths were dressed by hand on account of the hostility of the men… [A] Yorkshire manufacturer, Hirst, who wrote an account of his career as a clothier, declares that as late as 1810, ‘if a Yorkshire manufacturer went into a market with one from the West of England, and they both had a piece of cloth manufactured from the same wool, the latter would get a better price by nearly one-half.’ the West Country having machinery for finishing cloth which Yorkshire employers dared not introduce…’… When Hirst himself introduced gig mills, the journeymen croppers complained bitterly: ‘Their bitterness against me was so great at that time that I had to keep ten armed men every night to guard my premises. I never ventured out at night; and even when I went out at daytime, I always had a brace of loaded pistols in my pocket.’….

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E. Lipson, 1921, 189-190

Who’d have imagined the common teasel could be so… political?

Below  are images of dipsacus sativus, fullonum, and one of the seed-heads from the Sherburn teasels. Are these survivors descendents from the Napoleonic era crop? Could that even be possible?  Today, I was only a couple of fields down from where Walker stood with his sketch book or easel in 1813. And there is a corner of that field that is forever West Riding  wool industry.

Dipsacus sativus – spines not recurved. Wiki Commons.



Sherburn teasel, November, 2014
Sherburn teasel, November, 2014. Recurved spines
Plate from ‘British Entomology VI’, John Curtis showing Dipsacus fullonum, 1829 Wiki Commons

The Tazzle Man


The Teasel Field, Plate 23. Sherburn-in-Elmet

A few months ago, at a car-boot sale in York, I stumbled on a very battered and dirty volume of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. I maybe paid 50p for it, if that. The reason I picked it up was, I saw it contained an article called ‘The Yorkshire Teazle-Growing Trade’,  by R.A.McMillan.


Teazles are something you see here in Yorkshire in hedgerows. I know that some ‘wild’ plants are escapee cultivars from old textile industries.


R.A. McMillan illustrates the article with Walker’s “The Teasel Field” [156]. I have seen (without closely looking at) this picture a million times. And there was something astounding I missed about it. The picture was drawn two or three fields away from the house where I grew up and lived til my nineteenth birthday.

In the background, is my old village church and the churchyard where my grandparents and mum are buried.  I have looked at that picture so often – but never noticed. Too busy looking at the costumes! So right under my nose, all these years, was a book showing home. Things I wrote about in ‘A Pink Dog Lead’ happened just out of sight in Walker’s Teasel Field picture; the other side of that church! Walker famously conflated things in his illustrations and the cottages pictured there do not exist but are probably transposed from a point on the other side, and actually out of view. The house I grew up in was a farmhouse, in 1814, and may well have been no stranger to the teazles.

Some time ago a museum curator – who will remain nameless – mentioned to me that a very rare dye plant – I will not name –  had been found growing wild – somewhere I will not name –  in the West Riding. The last traces of a lost, medieval dye industry – still growing in the wild. As no-one wants it disturbed, it’s location remains A Secret.   Years ago, when we lived in the West Midlands, we knew the roadside verges and abandoned cottage gardens where we could find weld, every year. So this is no surprise to me, that our hedgerows and wild places sometimes have escapees that hint of a lost world.


I often find teazles in the hedgerow opposite my house, ten miles out of York. So have always been curious about them – but know very little.  I thought I’d share with you my gleanings from the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.


Apparently, teazle growing was not very well documented, but it appears to have been a huge crop in Yorkshire – all three ridings. It was only introduced to the county some time in the 18thC as prior to that date it was commoner further South.

West Riding Croppers from ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’ (1814)


Teazles were used to finish woollen cloth; the teazles were mounted in frames and when a nap was raised, highly skilled croppers like my dad’s Huddersfield-born  ancestor, cropper Tom Lister, would crop the nap to finish woollen cloth.  In fact it was a new kind of cropping frame that set off the Luddite rebellion. Suddenly, several croppers could be replaced by one not entirely efficient machine.

People used to think that teazles were used to ‘tease’ wool prior to spinning, but this was probably simply confusing different processes as teazles were in fact used in cloth-finishing, not pre-spinning processes. Teazles probably only started to be grown locally in the 18thC as the Yorkshire textile industry ramped up its production of fine woollens and wanted to source some of the materials needed, closer to home.  You can see teazles mounted on frames for use in Walker’s illustration. He wrote:




“They previously wet the cloth thoroughly in a cistern of water, and comb the wool all one way with teazles, which are fixed for this purpose in a small wooden frame. Some of these are arranged on the floor….” [picture above].


According to McMillan:


“The place where teazles were first grown in Yorkshire was the village of Biggin, a few miles to the West of Selby…. By 1770… it had reached Stillingfleet”.


In the 1770s, my mum’s ancestors all farmed or were farm labourers in Stillingfleet, and neighbouring Wistow, Ryther and Cawood.  Ryther and Cawood are the next villages along from Biggin. If my dad’s ancestors in the West Riding wool trade used teazles to crop the cloth; mum’s ancestors near Selby may have grown teazles.

I sit writing this somewhere in Stillingfleet parish and could probably, if I walked out now, find wild teazles growing in the hedgerow yards from my door.

Apparently, the Vale of York’s heavy alluvial soil suited the crop. And the Vale’s proximity to Leeds, centre of England’s woollen trade, was another factor.


Anyone familiar with this blog will know the Regency era writer/illustrator George Walker, whose ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’ (1814) is a frequent flyer. In 1813, Walker travelled the county, documenting the clothing of ordinary, working folk.  Walker is so fascinating as he was documenting the costume of ordinary people at a time when no-one was much interested in this. I have often used Walker’s illustrations for my work. Incidentally, the Sherburner in his picture is wearing the universal rural working class woman’s uniform of the red cloak. See my Pinterest page here for more UK and US red cloaks.


Walker wrote:

The Teasel, or Dipsacus sativua, is a plant much cultivated in the east part of the West Riding, though form the impoverishing nature of the crop, which requires two years to bring to maturity, it is seldom approved by the proprieter of the soil. It is however and article of essential importance to the Colthier, who uses the crooked awns of the heads of this plact for raising the nap of the cloth. In the autumn of the second year the heads of the plant are cut off, carefully dried, and after being fixed upon long sticks, are conveyed away for sale. Temporary sheds are usually erected in the teasel fields for the work-people employed, who not unfrequently form very interesting groups.


In his 1822 Trade Directory, Baines wrote that teazle-growing was “almost peculiar” to the Barkston Ash wapentake (Sherburn in Elmet is part of this area; Biggin a neighbouring village). [157].


One reason Sherburn may have been the centre of teazle growing was that it was on the direct road to Leeds that became the old A1 – the primary route between Scotland and England. Teazles were needed by the croppers like Tom Lister – who had moved to Leeds by the mid 19thC. Although the 1850s saw my dad’s wool trade  ancestors move from Huddersfield to Leeds, the same decade also saw a peak for the teazle trade; as machines evolved, the teazles could be replicated with machinery. Although there were still a handful of teazle growers in Sherburn by WWI.  R.A.McMillan suggests that whilst it was handy for the West Riding wool industry to grow teazles closer to home, they could never quite produce enough to be self sufficient in them and still imported teazles from the older growing areas, down South, like Somerset, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.


The Selby/Vale of York area was also a centre of woad and madder production in the 19thC. These would also decline sharply after the introduction of aniline dyeing in the 1860s.


Teazles were a biennial crop which made heavy demands on the soil and was labour-intensive to grow.  They needed constant weeding but the farmer would see no return on the crop for 18 months after sowing. Like any crop, if there was damp weather during harvest the whole crop might rot away and be useless. Yet if the yield was high – prices would be lower.


The fact it was high risk meant the teazle industry developed an unusual system, where the farmer would rent the land and a specialist teazle grower come in, and work the crop and bear the brunt of the risk. These were called “tazzle men”. The farmer would plough and prepare the land then the tazzle man take over. They would share the profits equally. Many tazzle men had other jobs. One Sherburn grower was a mole-catcher. [161]. Others shop-keepers, butchers as well as farmers.


Sometimes woad was grown between the teazles. (Madder was also often commonly sown with woad).  Plants were so tall they hid the harvesters from sight; and were harvested often by casual labourers – women and men. They were tied in bunches of around 50 and dried in temporary huts, like in Walker’s illustration. It’s interesting that the female labourers in Walker’s picture, are wearing blue (woad) and red (madder) dyed clothes, as both dyestuffs were grown amongst and alongside the teazles. Woollen cloth was often of a lower value than worsted, so it is possible the textiles they were wearing, were made from West Riding wool with a nap raised by Yorkshire teazles.


Most of the Sherburn teazles went straight to Leeds. According to McMillan, Leeds was “the chief finishing centre serving the West Riding woollen industry” [164].  Carting teazles to be sold was such a regular thing,  that the “frequency with which the various routed were travelled can be seen from the fact that… the horses knew by themselves which pubs to stop at on the way. This was sometimes a source of embarrassment when the boss decided to come along on the trip” [165].


I know the very field where Walker must have stood to do this illustration. Promise I will go there soon and see if we can find any teazles in the hedgerows.




The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol 56, 1984, ‘The Yorkshire Teazle-Growing Trade’, R.A.McMillanp 155 ff.