Several weeks ago, my wife Mary Alice asked if I would gather a bag of teasels for her to make a Christmas tree. By the time the small tree was finished, I had made three trips to get teasels.
About 30 years ago, she had made a teasel tree and decided to make another for a gift. At that time, a teasel spine caught in the corner of her eye. This time, she wore glasses.
There are 15 species of teasels of the genus Dipsacus. The name Dipsacus is derived from the Greek word "dipsa," meaning thirst. The species name is sylvestris, which means "growing in the woods."
Teasels are spiny plants, with opposite leaves and cone-shaped heads of small, purple flowers that are encased in prickly bracts.
The plant's opposite leaves join at the base to form a rainwater-holding trough at the stem. The water, which was thought to be an especially good thirst quencher, was much sought after. It also was used to bathe tired eyes and remove warts.
Supposedly, using the water could make a woman as beautiful as Venus, which gave the plant the common name of Venus' basin.
The fuller teasel is the only member of the family that has any economic value. Its flower heads are used for fulling cloth, hence its name. The teasel heads were fixed to a cylinder that revolved slowly over the cloth while the plant's flexible bracts, which end in a stiff recurved spine, raised the nap or pile of the cloth.
The word "teasel" is an Anglo-Saxon word and comes from the word "tease," meaning "to disentangle fibers."
Our word "heckle," which first meant an instrument for combing hemp, comes from the word "hack," meaning "to cut."
At first, "tease" meant "to pull apart the fibers of wool." As a verb, heckle meant "to cut at, or to cut roughly." Originally, the word was a horse for hire, which is the reason we call a taxi cab a hack.
The fuller teasel was introduced into the United States from Europe. It grows well from seed and has become naturalized in the northeastern U.S. from plantings that once were grown commercially for their heads.
In addition to teasing napped surfaces on wool and other fabrics, the roots of the teasel plants have been used medicinally as ointments and for stomach relief.
Man learned to make cloth by weaving fibers together. The cloth was lighter and more porous than leather made from animal hides and allowed perspiration from the body to quickly evaporate.
At first, they draped long pieces of cloth around their bodies to keep warm when it was cold and to keep cool when it was hot. Eventually, they learned to cut pieces of cloth into irregular shapes and sew them together to make robes and gowns that fitted their bodies more closely.
Wool is so desirable because it can be woven into cloth that is soft, warm, light and strong. Wool, which is hair that grows on sheep, is finer and curlier than the hair of other animals.
Wool fiber is oval and uneven. An oval fiber bends sideways as it grows out of the pore in the skin, becoming curved and crinkled. If stretched, it will spring back to its original shape.
Curly fibers make a warmer cloth than straight fibers. When a cold wind blows against us, heat is taken from our bodies, so we put on a woolen sweater to keep warm. The thicker and fuzzier the sweater, the less the wind can penetrate and the less heat will be lost. The thousands of tiny air pockets in a piece of fluffy wool fabric prevent heat from escaping rapidly.
It was discovered that woolen materials could be made fuzzier by raising the ends of some of the fibers out of the cloth, with the burrs of the teasel. The plant made the material seem fuller; hence, the name fuller teasel. The teasing made the garment warmer, and if a heavier nap was desired, the teasing was repeated several times.
Today, the process of using teasels to tease wool has been taken over by mechanical machines. However, the teasel still is with us and now grows wild over many sections of our country. Its heads are used in dry flower arrangements and, of course, making Christmas trees.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.