These can be categorized as: seed fibres (cotton, vegetable downs); stem or stalk fibres (e.g. straw), Bast Fibres (e.g. flax, hemp, jute); leaf fibres (pine wool, tampico, esparto grass, raffia, corn shucks); fruit fibres (coir); other vegetable materials (wood, sea wrack, latex). They can also be categorized according to their suitability for first fillings, second fillings, skimmer layers and roll edges.
Coir, the fibre, obtained from the outer husk of the coconut (Cocus nucifera), was introduced to Britain around 1845. It forms a solid, densely packed filling and is a less expensive but less resilient substitute for curled hair. To obtain coir, the husk is split, retted and then beaten to loosen the fibres which are dried for use. Retting involves leaving stems to rot in water to separate the fibrous from the non fibrous parts of the plant.
Spanish moss (Tilandia usneoides) is an epiphyte, a member of the Bromiliaceae family, from the southern United States of America and from Central America. It is available in several grades though not much used today, perhaps because of environmental threats to its survival. The black variety, which is retted longer and ginned more thoroughly, is of better quality than the grey (Bast, 1946). Spanish moss is inferior to top grade hair, but superior to short hair.
Tow is a byproduct of the manufacture of bast fibres, during scutching or hackling, a process of beating to separate fibres from plant waste (Bast, 1946). It is a dense filling but has poor resilience.
Algerian fibre is obtained from the leaves of palm grass (Chamareops humilus) which grows in Northern Africa and Southern Spain. The leaves are shredded and curled in a manner similar to hair. It is imported as rope and unwound at a fibre processing plant. The green fibre may be dyed black to achieve sterilization (probably because of the increase in temperature during dyeing). It is coarser than hair and best suited as a first filling. It has good resilience over a long period.
Ulva marina is a type of seaweed processed by washing and drying. It is a coarse filling with very poor resistance and durability. Webster's Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy of 1845 says of seaweed: 'Well spoken of as a stuffing for mattresses; does not harbour vermin ... is tolerably light and soft ... If not sufficiently washed is said to attract moisture, owing to a little salt remaining in it.'
The following loose fillings are softer and less resilient than the filling materials described hitherto. Therefore, in better quality work they are only used for second fillings or cushion stuffing, though they may occur elsewhere in poor quality upholstery.
Kapok, a seed fibre of the Ceiba tree (Bombacaceae - Ceiba pentandra) is the most important but not the only source of this material. It is processed by ginning. The Drapers Dictionary of 1882 comments that 'kapok is employed to a limited degree in upholstery ... used for stuffing chairs and pillows'.
Cotton fillings are a byproduct of the manufacturing process of separating cotton seeds from cotton fibre. The short cotton linters, still attached to the seeds, are removed and formed into cotton felt. The earliest date for cotton wadding observed in upholstered furniture is around 1850.
Straw and dried grasses pack down hard and are most suited as a linear filling for roll edges, see Howlett (1990).
The identification of vegetable fillings is discussed by Catling and Grayson (1982).
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