We are once again limited in what where we can go, and who we can be with. I’ve been spending some happy hours recalling the summer of 2019 (bet you have too...). That was my 'arts and crafts of Wales' summer, when I spent sunny days visiting some of the working mills of West Wales.
These mills, and the work they're now doing, got me interested in the history of Welsh tapestry wool. I had conversations with the workers, who told me about their finished products and the sustainability and the carbon footprint of traditional weaving. I chatted to some of the designers about their contemporary artistic endeavours. I had many cups of coffee and quite a few delicious lunches, and took in quite a lot of the lovely countryside and coast.
The tradition of weaving sheep's wool in Wales expanded from prehistoric times through the middle ages, relying on the fast-running streams of west Wales, especially around the Teifi, (which runs through the heart of Ceredigion where I live) to provide power. Rural mills, processing local fleeces, produced the Carthenni double-weave tapestry, which is unique to Wales.
Deeply rooted in Welsh tradition, double weave uses a strong
2-ply yarn producing a hard-wearing reversible fabric. In past centuries, every mill had its signature design. Two layers of fabric are woven one above the other, interchanging at points forming ‘pockets’, and enabling bold areas of pattern to be created. However, when the Wool Marketing Board came into being in the 1950s, Welsh yarn found itself blended mostly into carpet yarns. The weaving mills began to fail and the iconic Carthenni patterns were almost lost.
|National Woollen Museum|
I started my discoveries by visiting the National Woollen Museum, 20 minutes from my house. Formally, it was 'Melin Teifi', and produced shirts and shawls, blankets and bedcovers, woollen stockings and socks, which were sold in the surrounding countryside – and to the rest of the world. Reopened now after Covid, you can see the sympathetically restored machines in operation, and follow the process from
ecently there has been a renaissance – a new fusion of tradition and modernity – using contemporary marketing techniques to secure a future. However, there is an issue with both attracting apprentices and maintaining the desire for sustainable, artisanal, small scale, locally based goods.
Melin Tregwynt is a whitewashed mill in a remote wooded valley It's been continually used for nearly 200 years, so the buildings have an industrial feel of oily cogs, dusty air and busy weavers, while the shop’s display style is distinctly high-end high street.
They supply John Lewis and Mulberry and say, ‘Weathering wars, recessions and the passing of time, the looms have continued to work their magic since the 17th century, when local farmers would bring their fleeces to be spun into yarn and woven into sturdy Welsh wool blankets.'
The design team take centuries-old Cartheni and ‘revive and design’ unique pattern ideas. They describe their technique as, '…inspired by our heritage, the archive built up over a hundred years of production and love of colour. Some fabrics in our current collection…are brand new but still inspired buy the landscape and tradition of Wales.' Tegwynt has regenerated the tradition of Patagonian double-weave (where Welsh-speaking immigrant weaves took on a South American flavour). The designers are also influenced by the Welsh landscape, Welsh lace, traditional Welsh quilting and the ‘sense of spirit of place’.
In the visitor centre, a poster shows dying methods of previous centuries. These generated muted colours and I noted the mill’s contemporary colour combinations are equally muted – grey and beige, lilac, ochre yellow, powder blue, amber and pink.
Jayne Pierson, who previously worked for McQueen and Westwood, uses the mill’s fabrics to create fashion items which have starred in a Vogue fashion shoot…'I've created something that is a slow, sustainable fashion that is taking something age-old and reinventing it and upcycling it and making it relevant now to a younger consumer. Maybe younger people aren't so familiar with the heritage of Welsh wool - [they can] look at it again and be introduced and turned onto something that is actually very beautiful…'
Solva spent quite a lot of cash on restoring the mill wheel to working order, to reinforce their ethical credentials. By using carpet quality Welsh wool, Solva have become specialist weavers of exceptionally long-lasting floor rugs, runners and stair carpets. They feature symbolic designs synonymous with Welsh textiles.
To extend their marketing, the shop stocks locally designed textile art that fits its underlying ethos, including designs by seamstress Emma Iles, who has been inspired by the rugged Solva landscape to develop Seaforth Designs. She is
first inspired by fabric. 'I’d find a piece of soft woven grey herringbone wool with different weft and weaves that would look prefect for a dunlin. But now the collection is evolving. I see oystercatchers in the harbour and decide to add them to the collection, so go on the hunt for charcoal tweeds, and work that way round.'
Felin Fach is extremely proud of remaining as close to traditional methods as possible. They use a high percentage of wool, alpaca, mohair, linen and silk sourced from local farms or smallholdings. They hand dye using natural botanical plant extracts such as Madder, Weld, Indigo and Logwood.
The fixing agent is Alum, a nontoxic water-soluble
metallic salt and they hand finish using water from springs at the Mill.…Whilst botanical dye is a more time consuming option there is a beauty and depth of colour to natural dye that becomes more beautiful with age…Our Welsh Tapestry Blankets are woven on traditional looms and created in limited numbers with personal care and attention.
Just a mile from my house, is Curlew Weavers, a centuries-old family business which originally made its own dyes and used the little river Ceri (my local river, that nuns into the Teifi) to drive looms. Roger Poulson owns and runs the mill at a profit. When I needed curtains, I went to him, knowing that I'd be hanging real Welsh Carthinni woven wool, hand-made on machinery that hasn’t much changed over the centuries. Roger told me, 'I use an artist’s eye to evolve new designs, choosing colour combinations from available dyes and allowing the ‘weft’ to dictate patterns.'
My curtain design features three yarns closeon the colour spectrum, and one from the opposite end – gorgeous autumnal oranges and browns, with royal blue. Stand back and the blue subtly turns the entire thing to a golden hue.
Rodger upgraded his family’s business model radically, focusing on the sustainability of small-space production. 'I offer carding, spinning and weaving for Rare and Specialist Breeders and organic farmers, while making a range of upholstery fabrics, throws, garments and dyed, spun yarn in skeins.' He supplies the Welsh Office, the QE2 and even Downing Street. 'My products have a small carbon footprint. Sheep are part of a natural carbon cycle, because wool is a planet-friendly fibre with a long, recyclable lifespan which takes far less water than cotton in the manufacturing process.'
Unable to cope with the vast industrialisation of textile production, the Welsh woollen industry has reinvented its intent and objectives, using the romance of its esteemed past and the revival of hand-made crafts to create a future for the family mills. It now has to concentrate on the next generation skill-set by offering attractive apprenticeships
and keep a close eye on textile trends.
If you would like to know more about this subject, why not start with Wikipedia, Woollen Industry in Wales https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woollen_industry_in_Wales
The National Woollen Museum is open to you, by rebooking free tickets; https://museum.wales/wool/
Most of these mills are open right now, but check their websites;
Melin Tregwynt, https://melintregwynt.co.uk
Felin Fach https://www.felinfach.com
and you can find Emma Iles, Seaforth Designs, here; https://www.seaforthdesigns.com