The future of Welsh tapestry in an industry of ageing weavers

Loom still in production at Cambrian Mill

Picnic rugs woven on the loom at Cambrian Woollen Mill (photo courtesy of Meg Nisbet)

Autumn leaves are laced with the first frosts, hands are numb, noses cold and tartan is out in force. But in true Welsh style you are sat next to a burning log fire, wrapped up in a woollen blanket that feels like it was woven just for you.

Tapestry quilts and knitted shawls make their way downstairs in bundles as you prepare for a snowy Christmas in the Welsh countryside. These vintage treasures with their unique hand-sewn extras are family keepsakes and deeply rooted in Welsh culture.

But what if someone were to tell you there was no generation to takeover from the now ageing weavers and keep the original woollen mills in production?

Map pinpointing the remaining woollen mills in Wales

Map pinpointing the remaining woollen mills in Wales (created on google maps)

At its peak Wales had over 300 working woollen mills, weaving and quilting the finest tapestry in the land. Today only nine remain and their future is uncertain.

Member of the Welsh Mills Society, Jane Beck says: “An unsuccessful bid to encourage apprenticeships this year saw no uptake. With no new generation to take over the industry, most of these mills will be closed in five years time.”

This may come as a surprise as Cardiff’s Christmas market is currently lined with tartan textiles, tapestry cloth and Welsh wool. In recent years, there has been an unprecedented demand for quality material and a nostalgic revival for vintage things in the UK. A few mill owners explain why:

Elaine Williams of Trefriw Woollen Mill, North Wales, says: “It’s called ‘Cocooning’ – people value traditional products, which remind them of their childhood and security in times of austerity and financial uncertainty.”

Raymond Jones of Melin Teifi, West Wales, says: “The whole woollen thing is buzzing, there is also a need for contemporary designs and we can cater for that too. Fashion circles and people are currently appreciating natural products.”

“It fits in with the return to sustainable, artisanal, small scale, locally based production but it also follows the trend towards the mid century modern look,” says Eifion Griffths of Melin Tregwynt in West Wales.

Mark Daniel of Cambrian Mill, Mid Wales, says: “We are thriving at the moment, the stuff is in demand especially Welsh tartans, people want and appreciate real textiles.”

However, Jane Beck, whose website Welsh Blankets was added to the National Web Archive after being deemed “important” to Welsh national heritage, believes the present demand is subject to the current recession and once this diminishes so will our desire for quality home made goods: “Once this wanes the remaining mills will need to regroup; either bringing in newer rapier looms for mass production or investing in new apprenticeships, preferably both. Without this they will be lost in our appetite for cheap foreign goods once more.”

Over 2800 threads of yarn have been individually threaded on to this loom at Cambrian Woollen Mill

Here over 2800 threads of yarn have been threaded onto a drum as part of the weaving process at Cambrian Woollen Mill (photo courtesy of Meg Nisbet)

The majority of mills left in production still use ancient looms and traditional methods to produce cloth. Many of these techniques have been passed down through generations keeping history and timeless designs alive. The argument is that these mills will have to embrace new methods to survive.

Nonetheless, many of the mills are run by small families and produce traditional Welsh cloth that is valued in its community. Elaine Williams says: “we produce Welsh tapestry bedspreads, which were and still are given as wedding presents and handed down as heirlooms,” whilst Raymond Jones employs a team of only three.

Melin Tregwynt in West Wales is the exception; the mill specialises in double-cloth, supplying stock to the likes of John Lewis and working with brands such as Mulberry. The mill employs over 30 people and its production has doubled over the last four years. Owner, Eifion Griffiths says: “As far as we’re concerned the old traditional ways are long gone. We’ve been using rapier looms since the 1980s. We’ve tried to keep the best of the traditions alive but have just made them relevant to the modern market”

He believes that there could be a problem with succession in the other remaining mills: “Historically the industry was a genuine industry, not some quaint craft based rural idyll. Volumes were large; hundreds of mills were working and employing thousands,” he says: “Today we the surviving remnants of this industry live in a very different world. I think perhaps the days of families taking over are gone.”

Eifion insists that if his grandfather walked into the mill today he would recognise what was going on: “the machines are more modern and efficient but the principal behind them remains the same.”

Cambrian Woollen Mills

The old Cambrian Mill has been running since 1850 (photo courtesy of Meg Nisbet)

There is an agreement that old mills and vintage machinery are expensive to run. According to Mark Daniel: “The biggest problem is that the parts are so old they are not made anymore, if a part breaks down you have to specifically order it and it’s expensive and hard to replace.”

However, many of the family-run businesses cherish the fact that they weave cloth from machinery with stories. The generation of weavers may be on borrowed time, but the belief is that the old looms are timeless. Elaine Williams says: “Our mill was originally a ‘pandy’ and used water to power the waterwheel and wash the cloth. We still use the water to generate our electricity. We also use vintage machines and carry out all the processes from the raw wool. It’s important to those of Welsh decent.”

So the next time you wrap up against the wind in a tartan scarf or appreciate the soft wool of a heavy weight blanket, breathe in the accent of Wales, appreciate its history and support its culture. For it’s nice to have woollen blankets that feel like they were woven just for you.

What are your thoughts, do the remaining Welsh mills have a future? This audio hears the opinion of Cardiff locals, you can also take our poll below: 

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17 thoughts on “The future of Welsh tapestry in an industry of ageing weavers

  1. Hi,

    My name is Suzi Park and I am running the Apprenticeship pilot with Skillset Cymru and Coleg Sir Gar, Carmarthen. We have had difficulty in recruting apprentices for the Woollen Mills but we have in fact recruited one who started on the programme in October. One of the objectives of the pilot is to raise awareness with youngsters and the opportunities available to them in the whole of the Fashion and Textiles sector in Wales and we will continue to do this during this pilot (which ends in November next year). We have had to work to tight timescales and have been very successful in recruiting youngsters onto the programme but we know that many school leavers do not know the opportunities available to them in the Woollen industry in Wales.

    We have been successful this week in having our ‘follow on’ bid accepted by the Welsh Government. The project continues on from the Textiles Technologies Project and involves the purchase of a jacquard loom. We carried out extensive market research before we prepared the bid and this research included evidence that the “Heritage” woollen industry was in need of assistance and this is something we will be looking at during the project (alongside research into technical woven textiles with businesses who are working in that area). Many designer-makers, graduates and small companies have difficulty in getting sampling and design and development samples woven and this is something we will be trying to address on the project.

    If you would like further information please contact me at suzi.park@colegsirgar.ac.uk

    We have various facebook pages where you can find further information.

    https://www.facebook.com/FashionAndTextileApprenticeshipPilot

    https://www.facebook.com/skillset.apprenticeshipFT

    You may also be interested in this Wool Group

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cambrian-Wool/216376878537515

    Great blob post by the way.

    Suzi

  2. Hi Suzi,

    That’s brilliant and incredibly interesting, thank you!

    Nearly all of the mills involved with this article also said they were either struggling with recruiting apprentices or hadn’t known it was an option.

    However since publishing, Eifion Griffiths at Melin Tregwynt has informed us that he has a weaving apprentice at the mill who is training at Coleg Sir Gar, is this the same person you recruited onto the programme in October?

    It’s great that somebody is working hard at maintaining Welsh heritage and sees a future for the woollen industry! The results of our poll have shown that others feel the same way.

    We will do our best to tweet and share your project!

    Good luck with it all, keep us in the loop!

    Thank you

    The Lady is a Revamp

    • Hi

      Yes, it is the same apprentice that I referred to. I have been working with Melin Teifi and Curlew Weavers as well, but we just ran out of time. I will not be giving up though as we will be ‘rolling out’ the programme after the Pilot finishes.

      The pilot has been advertised, and we would like to engage with more Mills, but of course we are working across the whole sector which includes garment manufacturing companies ie First Corporate Clothing, AJM sewing, iSea Surfware to name a few. Also Corgi Hosiery in Ammanford (knitwear) and textile/garment designers Patricia Lester in Abergavanny, also the Resist Gallery in Llantrisant. A very exciting and interesting project. We only had 20 places for the pilot.

      It might be worth following Creative Skillset Cymru for updates and information as well.

      Thanks for your positive response.

      Suzi

  3. Jane Beck Welsh Blankets : The industry is crying out for Private investment. new blood & modern methods otherwise it will be consigned like the rest of British Industry to tourist attractions & Museums. In its 11th hour there are opportunities for reviving at least one mill with some investment. We cant leave it to private businesses to shoulder the responsibility for taking the industry forward by employing apprentices in what is their busiest time. Swamped by demand they are simply too busy to train new staff.

    • Hi Jane,

      I had no idea just how interesting and complicated this topic of debate would be! It’s fab to get completely different view points on it. Is this the general consensus of the Welsh mill society? Would be interesting to know!

      What do you think of the Apprenticeship pilot with Skillset Cymru and Coleg Sir Gar? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

      Thank you!

      • The mill society are more concerned with corn mills & preserving buildings really. So I dont speak on their behalf. My views on the apprenticeship scheme are mixed. In principle it is the way it has bought new blood into all the trades & a pity that it was abandoned for so long. My own son has taken an apprenticeship as a chef at Nanteos in Aberystwyth & in order to promote this new directive towards apprenticeships his college course ( at Coleg Sir Gar) was withdrawn part the way through. For many trades it will be the answer. However, the mills are at their busiest for twenty years. These are private businesses at full capacity, some with short leases ( that will expire in a shorter period than an apprenticeship programme) and they have little interest in slowing production to teach new staff. Its all hands on deck. What is needed I believe is private investment & for the Colleges to be teaching weaving on relevant machinery to carry the industry forward: Rapiers. These do not require the skills & experience learnt over years & years by the existing workforce on out dated Dobby Looms. That is why the only uptake for apprenticeships so far is with Eifion Griffiths who uses Rapiers.. that is the future. We cant keep hanging onto the past.
        In an ideal world, Id love to see a place for Dobby looms continuing the tradition but its unrealistic to think that an industry in its dotage has time to spend training when it has its hands full meeting an indian summer of orders. Rapiers are the way forward for a competitive industry & apprentices can be taught to use them far more easily.
        If something isnt done within the next 2 years it will be too late. Like most British Industry it will be consigned to tourist attractions & Museums. Such a shame when designers & retailers are crying out for Welsh cloth .
        Theres room in the market for a new mill, using modern techniques & working with Coleg Sir Gar to train apprentices. a bit of investment & forward thinking is needed. I know of the perfect Mill & have proposed this to the college 12 months ago.

  4. I am working with a small team on the Apprenticeship Pilot with Skillset Cymru, which is a pan-Wales initiative and is a scheme which working across all disciplines in the sector. We have also recently been successful in our bid to the Welsh Government for funding for a loom and the project activities will include assisting the Welsh (and UK and International markets) in the Fashion and Garment industry – which of course the Woollen Mills are a part. There is a lot of work to be undertaken in this area obviously and the college cannot invest in one business directly, we are training institution and can not invest directly in monetary terms. However, the Apprenticeship programme and our commitment to the industry through government funded project work and support, is where we can directly assist.

    Through my work I meet many people in the industry who feel passionate about our heritage, craft, skills and UK manufacturing. The issues being experienced by the woollen industry are not exclusive to them and we have found many companies in other areas (garment manufacture, knitwear etc.) in Wales, who are also at capacity and have similar problems to the Mills: ageing workforce, shortage of skills, supply chain problems and the youngsters not having the correct impression of the industry. We are working with other organisations by raising awareness and continually working on this. We are also aware of the difficulties that young talented graduates have, who want to get into the industry (weave included) and also small businesses that are now unable to sample their designs quickly because the Mills are currently so busy.

    The people I engage with are passionate about our wonderful industry and these include other education institutions, organisations, sector skills councils, businesses and individuals. I believe, through collaboration and joint effort we can revive our industry. Where there’s a will, there’s a way…. is there not? That’s my mantra anyway!

    (Please note: I am writing these comments as an individual and my views may not match those with the institutions, budsinesses and organisations I work with).

  5. Hi Suzi and Jane,

    Would be fabulous if you could keep us involved in the apprenticeship pilot, the schemes surrounding the mills and any future updates! Maybe we could do a follow up post?

    The amount of engagement we’ve had from passionate people has really surprised us!

    So please do keep is in the loop with what’s happening, we’d love to keep track of it all.

    Thanks again

    The Lady is a Revamp

  6. Pingback: AW14 woven at Robyn Coles Millinery | The Lady is a Revamp

  7. We are currently inviting applications for a trainee Mill hand to learn a skilled & traditional trade in Elvet Woollen mill. This vacancy is through the Jobsgrowth Wales Sceme & applicants can apply through them or contact the mill . We are also looking for an apprentice to start in September & applications for that post can be made via Suzy Parks at Coleg Sir Gar

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