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?
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.”
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.”
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: