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A Brief History of Welsh Wool

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A Brief History of Welsh Wool

Nia Knott

A brief history of Welsh wool

The Welsh have used wool since prehistory. For much of history the wool was spun and knitted in cottage industry style; the beginnings of industrialisation came in medieval times, promoted by the Cistercian communities at Tintern, Margam and Neath, in South Wales in particular. With the adoption of the water wheel to power woollen mills the industry thrived.

It was the 19th and 20th Centuries, however, in which the wool industry held a huge importance for Wales. Raw materials were in plentiful supply, as was a good local workforce skilled in the production of wool. In areas such as the Teifi valley in Ceredigion & Carmarthenshire, the abundance of fast flowing water to power the mills, as well as good rail links for exporting, made it an important textile manufacturing region.

Traditional use for wool products was for local demand for tweed or flannel clothing such as shawls, shirts and socks, and for household items such as blankets and bed covers. Women would use their shawls as baby carriers. Much wool was shipped to London to be exported around the world. However, there was a dark side to the success of the industry. Welsh wool clothing, or 'plains' as they were known, became the preferred option for slave masters in the West Indies to clothe slaves. It's hard to imagine the Welsh, who have historically fought for justice for themselves and others, and recently campaigned to be the world's first Fair Trade Nation, supporting the slave industry in such a way, but the Welsh played a role, and it should not be forgotten. 

There was fierce competition for the industry from Northern England, and aside from a boost during the First World War, when the demand for soldier's clothing was high, the industry began to decline. Following the coal depression of the 1920s - 1930s, few woollen mills remained. 

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The Welsh Wool Revival?

The Welsh wool industry has continued, albeit at a small scale, to the present day. Due to regulations, wool produced in Wales is collected centrally by the British Wool Marketing Board, who have been in charge of collecting, promoting & selling all wool in Britain since the 1950s. Very much an international market, wool is exported as British, and in turn, weavers here in Wales often use imported wool. 

Over the last few years, there has been a resurgence in interest in Welsh Wool. Customers now want products that have a story behind them, are local and they are more interested than ever in the provenance and heritage of the items they are buying. There has been an increased demand for tapestry made in Wales. Woollen mills and individual weavers still create their own unique and distinctive patterns, and as well as producing the traditional blankets now produce a wide range of other items made from Welsh tapestry. 

Taking it a step further, the Cambrian Wool Initiative was recently established as a way to try to protect the origin and promote wool produced in the Cambrian Mountains area in rural West Wales. They have begun to produce, collect, and directly sell wool that can be used in a variety of ways to create beautiful, and importantly, sustainable, products. They are also working with one of Wales' best established mills to hopefully create fully Welsh-wool, Welsh-woven products. 

Discover more

Visit the National Wool Museum of Wales

Visit the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan's

Shop

Melin Tregwynt (Huge range of colours, styles and products, top quality)

Sian O'Doherty (Fresh designs and workshops)

Jane Beck Welsh Blankets (Large collection of vintage, antique & modern)

The Welsh Girl (Unique clothing and home textiles)

 

Want to learn more about Wales' wool industry? Immerse yourself in creativity on a craft break? We can organise you and your group a personalised tour including craft workshops, demonstrations, visits to working mills and craft museums. Just ask us how we can help you.