Learning from History

As a lifelong lover of natural fibres and hand crafts, it’s hardly surprising that I should find myself living in Wales and becoming fascinated with its textile history.

Wales is a land of mountains, hills and rivers. In many places it is populated more densely with sheep than with humans, for over a thousand years living in productive harmony, with little change in either farming or textile production methods until the coming of the industrial revolution. Even still things were slow to change in Wales until the mid 19th Century when the railways and introduction of synthetic dyes allowed the larger entrepreneurial mill owners to flourish, establishing themselves within easy access of the industrial areas where the quarry workers and mining families gave them a ready market for their goods.

Meanwhile in the more rural areas, wool production remained much as it had been for centuries. These mills and weaving shops were much smaller, working within their community and fulfilling the needs of the local farms and villagers. These are the mills that, although considered backward in their day, fascinate me the most, as these are the mills that continued the age old traditions of rural production. Each mill had its own character, and to some extent their own methods. Despite the competition from the new factory mills many of these small rural mills continued production up until the beginning of the 20th century. As these are the mills that had learnt to make the best use of local fleece, they were flexible enough to provide yarn for both the knitters and the weavers who produced tweed, blankets and rugs.

Most rural mills began their life as pandy mills that cleaned and finished the cloth brought to them by local weavers. At this point all spinning was done at home. Often it was put out by the farms to local spinsters. By the end of the 18thcentury, pandy mills began to install carding engines and spinning frames. They were therefore able to perform two functions, that of manufacturing the yarn and the final finishing. Some of these rural mills also had one or two hand looms. Others worked with the hand weavers who worked at home, often in a lean-to attached to the house or on looms within their own homes. Characteristically these looms were small, often used to weave flannel. If blankets were required, it meant weaving two identically matched halves which were joined in the centre. The width was generally no more than 36 inches when finished. Many of these looms continued to be used until the early part of the 20th century.

Within many areas, groups of weavers appear to have developed their own styles of weaving , perhaps dictated part by the customers’ demands, but also by the qualities of fleece available to them. Many of these weavers worked with the most basic equipment and often in poor conditions, however the quality of the cloth they produced is remarkably good. It’s often far superior to the large industrial mills whose machinery was set up to return a fast profit; the rural mills were more of a mind to provide a good service. To produce what was demanded by their customers, they were flexible enough to weave small orders using the local farmers’ wool clip, often taking fleece in payment.

It is also within these small mills and weaving sheds that old traditions were preserved and passed from generation to generation as fathers frequently apprenticed their own sons and close family, passing on techniques and patterns taught by their own fathers.

It has always saddened me that little written documentation has survived from these mills. It is likely that very little ever existed because the apprentices worked alongside the masters to learn the intricacies of the trade. Likewise the dyers, often weavers themselves, learnt the procedures from their forefathers. Thus, the scant survival of documentation.

This makes our job all the more interesting, as we sift through what has been recorded and try to piece together odd references made to the craft before its eventual disappearance in the early 20th century. Sometimes it is only by careful examination of old pieces that we can really learn about their work or the yarns which they so skilfully produced.

I am now based in Radnorshire and curate for a small independent museum dedicated to the Welsh textile industry. While our collection covers work from some of the earlier factory mills, it is the examples of work from small rural cottage industry that fascinates me. This year I have been working on the restoration of a selection of costume pieces and blankets, which is the most wonderful way to become familiar with the subject. There is nothing like sitting with a piece for days, examining, cleaning and painstakingly restoring it to really get to know about the weave structure and methods of construction, and to realise that the old weavers possibly knew more about yarn preparation and weaving than most do today. Their cloth was woven to last. Standards were extremely high. It was not all about money. It was about the product. There was immense pride in the work and in satisfying the customer.

This also meant that the quality of fleece was important. The farmer knew this. The spinner and weaver knew this. And the customer did, too.  Theirs was not a throwaway society. Farming communities weren’t by any means wealthy; what they bought or exchanged for services had to last. Many a time I have examined a blanket which has been handed down in a family. The owner can still tell you the farm the fleece came from and who in their family the blanket was made for, and although these are simple household items are important, it matters on a larger scale, too. It is part of a disappearing way of life, and our job at the museum is to record it and to learn as much about it as we can.

One cry we constantly hear is that the wool clip is no longer worth any money. The saddest thing to me is that if the farmer receives little recompense there is little incentive for him to breed specifically for the fleece quality. It is a vicious circle, and without small local mills he cannot even contemplate processing his own yarn. However, I can at least say that the tide is turning. There are small farms all over the world that are dedicating themselves to wool production. Their output may be small, and their product expensive compared to mass produced yarn, but despite this there is growing interest.

It encourages me greatly that even though many rural crafts began to disappear in the early part of the 20th century, the current revival of interest is particularly strong as in more recent years the question of sustainability has become ever more important. If we are to really get to grips with sustainability, then we need to know more about manufacturing methods. It is not enough to say an item is ‘pure wool.’ We need to know that the sheep have been ethically reared. We need to know that no wasteful or toxic processes were used. We need to know that the standard of manufacture means that the item or garment was made to last. We need to be able to see past the seductive sales lines that accompany commercial salesmanship.

To do this we need to be better educated. Sometimes when examining an old piece, I am astounded at the fineness of the yarn, the careful selection of the correct twist, and the tightness of the weave. All these factors contribute to the quality of the item. Compared to modern yarns, many old yarns are far superior. The same can be said of knitting yarns. My mother, a lifelong knitter, has often commented that wool is not what it was. It pills easily, which is a travesty for a hand knitter: so many hours go into a hand knitted garment for it to bobble the first time you wear it. It is enough to bring one to tears. The truth of the matter is that modern production aims to create an illusion of luxury: yarn that feels seductively soft to the touch is not always what it seems, but it is unutterably tempting.

It can be just as disappointing when cloth does not hold its shape. An experienced older weaver once lamented that the reason many cloths fail to live up to expectations is that the twist put in at the drafting stage is insufficient, and that the twist was often too loose for the purpose. What she was politely trying to say is that the training was no longer there, and that weavers these days were not so well versed with the characteristics of wool and how it should be spun to successfully fulfil its function. This comment has stayed with me and each time I hold an old piece of cloth or yarn in my hands I cannot help but agree with her. The early hand weavers produced wonderful results with the simplest equipment because of their experience and superior knowledge. All I can say is that I joyfully live and learn and will do for the rest of my life. If I can inspire others to further their knowledge, then I will be more than happy. While I fully realise that we can never bring back the past I do believe that there is much we can learn from it.

We are now looking forward to the coming year, as the museum progresses, we will be able to complete the planed Dye Garden and to resume teaching in Spring 2023. Meanwhile, the Radnorshire Arts and Crafts Museum of Welsh Textiles will remain open to visitors by appointment.


Rosamund Black is a textile collector and maker, and a lover of all true craftsmanship. After studying Fine Art, she worked in the field of period costume, spending many years in close proximity to the antique trade. She became intrigued by the history behind antique objects and learned to restore and to re-create them. She advocates for the use of natural materials and now curates a gallery showing the work of artists and makers at the Museum of Welsh Textiles, which also offers classes in spinning, dying and other wool related subjects.