Straight from the mill to my stash

otterburn millI’ve had this terrible weakness for years, almost before I knitted regularly. I’m a bit hooked on mill visiting, you see (this is the old Otterburn Mill in Northumberland). All I need is a sign assaying something like ‘historic woollen mill’ and I’m off down tiny lanes and up steep slopes, in complete defiance of oncoming traffic and hedge-cutting tractors (yes, my car is dented).

Actually, it’s not just mills – it’s almost any factory. I do hope it’s not just me – and it’s not some misplaced socialist romanticism either; I’ve worked – albeit briefly and as a student – in a chocolate factory. Put me off choc for at least ten years; I can recommend it as aversion therapy.

My girls’ grammar school was a perhaps untypical – not a hint of divided skirts, beefy games mistresses and people crying ‘Good shot, Ginger’ at lacrosse matches. Well, OK, a hint. More than a hint in the case of the first two but definitely not the third, as I was the only ginger and I was crap at lacrosse. Ahem. Sorry. Got distracted there: lacrosse leaves its scars. And sometimes teeth.

It was untypical in that it believed in giving the girls a broader view of life – and so we went on visits to things like printing works and newspaper offices and the aforementioned chocolate factory. This was obviously influential since at some point in my life I ended up working in all three. It’s something about the behind-the-scenes revelation, the ‘oh, that’s how you do X or make Y’ that has always fascinated me. Plus, there’s a real fascination is seeing people do what they do really well. (There’s also the entertainment factor, of course: I was a pre-uni intern in a really old-fashioned – even then – newspaper office when a printer dropped a forme and there was type all over the floor. Learned some really interesting words on that occasion, despite the elderly sub shouting that there was ‘a lass in t’office’. It made a change from checking names at funerals.)

Nat Wool MuseumBut for me there’s something really special about a woollen mill – which I suppose is predictable, even though I’m not a a weaver and probably never will be. I lack the patience. Completely. But do I admire those who have more application and attention to detail.

One of the saddest places I know (and one which I would undoubtedly try and buy if I won the lottery, though I’d have to buy a ticket first) is a woollen mill which is just ticking over. It’s such a shame; their weaves and patterns – especially their Welsh tapestry blankets – are gorgeous, and I love their colours. There’s so much that could be done with it – look at the success of Melin Tregwynt, for example, or Trefriw in the Conwy Valley. Or, indeed, the splendid work done by the National Wool Museum (that’s them above; would it were Melin X).

I spent a happy time at Trefriw once watching the looms – one was being warped, which was awe-inspiring – and wandering around the mill. Ah – and locking myself in one of the sheds accidentally, but we’ll draw a veil over that. Another loom was being used for weaving and I loved seeing the pattern gradually appear; it was not dissimilar to watching photographs materialise in the red light of my father’s darkroom. Quite hypnotic.

Welsh weaving is a living tradition, a thriving one in the right hands, and it’s such a shame to see Melin X almost vegetating. They’ve got some sensational equipment going back to the 1900s, including a fantastic mule, apparently still working. What they have not got is a tea room, a flock of acrylic sheep or other tourist tat but I don’t think they need those things. Unfortunately enthusiasm also seems to be lacking in the remaining members of the family (and that’s why I’m not naming the mill – I might be wrong; hope so).

Quite often mills sell knitting wool as well as cloth (and those beanbag sheep and mint humbugs and slippers and mugs with ‘a present from Wales’ written on them). I know that nine times out of ten this wool may be scratchy and better used in cloth, but it doesn’t stop me buying it. Sometimes I get lucky.

trefriw wool

Sometimes, despite being a bit itchy, I get beautiful stitch definition as well as lovely colours (and thanks, Trefriw, for this 4 ply yarn which made a triangular shawl – best worn over something, but hey).

And sometimes I get really lucky.

Take Jamieson’s of Sandness in Shetland – predictable that we should end up at the mill during our stay on Shetland a couple of years ago, but theirs is mainly wool for knitting, so it’s not quite the same – no way is there that lottery element, that ‘will it be so scratchy I won’t even be able to bear knitting with it’ dilemma (partial answer: wash it well). But when I set to go through my stash, in a vague attempt to at least use some of the All-Wales Yarn Mountain, I was surprised at what else I had. And they were all still fine – not a hint of deterioration. No snapping, no fraying, no breaking and (shhhhhh) no hint of moth. Now then – what will I do with them? There’s not an awful lot of anything – I wonder…

PS: Synchronicity, or what?

tapestry blanketJust after posting this I popped into the nearby town to do some shopping, called in on a friend who runs a charity shop. While we were talking a man came in with a donation – two vintage Welsh tapestry blankets.

Single bed size, in a soft daffodil yellow, bottle green and cream. I was able to persuade her to put them aside until there are more people about – Easter would be ideal – and to price them accordingly. I don’t imagine they’ll rise to the heights of some of the vintage textiles on Jane Beck’s  wonderful website devoted to Welsh textiles, but at least they’ll raise a good sum for cancer relief. Unfortunately (and incredibly) none of us had a camera on us, so this blanket detail is from Ceredigion Museum, and is from the equally wonderful Gathering the Jewels website.


16 thoughts on “Straight from the mill to my stash

  1. Elaine

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy your posts–always so informative. Thanks for sharing such good stuff!! Starved for good stuff like this on this side of the pond.

    1. kate Post author

      Thank so much – I love putting them together (it’s easy when you feel passionately about something). Must go out and buy lottery ticket so I can buy Melin X. Or alternatively waste £2.

  2. welshhillsagain

    I totally share the obsession with behind the scenes and how things work. It was one of the great pleasures of my working life that I got to go into businesses and really get down into the detail of how they made breakfast cereal or valium. I need to go to Trefriw. It is quite close and ridiculous that I have never made it.

    1. kate Post author

      Isn’t it fascinating???

      You DO need to come to Trefriw – we could even meet up! (There’s a dyer’s garden which always makes me want to replant)

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks, and thanks twice – that idea of a community mill is wonderful, and the wool blankets are delicious. I’ve a feeling that my next post will see me banging on about the (Sutherland) demise of Hunters of Brora. That would have been a wonderful community project – no, I’d better not start. Yet!

      1. croftgarden

        There is nothing wrong with passion and commitment and the use of the soapbox from time to time. Harris Tweed is hanging on, but it is nothing compared to what it should be. I suppose the problem is that if you buy a Harris Tweed jacket it lasts several lifetimes, not good for repeat business but very sustainable!

        1. kate Post author

          I think you’re quite right about the Harris Tweed – there’s a (depressing) reason why so many manufacturers expose built-in obsolescence, I suppose. Sigh. I LOVE it – the range of colours when you look closely and the sheer craftsmanship is wonderful. Best cloth in the world?

  3. knitsofacto

    I wrote a blogpost about Trefriw for!

    Isn’t it a pity that there isn’t a mill preservation society on the scale of the railway preservation guys!

  4. mosaicthinking

    Enjoyed your post. I have been searching the internet for woollen mills that are still operating in either Australia or New Zealand and there are probably only a handful across both countries. It’s a sad thing.

    1. kate Post author

      That is such a shame – *big sigh*… Clearly our Society for the Preservation of Old Textile Mills needs to be international!

  5. Jane Beck

    Some very interesting observations. Dont forget though that we have a number of mills still working hard in Wales : most notably Melin Teifi in Drefach, Curlew weavers in Ceredigion. Solva mill in Pembrokeshire & Elfed in Carmarthenshire. Yes they all have a problem with no family members willing to carry on ( except perhaps Curlew) but are enjoying an Indian Summer of high demand at the moment. Examples from all the Welsh mills new & old can be seen & squeezed at my Tin shed shop in Ceredigion & visitors are always welcome. Jane Beck Welsh Blankets.

    1. kate Post author

      We really do, and we’re very lucky. I’m having an expedition down to some of them later this summer – up here, the main one is Trefriw, but it will be good to see some others. And your collection of blankets is delicious!


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