Woolly Wales, part the second

Hey ho, I dunno; you have a heavy workload and then when it eases off a bit you get ill – flaming contact dermatitis from synthetic fleece taking forever to shift. Not too ill, thank heavens, though I am off to the GP this morning and may well come back with bubonic plague, surgeries being what they are at this time of year. Ahem. Back to fleece. The real stuff this time, which is just as well.

Before I get myself all distracted by the history and politics of the wool industry in Wales (first-ever mail order retailer, riots, involvement of the Chartists, etc), I thought it might be a good idea to have a further whip round the National Wool Museum. If you’re careful and not like me, the route takes you round the process in a systematic way. If you are like me, you zoom from one area to another crying ‘I’ve got a modern one of those!’

wool museum again

(see that skein winder?) and ‘I never knew that!’ and playing with an interactive model of sheep shearing designed for seven-year-olds.

I was much taken with the light in some areas, noticeably on the spinning floor,


where the mule takes up considerably more room than the various great wheels they also have displayed (and no, you can’t use them). I’d love to see the mule working – which it does – but we weren’t there at the right time. Once I pitched up at Brynkir mill near me when their amazing (1905, I think I remember being told) mule was running, and it was astonishing: so smooth, so hypnotic. Bet it wasn’t so astonishing once you’d been spinning for a while, mind. You’d probably have started in the mill where your parents worked at about the age of 10, and would most likely have been on the carders. You’d have been poor (generally, except during the first-world-war boom, and even then you’d still have been pretty poor) and, as one commentator put it ‘weavers marry young and die young’.

More in another post, ahem…

Some pieces of kit called to me, not just the various great wheels (‘a piece of equipment that could be constructed by any competent country carpenter’). Also in the same room as the spinning mule is this, a machine for ‘raising the nap’ of the woven cloth with teasels:


This ‘teasel gig’ contained 3000 prickly seed heads and was electrically powered, which seems like a curious – no, that’s not the right word, interesting is better – combination of the the traditional method of working and the modern. I wonder how long it continued in use? Our helpful guide was chatting to other people by this stage, but the next time I go I will make sure to ask.

Along the way, I fell in love with flannel. Really. Astonishing fabric. Everyone knows and loves the Welsh double-weave ‘tapestries’, but flannel strikes me as their somewhat overlooked little sister, and not so little. It’s been going for much longer (as far as anyone can tell) and it kept the mills going too, for decades. It clothed miners, soldiers, ordinary people; it even saw off the last invasion of Britain – the French mistook the red flannel of the women’s clothing for soldiers’ uniforms and fled. At least that’s the story; personally I think they’d probably run across irate Welsh women before (try barging into a queue for tea) and were being circumspect.

weaving red flannel

It’s beautiful stuff, good flannel is (and yes, a flannel loom is narrower than what we’ve all come to think of as a ‘normal’ loom). Incidentally, the weaving sheds also had to be light enough for the weavers to see what they were doing – but the windows are opaque up to a certain height,  so they couldn’t also see what was going on outside. Keep your eyes on your work, you!

The tenter area, where the cloth was finished, isn’t quite so light, and the tenter box – the blue-walled structure – barely needs light at all:

tenter area

Right at the end of the museum, if you’re organised and progress as you should instead of going back to front, is a sewing shop and the reconstruction of a market stall, and an exhibition gallery. Here, even though the light is very subdued, you can just see the fact that some of the blankets have been woven on narrow looms, something which would be much more practical for a handloom weaver in a domestic context. Rather like the taatit rugs of Shetland, they’ve been made in two halves and sewn together down the middle.


It’s hard to see, but in the second section from the left, for instance, the fourth blanket up is like that. In the middle section there’s another, the one immediately above the red and white geometric one: the check doesn’t quite match up at the join. I don’t care; I want the lot.

How soon can I go back, I wonder?


13 thoughts on “Woolly Wales, part the second

  1. Pia

    There’s a Swedish mill where you can send your handwoven wool blankets to be fulled, still uses that teasel machine. They have a video out there showing the whole process I think. So the answer is, they haven’t in fact stopped yet.

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you – how wonderful! I wonder if it might be something worth reviving in the UK (if it hasn’t already happened, that is) – must be comparatively gentle on the cloth…

  2. Lydia

    I loved reading your post today… almost as if I had been for a visit too which, perhaps one day maybe do you think we could probably across the miles, I will!!! Particularly fascinating was the teaseler to teasel the fabric and raise a nap… I know they do use teasels in National Trust houses to prevent weary tourists from sitting on 15th century chairs! Do please go again and look some more…. also, do they sell Welsh flannel and what would we use it for today? From Over Here to Over There…. Lydia

    1. kate Post author

      Hiya Lydia – One day, maybe! It’s a seriously interesting place, not enormous but fascinating.

      The working mill next door (probably next post) still makes flannel as well as the double-weave carthenni and blankets; I bought some and want to go back for more. It’s an integral part (or should be) of national dress – not that I’d be wearing national costume, being over the age of 10 and having a political objection to such patronising concepts anyway. It’s fabulous for shirts…

  3. Spade & Dagger

    I’m curious about where industrial quantities of teasels come from – are there fields of teasels grown specially for the weaving industry ? (or are small children still sent out to harvest them from the welsh wilds !) Also, how long does a teasel last in an electrically powered machine & how often do they have to be replaced? Obviously I don’t expect you to know all this off the top of your head – but it’s interesting to ponder.

    1. kate Post author

      Interesting, and maybe I can help a bit. Fuller’s teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, is quite common round us – and interestingly seems to spring up all over the place near the wool museum; I spotted some seed heads on the stream bank as we went in. I know a couple of people who both live in houses which used to be fulling mills – that sounds industrial, but they were tiny and there are lots of them, and you can tell by the name here: a ‘pandy’ is Welsh for a fulling mill, so a house called ‘Hen Bandy'(Welsh changes initial letter in some circumstances, the bane of all learners) is an ex-mill. In one case they have a persistent teasel problem in the garden.

      My betting is that it escaped from cultivation in many places, though it is also a wild flower – but they were certainly commercially grown in the US. The mills around Dre-fach Felindre were all supplied with teasel heads by a ‘teasel man’ who did the rounds between them. They weren’t actually used for carding as we spinners understand it today – they were used to raise the nap, which is a lot gentler. Apparently the teasel man used to maintain them as well (presumably be replacing worn out ones, rather than the lot). He must have needed access to loads.

        1. kate Post author

          Thank you so much – that piece is fascinating, and I’d not tracked it dow (it’s safely bookmarked now). So glad it’s not just me who has developed this slight obsession! Your ref to Ryder took me to his magisterial Sheep and Man, where he does mention teasels for finishing, but not in any detail. I’d been going through the plenty literature rather than the sheepy literature, clearly should have been more varied. Absolutely fascinating.

          I’m off to the site of another old fulling mill as it’s so lovely this afternoon. It’s now a pub (with no trace of its former life apart from info boards inside, culled from the local archives), but I’m sure I’ve seen teasels in the woods around it. Hmmmm. And one of my neighbours in this village grows teasels in such quantities in part of her smallholding that she has a problem with them – downstream from the pub/ex-fulling mill. I wonder what she knows about the history of her house?

        2. Spade & Dagger

          There’s nothing like a pub based field trip on a sunny day to assist in the process of contemplation – in fact I had one myself yesterday at an historic inn that just happened to have a Real Ale Festival !!

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