Category Archives: Museums

Woolly Wales, part the first

A gap between deadlines – I’m not complaining about work, I like to eat, buy food, that sort of thing – saw me and a friend head off on a two-hour drive to get into Foreign Lands (well, deepest Ceredigion, so far south that you’re on the edge of Camarthenshire / Sir Gaerfyrddin, so it’s foreign when you live in North Wales*). In the fog. We only got lost once, mind. I know how to enjoy myself.

Seriously, I do – because we ended up at the National Wool Museum, in Dre-fach Felindre. And it is FAB. I know I like mills – I’ve written about this inclination before, and not just the once – but it is genuinely fascinating.


Now, I was with a non-woolly person, my mate S. But she is a) a blue badge tour guide, b) indisputably Welsh, c) fascinated by all social history, so it wasn’t going to be a hardship trip for her, plus the cafe have good cakes. And there was even a mini-loom set up so that I could demonstrate the over-and-under process of weaving (not that I’m any good at it, but I was – amazingly – taught to weave at school).

But one of the very best bits was that it was quite quiet, and that we therefore had a lot of attention from a volunteer guide, Glanmor, an ex-weaver, who was fascinating to talk to. We learned all about practicalities, like this hole in the floor.

wool museum 2

It was cut so that the spinners on the first floor could hand bobbins down to the looms below without walking the long way round and negotiating a tight staircase. I’d never have noticed it without our helpful guide, and it’s details like that which bring somewhere alive for me.

We also learned about nasty accidents, especially with the willower (which teases out the scoured / cleaned wool prior to carding),

wool museum 3

the carders and shirt sleeves. You don’t want to know, but ERGH.

But we also learned about the industry as a whole, about how central the wool industry was to large areas of Wales – and yet how limited it was by assorted factors, from the outdated machinery (Welsh mills would take machines that were being discarded – nearly a pun there, sorry – by the mills in Yorkshire) to the whole social structure. It really got me started on heaps of research on everything from nursing shawls to non-resident mill owners and the negative effects of their attitudes. You’ve been warned.


(This old photograph is of the mill at Trefriw, and is from the National Archives.)

*Seriously, it is foreign. The language is different in subtle but meaningful ways – even the words for something as basic as milk differ: llefrith around me, and llaeth further south – and there’s a genetic difference too: a native North Walian (a Gog) has more in common, genetically, with someone who is native to northern England / southern Scotland than with a native-born Hwntw (that’s a South Walian, in case you didn’t know it).


Shetland highlights, 1 – The Crofthouse Museum

I could go on about Shetland at length, but that would probably not be very exciting – and would probably largely consist of me raving about Fjara, a newish place to eat and have a drink near Tesco in Lerwick; it’s very good. The seals come up around it too – outside Tesco was one of the best places to spot seals, and I was a bit worried that they might have moved on. Nah.

still a good rock

Once you’ve got a good rock, you’ve got a good rock.


I’ve decided to highlight a few aspects over the next few posts, often photographically, and end with a slightly hysterical look at what I bought. (One of the bags was quite overweight, cough, cough, can’t think why that should have been.) For anyone who knows Shetland, I hope they’re evocative; for anyone who has not yet been…

My first short focus is on the lovely Crofthouse Museum near Boddam, just off the main road between Lerwick and Sumburgh. (Nice link, but it does repeat the ‘no trees’ myth.)

crofthouse museum

(The ropes are coir, and we were told that it’s getting very difficult to find the real McCoy when they need replacing, as they do.)

I’ve been before, and knew what to expect: a feel for past life in Shetland – albeit a comparatively well-off life, by mid-nineteenth-century-in-Shetland standards.

crofthouse museum1

It is so evocative, from the box beds to the scent of the peat fire, from the mousetrap (ouch) to the deep windows and the earth floor in the ben end – the sleeping part. One of the box beds was away in an exhibition of taatit rugs at the Museum in Lerwick (what’s a taatit rug? watch this space). This gave an almost sculptural prominence to a wheel:

croft house museum 3I’m not quite sure it was ready for action; I tried it tentatively, but…

Spinning and knitting, of course, were a vital part of the economy (check out this post on knitting to ‘pay’ for basic commodities from my last visit), and there is a hap shawl on a stretcher in the but end (the main room) to emphasise the point.


There are baskets (kishies and others) on top of the box beds and rivlins (sealskin or hide wrap-over home-made shoes) hang from the ceiling. There’s a big black kettle and a cruisie lamp. And there’s usually someone on duty who can enlighten you about the mousetrap, talk to you about peat cutting, and bring the reality of the past to life (and reveal, to our mutual surprise, common links to a small village in Sutherland).

Outside, quite apart from being very cold, it was blowing a hooley. As a result we didn’t walk down to the little mill or explore the stone-built shed with a roof formed from a boat’s hull, but we couldn’t escape the fish drying outside. Almost ready, apparently.


Personally, I think I’ll stick to the Fjara version. What softies we are now!

Slate and wool – and spinning

I’ve a slightly patchy history when it comes to spinning in public day (which was last weekend, Saturday 21st, whaddya mean, you didn’t know?). The first year I spun in a local park with two friends, attracted a teeny bit of attention, felt like a twit and went and got coffee and buns instead. The second year some of our Guild spun at Caernarfon Castle in a freezing gale, having sidestepped a request that we wear national dress. (NO. Just NO.) Last year we ended up in the lobby of a garden centre, getting in between ladies of a certain age and a cream tea. Not good.

But this year we got it bang on. The National Slate Museum, Llanberis. A wonderful venue, and one which blew me away. And it was so sunny we had to move into the shade, and we were made incredibly welcome, and the visitors seemed to enjoy seeing what we were doing, and we got in nobody’s way en route to food, and, and, and, the cafe served lemon meringue pie.


We were stationed outside a line of four slate worker’s cottages that were moved onto the site from Tanygrisiau. Three of them are fitted out in the styles of three significant times in the slate industry – 1861, the height of the quarries really; 1901, the big strike; 1969, when Dinorwic was closed (and when Prince Chuck had been ‘invested’ on a slab of Dinorwic slate just a month earlier, hrumpf, they must have known). The whole setting was perfect for us spinners; visitors were already interested in social history, and many of them emerged from the cottages really intrigued. There isn’t a spinning wheel in the 1861 interior, but there could well be…


(I’d taken some appropriately coloured BFL cross to spin up.)

As usual, the mechanism of spinning interested people, as did the technology of the wheels – it’s so basic, you can easily understand what’s going on – this moves that, and that moves this thing, and that means the wool twists… Later, when I was going around the museum with my camera I overheard one dad explaining to his son how a belt made some wheels turn and they made another wheel turn and the boy said ‘Like those spinning things outside, isn’t it?’ YO!

It made me realise how much we like to understand just how things work, and how much we like to see them working. You can’t actually see your iPad doing its thing, even if you do understand roughly how it works (it’s the little pixies, they hide). I certainly do, though I may have been contaminated by a dear friend who was an engineer. I took a trip around the museum, ostensibly to take a couple of shots for the Guild blog, but found myself mesmerised by the shapes, the colours, the light. So here’s a montage; just click on one for a slideshow. And if you are in the area, do visit the National Slate Museum. So many lives over so many years were affected by the slate industry. It’s a wonderful way to honour that.