Category Archives: Wales

Nearly autumn (thank all the gods)

And I’ve survived!

That is, always supposing something terrible doesn’t happen in the next ten days or so. Quite frankly, this holiday season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a gnu eating ice creams and riding a unicycle landed on me from a great height. It’s been one of those Augusts. And Julys.

Knitting has happened, however:

(this is a Woolwinding shawl in Rowan’s Grainy Silk) which always makes me feel better. Better despite the fact that I’ve begun to wonder why I don’t just paint a big target on my car and have done with it. Losses? Two wing mirrors, both to tourists going too fast. In one case the German driver was delightful and it was either me or the cyclist he was overtaking, so obviously it was me; in the other, the (British plates) driver vamoosed. Dents? Numerous, including one from being barrelled into a wall by a motor home driving on the wrong side of the road. British, again.

And the weather’s been iffy. But I can warm my hands on this:

I once worked in a major gallery. I went off to do a stage in the US, and one museum where I worked had a lunar chart on the back of the staffroom door. I thought flaky, typical – but no. They’d charted bad customer behaviour and it did coincide with phases of the moon. When I returned to the UK we tried it.

Nah.

Then we tried atmospheric pressure.

Bang on.

Weather changes, either good or bad? Changes in visitor dingbattiness. This summer has provided further support for this theory, to the extent that I submit that it no longer qualifies as theoretical. Been in craft pop up. Woman picks up long thin shawl, holds it right out, studies it. Turns to me: ‘Is this a hat?’

No, it’s a shawl. But do try winding it around your head, it might keep your brain warm.

It is really, really hard keeping the sarcasm level at acceptable. Really hard. So if anyone reading this gets a bit of a sharp response from some hardworking shop keeper this season, please bear in mind the effects of atmospheric pressure, and that if we have to explain once more that ‘please do eat or drink in this shop’ includes you with the can, your child with the crisps, the one with the ice cream and above all the one with the squishy banana, and take it in the spirit it was intended.

And also take your sticky child, your quavers, your magnum, your banana, your dripping can of cola out. Because I am armed with sharp sticks, and by this stage I am not afraid to use them.

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Oh, not again!

Why do things happen in clumps? I mean, when one thing happens – say someone reversing into your car – why is it then followed by other things? And why do these things happen when you’re already busy?

(Warning: there is no, or very little, actual knitting content in this post. There aren’t even any sheep. Because when other things were going pear-shaped, at least the knitting held up. And nobody actually reveresed into my car. I reversed it into a fence post getting out of the way of a caravan – it’s December, people, FFS – but it was slow and nothing was damaged.)

All in all, I needed a bit of refreshment. So, dealing with Disaster 3, I decided to take the back way to the big city – that would be Bangor – and get a bit of a reminder that there were good things too.

Gwynant

This is Nant Gwynant, and it is so beautiful…

So, Thing 1. Just before work, I went into the bathroom. The sink was full of glass, broken glass. First thought? I’d broken a tooth glass. Second thought? I do not have a tooth glass.

Looked up. Inner layer of Velux window had failed.

Spend ages putting cardboard up so more glass does not descend, place hoover across door so don’t forget about glass, go to work. Come back, replace cardboard which has fallen down, hoover glass. Repeat three hours later. Repeat next morning, before ringing home insurance. Apparently there was a product recall for these windows manufactured at a certain time. Ring Velux. My window is one. Will be replaced. Fast forward a few days, man from Velux appears. Replaces bathroom window. Checks massive double Velux in kitchen roof – and they need doing too. It’s about 4 metres up, but he’s prepared though a little surprised. (I am trying to work, meanwhile, and there is some, er, disruption.)

Time for pretty pic.

img_3893

OK, Thing 2. Have heating engineer here trying to work out why one rad has stopped working. This is going smoothly, even though it involves a hosepipe through the front door and black gunk in the garden, when my MacBook Pro decides to have a kernel panic.

This is my first. Run around room shouting ‘someone’s taken over my computer!!!’ until I stop and see the giveaway screen box on top of the chaos. Restart MBP. All seems well, but am not fooling self – really need extra memory. Unfortunately I am the Queen of Static so this will need doing by someone who does not rule the electric realm. Think a female version of Thor, but without the cloak and the muscles. And the facial hair. Hammer, mind, I could do with a (}#%$!! hammer. Now.

Another calming shot.

Llanberis Pass

Thing 3: Sodding washing machine decides to have its annual near-Christmas collapse. I know how it feels, but I do not stop in mid cycle with a load of ringing wet bedding inside, with all my lights flashing, making a terrible noise, and then refuse to give up my prize of a partly washed duvet, sheet, and pillowcases to their rightful owner. However at least it did not do it on Boxing Day this year, and I did find a hammer and released my washing through the exercise of physical violence.

And this is why I found myself driving around the base of Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon, avoiding a strolling family of wild goats, even though I suspected I would actually get my new machine from my lovely local retailer. As I have. It arrives tomorrow.

Snowdon

And the craft fair went fine, thanks. But my takings are going on a new washing machine. Oh yes, and on top of all that I developed a lung infection that I thought was just my usual winter athsma until it was a bit late, so I’ve been on heavy-duty antibiotics. I have now finished the course so I can hit the GIN, and boy do I need the €$^#{\!!! gin.

Fulling cloth: stamping and stocks in Wales

We have a lot of water in Wales. I know it’s a cliché, but we do. Everywhere in the west of a northern continent does, whether it’s Seattle or Bangor; rainfall is a given. Mostly. It certainly is round here, and that means that there are lots of useful streams or small rivers:

IMG_1660

roaring down from the hills, just begging to be used.

It’s not surprising that fulling cloth was done away from the house while other textile processes stayed at home, given one of the easiest and cheapest raw materials to obtain for fulling was stale urine, but it’s the sheer number of fulling mills that leaps out at you in Wales, once you know what you’re looking for.

I’d not realised it, but my house almost equidistant between two fulling mills, and that’s two even in my small area, two within three miles of my home. Well, they were fulling mills once; one is now a private house, and the other is a pub. The river in the shot above, the Ysgethin, is the one which flows (or roars, rather worryingly) close by the latter, and which provided power for the fulling stocks which were once there. The other was part of a smaller operation but was again situated next to a mountain stream – where cloth would once have been ‘walked’ – though there was evidence of two pits, possibly used for treading cloth, before the house was developed. The giveaway can be an element in a name: a pandy is a fulling mill (pl. pandai) – as in Tonypandy, for instance – but watch out for the mutation which changes the initial letter in some circumstances to a b, so you get ‘bandy‘ instead. In the case of the pub, the giveaway was some large information boards. I managed to walk past them several times without taking them in…

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There were hundreds of small fulling mills; every district had one, and many had several. In his magisterial book, The History of Wales / Hanes Cymru, John Davies notes that 111 were established in the country during the fourteenth century. They spread north and east from the south and, despite the upheaval of the rising of Owain Glyn Dwr, a further 62 were built before 1500. (Flemish weavers settling in Pembrokeshire have been credited with spearheading their development, but it’s not certain how significant their role actually was; moving fulling out of the house would have been a logical process.)

In my neck of the woods, Meirionydd, the first reference to a fulling mill is from 1545, when Maes y Pandy (note the name) near Dolgellau crops up in a legal document. Between then and 1700, there are records of a further 38 being established, and  another 30 between 1700 and 1810.

fulling mill

Many fullers, like that fuller from Pompeii in the previous post, were part-timers: in this case, they were part-time farmers, with the pandy one of the farm buildings. And sometimes fulling mills were developed with existing corn mills, and the same person looked after both processes (as at Coed Trewernau in Powys, where a fulling mill and corn mill are recorded together in the 1630s). The domestic cloth trade was particularly important in Meirionydd as, incidentally, was sock and stocking knitting: ‘Almost every little farmer makes webs, and few cottages in these parts are without a loom’ wrote Arthur Aikin in 1797.

It’s not surprising that fulling was the ‘first woollen process to be mechanised’. The introduction of fulling stocks must have been generally welcomed: fulling using the feet was time-consuming, unpleasant, exhausting and damaging to the health. But it wasn’t a process from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, oh no: this mechanisation goes back as far as 1135 in Britain, with records of water-powered mills in Cumbria. Stocks went on to be in use until the twentieth century, and there is a film of some rather basic ones in use which can be seen at the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre.

Fulling mill

They all work on the same basic principle. Cloth is put in the ‘box’ – you can just see it behind the stocks (D) in the picture above – and is pounded alternately by a pair of hammers, powered by the energy from water. The back of the hammers is shaped in such a way that the cloth is constantly turned, ensuring that it is completely fulled.

It’s not at all surprising that many fulling mills later developed into full-scale industrial enterprises. First fulling moved away from the home and into the mills, then prepping the fleece. This can be seen in the history of many. Take a mill at Cwmpengraig: carders, water-driven, were introduced into a building which had been in use as a fulling mill. In the 1820s, when it was known as Coedmor, a spinning jack of 40 spindles was added. It continued as a carding, spinning and fulling mill until 1878 when it was rebuilt as a ‘fully comprehensive mill’. It no longer exists as a mill, having been burnt down twice, most recently in 1951. (Fire was a constant threat; lots of grease from the wool and the machines; lots of timber in the buildings.) Trefriw, near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, is another example – but one which is happily thriving.

And what of fulling stocks? Well, they were gradually replaced by rotary machines in which the cloth, ends sewn together to make an endless loop, passed between weighted rollers. The ‘rotary mill’ was patented in 1833, increased production and ensured more control over the process. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all fulling was a hugely industrial operation, as illustrated by this last image, from the county archives:

Fulling

Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service

The box in the foreground is the rotary milling machine, and the man is William Edwards, who was the fuller at Pandy Gwylan in Maentwrog: another fulling mill just a hair’s breadth from where I live. And this one is recorded as also having a ‘dye house’. That’s a whole other story!

Not so full of it?

Or maybe not quite full enough. Oh, I’m sorry, enough with the terrible puns. Yet again, life has got between me and blogging, but it’s not just life. I got ever so slightly obsessed with fulling. Fulling cloth, that is. Processing it to close up the threads and make it more solidly useable.

I have been diverted from the ways of righteousness by research, partly started by Mary Beard pretending to be a Roman fuller and having a jolly old time assuring us that the slaves who did it probably had a jolly old time too (there may be reports of them singing as they fulled, but I’m not sure that singing the occasional song equals being an ecstatically happy bunny, totally thrilled with your lot). And then there are fulling mills all around me, too – no longer, generally, in use as fulling mills. But astonishingly there were thirty established in Meirionydd – where I live – between 1700 and 1810, and they joined the ‘at least’ thirty-eight already in existence.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. We have the raw materials (baaaaaaa), the skills (spinners and weavers abounded), and of course something else was abundant and necessary:

Ysgethin

No, not moss. Water: fast-flowing streams, although admittedly the Ysgethin doesn’t always flow this fast. The old walls here show attempts to control and channel the river in spate, and they are there because the Ysgethin Inn, which is downstream of this, was – you guessed it – once a fulling mill.

So excuse me while I carry on a bit more musing and thinking and investigating the past of local hostelries. I won’t be long. Apart from anything else, Mary Beard’s magnum opus is due back at the library soon…

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,

spinners

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:

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.

fabrics

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?

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.

loom

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.

Trefriw

(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).

Hello sheepies!

Sorry about that. It’s how my brother used to greet the day when he was about, oh, five. Er, after he’d woken the whole house up at silly o’clock shouting that he’d ‘finis’ sleepin’ – which inevitably got the grumbling response of ‘well, we haven’t’. Anyway, it stuck, passing into family slang, so ‘hello sheepies!’ it is.

baaaaaaaa

Over on my gardening blog I’ve been tree following every month. This doesn’t involve waiting for ents to lumber over the hill (though it easily could, round here); it involves – er, tree following. Reporting on a specific tree once a month, and watching changes, wildlife, etc. I’ve been ‘following’ a hawthorn and I’ve been reporting on archaeology – it’s next to a dolmen – the weather, the fact the someone appears to have been casting a circle up there, and sheep. Oh, I’ve had wild goats as well. One wild goat, much lower down than is usual.

The tree is in a stunning landscape:

hawthorn

one which has been cultivated for time out of mind: some of the field systems are neolithic, as is the dolmen, of course. In high summer there are generally a few cows up here, but there’s not that much sign of the sheep – they go higher up. In spring they’re here, with their lambs once they’re not brand spanking new, and then they take themselves off. Or perhaps that should be ‘are allowed to take themselves off’, but the Scottish sheep I knew would take themselves off. Even over cattle grids (they rolled). That’s why the cattle grids needed gates too.

Now it’s the reappearance of the sheep that means the year is turning, whatever the temperature (they are moved even lower when snow looks likely – or definite, rather).

baaaa 2, ok 3

When I started paying my regular visits, the sheep would take one look at me and flee, bleating madly – perhaps they knew I was mentally dissing their fleeces (they’re Welsh Mountains: coarse, good for carpets, not garments, unless you’re very lucky). Or maybe not. Now they check me out and carry on.

I think they’ve become accustomed to me and realise I’m no threat. That’s not daft: sheep are a) brighter than you might think if you’ve not read any recent research or lived with them, and b) can recognise and remember for a couple of years about fifty human faces, as that research has shown. I’m pretty sure that this lot have got used to me because while I was talking these shots two hikers walked along the track above me. They were quiet, nothing unusual or scary about them – and the sheep scattered, returning once they’d gone.

(incidentally, research has also shown that sheep self-medicate. If they’ve eaten something that has made them unwell, they’ll find and eat something which makes them better – which, for instance, addresses constipation or indigestion. Shepherds and people who lived closely with sheep have known this for thousands of years, but it’s scientifically proven now, so that’s OK.)

baa

Very fine knees, this sheep.

And now the weather has turned, and all the sheep are sheltering in the shadow of walls, dolmens, Iron Age hut circles, gorse, hawthorns, etcetera, etcetera. It’s ridiculously mild, but also ridiculously wet and ridiculously windy (Irish Sea: southwesterly gale force 9, decreasing gale force 8, imminent). So to reassure myself that it’s not always like this, I’m ending with a picture which has nothing to do with sheep, wool, knitting or anything else. Castell Harlech in the sunset, a few evenings ago. Couldn’t resist…

Castell Harlech

It’ll stop raining soon. And these colours just have to end up in a sweater.

(Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa is the conical mountain in the middle, not looking that high really. But it is. Please do not even think about climbing it in flip-flops. Really. Or plimsolls.)