Country crafts: meet the Welsh blanket weaver

Visit a Pembrokeshire mill where traditional designs have found a new lease of life

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Melin Tregwynt, in Pembrokeshire, is one of just eight working wool weaving mills left in Wales. Back in the early 1900s, there were at least 300 of them.
 

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The warping and weaving shed smells of machine oil and is dominated by huge noisy power looms.

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Each loom has a name – Big John is weaving a pattern called St David’s Cross (pictured), while Gordon is weaving a commission piece, and Henry is having his shafts changed.

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23-year-old weaver Sean Jenkins checks for flaws in the intricate Knot Garden pattern. “Weaving’s brilliant,” he says. “There are some days, if something goes wrong then it all goes wrong, but I’m learning something new all the time. I’ve just learned how to beam off.”

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At least 1,650 warp threads have to be tied by hand to the huge steel beam wheel.

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Known as ‘cartheni’, blankets have been produced in Wales for centuries. Like other traditional Welsh blankets, most of Melin Tregwynt’s are woven into doublecloth. This consists of two layers of fabric woven together, which inter-change at points in the design, so that the pattern appears in contrasting colours on both sides of the cloth.

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St David’s Cross is a simplified version of Tregwynt’s oldest pattern, Vintage Star, devised in the 1950s by Howard Griffiths – father of the present owner, Eifion. “My father was colour-blind,” says Eifion. “He got around it by using black and white patterns with one bold colour.”

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So Eifion introduced a range of vibrant new colours when he took over the mill…

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…resulting in bright new designs, including this version of their Knot Garden pattern, which had woven in more sober colours at Melin Tregwynt since the 1960s.

Flock of sheep ewes and lambs in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, United Kingdom

“We are a small mill, so people assume that the sheep’s wool in the next field goes into our blankets,” says Eifion. But in fact  the blankets are woven with imported lambswool or merino. There’s a reason for this – most Welsh wool, from tough native sheep, is shorter, coarser and darker than the finer wools that modern consumers prefer. But Eifion hopes that the mill will one day be using Welsh wool again, thanks to its involvement with the Cambrian Mountains Wool Project, which aims to produce fine weaving wool from Welsh sheep.

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Folded on shelves in the shop, the finished blankets smell sweetly of lanolin, the natural oils in the wool.  

Now visit a wool mill…

Melin Tregwynt
Near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire; shop and cafe open daily. melintrgwynt.co.uk

Solva Woollen Mill
Continuously working since 1907, this mill is based in the pretty Pembrokeshire village of Solva, and specialises in rugs. Open Monday to Friday, plus weekends between July and September. solvawoollenmill.co.uk

Trefriw Woollen Mills
This mill in the Conwy Valley specialises in travel rugs and tapestry bedspreads. Shop and mill museum open to visitors, Monday to Saturday. t-w-m.co.uk

Pictures: Drew Buckley

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Words: Julie Brominicks