The History of the Welsh Wool Industry and Why It Needs To Thrive
According to the National Wool Museum, in 1926 there were 217 mills spread across every Welsh County. Today, there are just five in operation and yet there is increased demand for traditional, crafted Welsh wool goods.
At times the Welsh woollen industry was hailed as the country’s most important industry, while it was in tough competition with woollen mills in the north and central England, Welsh wool had carved a niche in terms of quality and style.
The quality derives from the sheep and from where on the body the raw wool has been shorn. Hardy Welsh Mountain sheep can survive wet and cold conditions, their wool is often used for tweeds and upholstery, while Black Welsh Mountain sheep are particularly prized for their superior quality wool.
Sheep farming in Wales dates back to prehistoric times, with evidence of spinning and weaving found in late prehistoric houses. The green valleys of Wales provided the perfect environment to shepherd sheep and very first written mention of shepherds seasonally moving their flocks originated from Wales.
It wasn’t until the 12th century however that the wool trade became important to the Welsh economy, when the first Cistercian monasteries were established. The monks were granted wide areas of land for sheep grazing and are said to be the pioneers of the Welsh woollen industry.
By the Middle Ages and the industrial revolution fulling mills were built and woollen manufacturing became one of the country’s main industries. Mill towns sprung up all over Wales by the 19th century, in particular in places where water power was readily available, such as the upper Severn Valley in Powys. Towns such as Welshpool, Newtown and Llanidloes saw industrial growth and were known, in particular, for Welsh flannel.
It was in Newtown that Pryce Pryce-Jones began a mail order business in Welsh flannel in 1859. The pioneer of mail-order Pryce-Jones ran a daily service on the London and North Western Railway to distribute his products to England’s capital. The Powys mills continued to thrive until the early 1900s when mills in north and central England took over and many workers moved elsewhere.
Today only five commercial woollen mills are in operation in Wales and the picturesque village of Dre-fach Felindre in the beautiful Teifi Valley, nicknamed ‘The Huddersfield of Wales’, is now home to the National Wool Museum. Despite this dramatic decline interest in quality Welsh woollen goods is on the increase.
Sustainability has become of major concern and wool is sustainable in every way, from the environmental impact to the welfare of the sheep. Welsh wool is robust, hard wearing and will last, lending itself perfectly to the ethos of buying less. It additionally has a well established heritage and is synonymous with quality and craftsmanship.
Welsh wool produces high quality cloth and has been used for unique and distinctive items from some of the world’s leading brands including Harris Tweed and Savile Row. It offers a huge range of natural colour shades and textures, allowing for complete versatility when designing fabric. There are countless benefits of using Welsh wool across a range of products from clothing to bedding, carpets and insulation.
2020 marked the 10th Anniversary for the ‘Campaign for Wool,’ the campaign officially began in October 2010 in conjunction with Wool Week and its patron is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. A committed environmentalist His Royal Highness continues to be actively involved in spreading the message that wool is a precious natural, renewable and biodegradable resource that offers many technical and ecological benefits.
Images taken at Newtown Textiles Museum