Nestled away in the idyllic Pembrokeshire countryside is Melin Tregwynt, a 17th century woollen mill.
Run by the same family since 1912, it is a place of great provenance with an even greater product; beautifully crafted woollen blankets made by the traditional “doublecloth” technique that’s synonymous with Welsh tapestries. We caught up with Eifion Griffiths, the current generation in charge of the mill to find out more about its crafting heritage and how a small Welsh mill survives in today’s economic climate.
Melin Tregwynt has been owned by the same family since 1912 and there has been a mill in the valley since the 17th Century. How has this rich heritage influenced the brand today?
I represent a business that started when there was no television, no cars, no electricity and no telephone. When my grandfather arrived at Tregwynt he came in a horse and cart, with his wife and all his furniture in the back. He’d bought the mill for £760 and moved there with his family.
On the face of it this is a story about a small family company and how it has survived through the last 100 years and up to the present day. In 1895 there were 300 woollen mills in Wales. In 1912 when my grandfather bought the mill there were 250 mills. In 1981 when I came back to help run Tregwynt there were 26 mills. Today there are less than 10 left in Wales.
Our family story is a story of survival and what people can do in the face of increasing and sometimes disruptive change but it is also a story of continuity and maintaining an environment where traditional skills can be preserved, sustained and hopefully flourish and grow. When things are made in an area in a certain way, a culture grows around the place. It supports the industry and the people who make it.
20 years ago Melin Tregwynt didn’t emphasise the Welsh roots of the tradition. We sold our work on its appearance and design. These days we find that the authenticity and the story behind the company is equally important – perhaps because it’s rare to find a small textile manufacturing company that has survived in the UK.
Where do you source your wool from?
We’re often asked if we use Welsh wool, but if we did our blankets would be much coarser. Welsh wool is not generally produced for its yarn quality, instead it is most often used today in carpet making as the yarn is more suited to this kind of heavy duty use.
In my grandfather’s time the mill was very much a community based business using wool purchased from local farmers or exchanged for finished goods. As was common practice in rural communities, a barter system was sometimes used; in 1914 my grandfather sold his motorbike to a local tailor in return for tailoring services and in 1920 he received a cockerel in part payment for a yard of flannel.
By the time my grandfather died in the early 50s a number of important changes had happened. The link with the local farmers had been broken and wool was now purchased centrally by the Wool Marketing Board so it was no longer possible to buy specifically local or Welsh yarn. As wool was now sorted on quality most Welsh yarn found itself blended into woollen carpet yarns.
Today, in our global market, wool is sourced worldwide and much of the softer lambswool comes from Australia or New Zealand. UK spinners use wool from a variety of sources so the local connection was lost. Globalisation has brought many benefits; we have a freedom of choice of supplier and quality of wool. We normally source our wool from a British company called Knoll, whose wool comes from a variety of sources.
Today, people have increasingly come to feel that provenance is important, so now we are trying to use more UK sourced wool. The UK has never produced lambswool of the quality of Australian or New Zealand flocks but we hope that wool will once again be available from British flocks.
Do you employ a traditional style of weaving?
We still make most of our cloth in the original building; if my grandfather came back to the mill today he would still recognise what was happening inside the mill itself. We may use more modern machinery but the underlying principle of how to weave cloth remains the same. He would still recognise the various processes that take place and the techniques used.
But if he or my father walked into the office today they would not recognise anything of what was going on. The continuity and tradition of how the cloth is made is contrasted against the constantly changing online environment in which it is now sold.
The growth of the Internet has meant that companies like ours can now operate out of Pembrokeshire in wildest West Wales and still reach markets all over the world. Something local can also be something international. Modern communication has meant that getting our message across is much easier. It has enabled us to compete in a way that would have been impossible for my father and grandfather.
What we do is absolutely rooted in a tradition but we are aware of the danger of a loss of skills – It’s important that those skills are maintained and handed down and young people are encouraged to join the industry.
Melin Tregwynt specialises in doublecloth – tell us more about the advantages of this style
‘Welsh Tapestry’ is the name most often used to describe Welsh double-cloth patterns; two layers of fabric are woven one above the other, interchanging at points forming ‘pockets’, and enabling bold areas of pattern to be created. Historically, a strong 2-ply yarn was used to weave these fabrics and this, combined with the doublecloth structure, produced a practical and hard-wearing fabric, suitable for use as bedcovers.
Records show that these quilts were woven on elaborate handlooms in North Wales from around the eighteenth century, and subsequently woven on power looms in that area of Wales; tapestry or doublecloth quilt is now seen as an iconic Welsh product in all parts of the country.
Each Welsh mill developed their own doublecloth or Tapestry patterns which would have made them identifiable by manufacturer. Originally woven as bedcovers in bold and large-scale designs, the same doublecloth structure was later also used to develop smaller-scale patterns suitable for garments and accessories. Today you can still find these unique patterns in the remaining mills across Wales – many dating back decades – and the popularity of these iconic Welsh designs remains.
When I joined the family business in the 80's, my training as an architect drew me to the repetition, structure and rhythm of pattern and enabled the company to retain and reinvigorate the Welsh double cloth tradition. What emerged were geometric fabrics that photographed well and looked good on the printed page – this pared down approach helped define the brand.
Are you influenced by current trends? If so, what’s on your radar at the moment?
This Christmas the trend was “Hygge”. A Danish word pronounced hue-ga, it loosely translates as cosiness but means much more than cosy throws and woolly rugs. It’s about a feeling of wellbeing and quiet enjoyment and here in Wales, we have our own word for this. Cwtch has emerged as one Wales’s favourite words and is a small cosy place, a cubbyhole, a snug; but it also refers to the act of creating a small space between you and another - like a hug, only much better! To "cwtch-up" is to snuggle up with someone on a cold welsh winters night.
Wool is a natural provider of cwtch and woven woollen blankets and throws, fabrics and soft floor rugs are the natural embodiment of cwtch along with woolly jumpers and thick socks, hot drinks and a warm fire.
One of the biggest changes in consumer habits in the last decade relates to how we spend our disposable income on experiences rather than physical possessions these days. Consumers are always looking for stories that are local and authentic. Companies that have stayed close to their roots are prospering, even in the current economic climate. 20 years ago we didn’t emphasise the traditional Welsh roots of our fabrics; we sold our work on its appearance and design. These days, we find that the authenticity and the story behind the company are equally important.
Apart from beautiful blankets, what else does Melin Tregwynt produce?
We supply our stock ranges to design led home and accessory shops in the UK and overseas. We also supply hotels of all sizes from large international chains to smaller privately owned boutique hotels and individual B&Bs, holiday cottages etc. Alongside our own stock range we specialise in customisation, short runs and exclusive designs for hotels, designers and specifiers and have worked with companies as diverse as John Lewis, Heals, Libertys, Muji, the BBC, SCP, the Tate Gallery and the V&A. We have even produced a specially commissioned picnic blanket for a Waitrose advert, back in 2008. The blanket’s size was the equivalent to four tennis courts and weighed a tonne, quite literally! It subsequently won a Guinness world record and it is something we are incredibly proud of!
How does the Welsh landscape surround the mill influence the company?
It provides constant inspiration for new and interesting colourways. Sophia, our in-house designer is very influenced by the constantly changing and seasonal colours that are a part of our surroundings. The local landscape is also a major factor in our lifestyle. It’s all about work/life balance – quality of life. Pembrokeshire is where we live and work and it’s absolutely beautiful – our best holiday is to be at home! I like to cycle every day to work and I will see a buzzard, some rabbits, the occasional fox or badger, and lots and lots of sheep.
What’s next for Melin Tregwynt?
We are currently considering the future of the business and particularly the issue of succession. We seek to ensure the continuance of weaving on the site, the protection of existing jobs and the creation of new ones, supporting the retention of traditional skills and sustaining a profitable business.
We’re also working on a range of contract upholstery (launching in 2018) using the doublecloth technique and in collaboration with a Welsh manufacturer of bespoke office furniture and a number of major clients including the Welsh Government and the BBC. We’re also planning to launch a collection of fashion tweeds, in collaboration with our Japanese clients and the Fashion Design Department, University of South Wales.