It was on a rainy afternoon in Wales that I picked up a leaflet for Trefriw Woollen Mill and suggested – half jokingly – that we go and have a look around their factory. This was met with some moans and groans and, although I thought it would be interesting, I didn’t think we’d actually end up going. But John pointed out that it was very nearly on our way home and so we took a little detour north before heading back over the border and goodness me, I’m glad we did.
I didn’t even take my camera in with me, that’s how little I was expecting. We looked around their shop which was full of the most beautiful woollen goods: skirts and jackets, jumpers, slippers, hats and mittens, knitting patterns and balls of wool. What really caught my eye was the display of tweed, woven on the premises and available by the metre, and it took some stern words with myself to walk away. You’re allowed to wander through the little cafe into the factory beyond, and the very first thing we found was a traditional Welsh bedspread being woven on a beast of a machine, roaring and clanking as the fabric grew, weft by coloured weft. Ilse didn’t like it much and Seb lost interest fairly quickly but Ben and Fliss were almost as transfixed as I. The loom is set up with a chain which tells the machine which shuttles to send across when, creating the traditional patterns. At the same time, the man operating the machinery was winding new bobbins on an old bit of kit which seemed to work in almost exactly the same way as the bobbin winder on my 1916 Singer. In the room beyond was the little hydraulic electricity plant which drove the whole factory, filled with plants from all over the world which liked the warm, damp conditions.
I thought that was it, until John pointed to some iron stairs leading to the floors above. The first – the whole first floor – was given over to carding the wool. Huge cages of the stuff, ready scoured and spilling out through gaps in the wire, was picked up by the steel needles of the first drum. From there it worked its way along the whole floor, drum to drum, until at the end of it all there was roving, thinner than I’d seen before, and quite ready to spin. We followed the painted arrows up again to the second floor where spinning mules dominated the space, doing in a minute what it would take me many hours to achieve at home.
I’ve never actually seen a spinning mule in real life before. I’d seen pictures of them at school, when we were studying the Industrial Revolution, but to see them in action was quite breathtaking, and not only for the wool enthusiasts among us. It took only one man to operate a full row of them, spinning perhaps two hundred strands at a time, the roving stretched out for a yard or two as the spools ran backwards on iron rails set in the floor. Then the spinning began, the roving oscillating and dancing in tiny standing waves as it grew more and more taut until the gears changed and the bobbins ran back towards the body of the mules once more, winding up the spun wool as they ran.
No wonder the cottage spinners went out of business. No-one could possibly hope to keep up with production on this scale: not with the carders or the spinners, nor the looms, nor even the machines which twisted the spun yarns together into two-plys for knitting. And yet this wasn’t modern machinery. This was old-style industry, run by water and producing high quality, skilfully made products. This was a mill which was embracing the past – just not as far back in the past as most home spinners and weavers go. On our way out we found a little dyers’ garden, with all the native herbs and flowers labelled by name and by the colour they would produce. We recognised several from our own garden and the hedgerows roundabout. I’ve never been that interested in dyeing my own wool, but Seb and Ilse leapt at the idea and keep asking to borrow my drop spindle. Perhaps we have a couple more wool-lovers in the family after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about it when they go back to school. Either way, I pulled a few handfuls of white wool off one of the Jacob’s fleeces in the shed and set it to scour in a bucket of hot water. Either they’ll use it or I will. I’ve run out of washed wool this week. It was almost the first thing I reached for when we got back from Wales: to make a few rolags and spin them on my wheel. For the first time, I felt reasonably pleased with the results, despite the fact that I’ve barely spun a thing all winter. Now I’ve got a plan for all the wool I’m making, and there’ll be a few more bucketfuls set to soak before the week is out. I don’t mind sharing if it fuels the children’s interest. Even it it’s on nothing like the scale we saw at Trefriw Mill, there’s plenty of wool for us all to play with.