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How did a small Welsh village lead a big industry?

The story of Dre-fach Felindre - a rural village once know at the 'Huddersfield of Wales'

Who's been to Dre-fach Felindre?  This beautiful village is nestled the heart of the Carmarthenshire countryside, in the Teifi valley.  Whilst taking a picturesque valley road out of town, I stumbled upon a beautifully restored thatched weaving cottage, nestled against a steep wooded cliff from behind from the stream below.  Inside, were spinning wheels and traditional hand looms producing wonderful rugs from local wool - giving hints of the industry that Dre-fach Felindre was built on.

Today the village is a quiet, peaceful place, nestled deep in a valley in the heart of West Wales agricultural heartland.  It sits at the confluence of three streams - the sound of babbling water is never far away.  

But the streams here tell a story – it would have once been difficult to hear the fast flowing water over the clank-clank-clank of the machinery in the scours of factories that once lined the now peaceful banks.  For in the 19th and early 20th century, the area was at the centre of a thriving woollen industry, even earning the nickname 'the Huddersfield of Wales'. 

In 1899 there were over 22 working mills in the valley, employing over 500 people, and exporting famous products across the country and further afield....

But what is the history of Dre-fach Felindre, and why did such a remote, rural valley become such an important centre for industrial development?

There are a few happily co-incidences that might explain why this unlikely place bloomed the way it did:

  • Water: The blessing of three streams: the Nant Bargoed, Nant Esgair and Nant Bran – provided a plentiful and constant supply of water to drive machinery and to scour and wash wool fabrics
  • Wool: The lower hills slopes of West Wales are close by, meaning a good supply of wool from the nearby sheep farms. Later on, as well as locally produced wool, New Zealand wool and other imports were used – the accessibility to the coast would have been advantageous here.
  • Access to market: During the valley’s Golden Era of 1880s-1920s the main market were the booming mining valleys of South Wales. These were in easy reach and the creation of the Railways to Pencader and Newcastle Emlyn only helped to boost accessibility. Many of the mills in the valley had long standing and close links with specific retailers in South Wales industry towns.
  • First World War: Times of turbulence can often bring great benefits to those in the right place at the right time! Demand for flannel, blankets and uniform material rocketed during the war with Teifi valley mills commanding high prices and ramping up production. The valley was renowned for is reasonably priced flannel, which was a mixture of wool and cotton and could be produced quickly and cheaply to meet supply, and was able to bring much profit to the textile manufacturers of West Wales. 
  • Expertise and skills: Historical expertise in the region went back centuries, to the middle ages and before – traditionally before the boom it was an area for spinning and the preparation of yarn within homes, and these skilled workers naturally moved into the factories and mills as they were built, bringing their skills and knowledge with them. Dolwion Mill, for instance, is thought to date back to as early as 1651. Labour was needed in the area not only to work in the mills but also to build all the new buildings during the boom, resulting in migration of workers from areas such as Ireland.
  • Pioneers: Whether by accident or ingenuity several entrepreneurs spearheaded the industry during the boom. Early pioneers included Samuel Williams (one of the first to bring the full production stages under the same roof), the Lewis Family, John Phillips, John Adams and his daughter Margaret.

Evolution of the valley

In the early days the various processes of making fabric – the sorting of wool, spinning, carding, fulling, weaving etc took place in different but nearby locations, often in homes.  Weaving shops were typically mud-walled thatched cottages, incorporating a drying room, a dwelling, and a space for weaving where the hand looms were operated, maybe 4 or 5 looms. One in the area was called ‘Ogof’ (cave), and another 'Ty Canol' (Centre House).  

Some of these small weaving shops were very inaccessible – their location chosen to be near water rather than to be accessible, often at the end of rough tracks rather than in a village or a settlement. 

Most weavers were responsible for selling their own produce - they would often travel on market days to sell their cloth, flannel, yarn and blankets at markets in the area and to miners and tin workers.

This domestic spinning and weaving industry of course declined with the advent of the fully comprehensive mills. Spinning machinery was introduced and there was a devastating impact on hand spinners and hand loom weavers in the valley, with most of them moving to become employed as weavers in the factories.  Some of the benefits of the change is reported here:  “The unhealthy and smoke filled cottages have disappeared and beautiful new houses have been build everywhere”(Lewis, The Rhonda Valleys). 

For the workers, life in the new mills must often have been tough. Children were expected to join parents in the mill as soon as they were ten years of age, the usual work was to look after the carding engines, six days a week.  There are stories of workers being dismissed if they refused to send their children to work with them.  Mills were often cold and damp places.  There were various disputes over paying conditions, resulting in a Labourers’ Union that was established in 1900 in the Teifi Valley and improvements made to fix pay scales.

Welsh Otter Welsh Blankets Dre-fach Felindre

Decline of Dre-fach Felindre

When come boom, there often follows bust – and this was the story for many of the mills.  This is likely due to a combination of reasons, including:

  • Falling demand: The immediate post-war years saw a dramatic reduction in need for the flannel and cheaper cloth that the mills had so geared up to produce. A double whammy occurred in 1921 when the miners of South Wales went on strike, resulting in an almost immediate flooring of demand
  • Fashion: Flannel and thick tweed suits were out, new lighter weight fabrics and alternative cheaper fabrics (e.g. cotton flannette) were in. Ready-made suits and mail order flourished. Some mills were slow to adapt to this and as a result saw sales drop.  Ironically- this focus on traditional methods and fabrics could be the reason that we are seeing such a resurgence in demand for Welsh weaving now – the consumer is keen to understand the provenance and history behind what it is they are buying and to purchase a true piece of heritage
  • Equipment: A shortage of technicians in the area meant that machines were slow to be fixed after breakdowns, and much of the equipment was antiquated and could not keep up with new methods and techniques.
  • Skills: The area has faced challenges with finding skilled workers, particularly supervisors and managers, and many mills have gone out of business simply because the owners wished to retire but have been unable to find people to take over the mills.

Welsh Otter Welsh Tapestry Welsh Blankets Welsh Design

As a result many mills closed with only a few still operating in Drefach Felindre today. 

But with the reduction in flannel and cheap cloth came new opportunities.  From the 1930s onwards the mills began to concentrate on blankets and patterned bedcovers, and double weave bedcovers.  The tourist trade of West Wales increased, with many holiday makers falling in love with the bold, warm designs and this popularity continues today. 

Today, one of the largest of the mills in the area, Cambrian Mill, which has been transformed into the National Wool Museum for Wales, a brilliant place to go if you are interested in finding out more! 

The Welsh Otter tapestry collection is still woven in the heart of the Drefach-Felindre valley, in new and modern colourways, so if you are interested in owning a little bit of our Welsh weaving heritage, check out our collection

Welsh Otter Welsh Tapestry Welsh Blankets Hafod Fforest Aelwyd

 

Links: 

  • National Woollen Museum Wales:  https://museum.wales/wool/
  • http://www.storifawrdrefachfelindre.cymru/about
  • Welsh Woollen Industry, (1969), Jenkins, J. Geraint, Museum of Welsh Life