National Wool Museum

National Wool Museum

Willowing the Wool

Willowing the Wool


The National Wool Museum, located in Drefach Felindre, Llandysul, Carmarthenshire is part of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Historically and into the 19th century, the woollen industry in Wales, including spinning and weaving, surpassed even coal as the most important of Wales' industries. The Teifi Valley was the centre of the West Wales woollen industry, earning itself the nickname "The Huddersfield of Wales." David Lewis erected Cambrian Mills on the site of a former small water-powered weaving workshop in 1902. The new mill was to supply the need for woollen cloth for working men in the coal and steel industries. In 1915, a hundred people were employed and flannel was produced for military uniforms for WWI. In 1919, fire broke out in the carding and spinning department and the damage caused was estimated at £20,000. A workman on the top floor had a lucky escape when, having found his exit route blocked by flames and smoke, he climbed onto the roof and was rescued with the aid of a long ladder. The mill was subsequently rebuilt despite the recent decline in orders for woollen textiles. In 1965 the mill was put up for sale with 30 people being employed at that time and in 1976 the museum was opened to the public.


Sheep shearing was the social highlight of the year on the farms of Wales. Sheared in one piece, the fleeces were rolled out and then folded correctly to make sorting easier in the mill. The sorting process was vital as different sheep produce different quality of wool, resulting in different produce like clothing, carpets and blankets, while the quality of wool varies depending on the part of the sheep’s body it comes from. The fleece is put through a willower to untangle the wool, removing impurities such as dust and sand, disentangling it on a roller with metal teeth to create a soft, fluffy mass of fibres. Some of the larger mills in Wales scoured the wool before willowing. The most common method, until the 1930s, was to immerse raw wool in a solution consisting of one part human urine, one part water. Up until around 1850, natural colours were used to dye wool, with three stages when it could occur: when it was still a fleece, in threads ready for weaving, or after the cloth had been woven.


Carding produces fully disentangled, soft rolls of wool called rovings or rolags, for spinning into yarn. Originally done by hand, a carding engine was invented in the 18th century. Spinning pulls and twists the fibres together to form a continuous thread, turning the soft rolls into strong woollen yarn, originally by using a portable spindle and whorl. In the 19th century, fast and efficient spinning machines were invented, transforming the woollen industry. Winding, unwinding and winding again are all essential processes in preparing yarn for weaving. Warping by hand is one of the most intricate of all textile processes, with all the threads for the warp of a piece of cloth placed in the correct order, and colour sequence, before weaving. Weaving turns the yarn into cloth, which is made of two sets of threads. The warp thread sit side by side, and the weft threads are woven under and over the warp – under one, over one, under over … and so on.As well as washing and drying; fulling, napping and pressing were all part of the finishing process. You can learn more about all the processes and terms on your visit to the Museum, and get a close-up view of the tools and machinery that were vital to the industry.


The Museum houses a wide variety of historic machinery used in the Woollen mills of Wales. The electric powered Willower - the ‘willy’ or ‘devil’ - is used to disentangle wool with its large revolving drum, covered with rows of iron spikes, opening up the wool in preparation for carding. The Carding Engine was invented in the 18th century, it is used to prepare wool for spinning. The carding engines comb the wool after it has been willowed, preparing the fibres for spinning. Cambrian Mills here at Dre-fach Felindre had four carding engines, 20 meters long and weighing 10 tons each. They were vital for mass production, because poorly carded wool would keep breaking when spun, wasting time and money, and reducing the quality of both the yarn and cloth woven from it.


The Great Wheel on display was commonplace by the 1300s. Operated by standing, they were relatively cheap to buy so that even poor families could afford one. The Treadle or Anglesey Wheel, a later and more expensive invention, allowed the spinner to sit down while working. One of the many Spinning Mules originally at Cambrian Mills remains in the Museum today, used throughout the Golden Era of the business and into the 1960s to spin yarn. Carding, spinning, willowing. Pirn winder and Dobcross loom. By the end of your visit, they'll be more than just words!


Sheep farming in Wales dates to prehistoric times. There is evidence of spinning and weaving in late prehistoric houses throughout Britain, particularly in the later first millennium B.C.. Finds include scraps of fabric, loom-weights, spindle-whorls and bone needles, and the arrangement of post-holes may indicate they supported looms. For example, a Bronze Age weaving comb was found in the Ogof yr Esgyrn cave in Glyntawe. The Romans probably imported the white breed characteristic of Welsh sheep today. The sheep at this time would have been much more variable than modern breeds, which have been carefully selected for specific characteristics. In the early days the sheep were not shorn, but the wool was collected when the sheep moulted in the summer, either by plucking it from their fleece or collecting it where it had been rubbed off on a tree or rock.


Excavations have been made at the Dinas Powys hillfort in Glamorgan of what seems to have been the court of an important ruler in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. The bones of sheep were found, but there seems to have been little spinning and weaving. The 6th century writer Gildas, thought by some to have lived in Wales, mentioned "mountains particularly suitable for the alternating pasturage of animals". This seems to refer to transhumance, or seasonal movement of shepherds with their flocks, and if so is the earliest mention in Britain. The 10th century Welsh laws of King Hywel Dda allocate pigs to the husband and sheep to the wife. In the summer the pigs were kept in the woods while the wife took the sheep and the children to the highlands. The wife also controlled the dairy, and took care of the milking and cheese making equipment. Divorce remained an option in Wales longer than elsewhere in Britain. It was assumed that the woman deserved a share of the lambs and calves.


In the Middle Ages sheep were probably kept mainly for their milk and wool rather than their meat. Sheep do not seem to have been important to the Welsh economy before the 12th century, when the first Cistercian monasteries were established in Wales. Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley was founded for monks of the Cistercian order by Walter FitzRichard, lord of Netherwent and Striguil, on 9 May 1131. All abbeys of the order were to be built in remote rural locations, and had to be simple and unadorned. The order expanded rapidly. Tintern was followed by Whitland (1140), its offshoot Strata Florida (1164), Strata Marcella (1170) in Powys Wenwynwyn, Cwmhir (1176) in Maelienydd, Llantarnam (1179) near Caerleon, Aberconwy (1186) in Gwynedd, Cymer (1198) in Merionethshire and Valle Crucis (1202) in Powys Fadog. The monks were granted extensive lands for sheep grazing and were the pioneers of the woollen industry in Wales.


The invention of the water-powered fulling mill in the Later Middle Ages caused an industrial revolution in Wales. In the century that preceded the Black Death the monastic landowners and manorial lords built fulling mills in eastern Wales, with up to 80 operating before 1350. Sometimes a fulling mill and gristmill would share the same building or the same leat and mill pond. There would be a tenter yard outside the fulling mill where the cloth was stretched on frames. Woollen manufacturing became one of the main rural industries in Wales. Most Welsh cottages and farmhouses had a spinning wheel, almost always operated by women, and most parishes had carders, spinners, weavers and fullers. However, most of the production was for personal use rather than sale. The main centre of the new woollen industry was initially in south east Wales drawing on sheep from the monasteries of Margam, Neath and Tintern and the flocks of the Bohun family, which produced 18,500 fleeces in 1372. Fulling mills were later established elsewhere in Wales, particularly the north east and the Ceiriog valley. In 1380 the lordship of Ruthin in Denbighshire had 36 weavers. However, the period from 1350 to 1400 was difficult, with recurrences of the plague and heavy taxation to pay for the war with France. Between 1350 and 1500 an average of 50 fulling mills were operational. The reduced number was due to the unsettled state of the country before, during and after the Glyndŵr Rising (1400–15).


The quality of wool depended on the local breeds of sheep. In the 15th century south-east Wales produced particularly high quality wool. Margam in West Glamorgan and Tintern in Monmouthshire were noted for their excellent wool. According to Thomas Fuller's Church History, Wales specialized in manufacturing friezes. A frieze is a coarse woollen cloth that usually has a nap on one side. It was hard-wearing and well-suited for outer garments, and was popular with working men. Cloth was made in many places in Wales, particularly the south west and the northern and southern borderlands. In 1447 there was a guild of weavers and fullers in the lordship of Ruthin, and in the 1460s at least five fulling mills were operating in this location. The cloth was sold locally, in border town markets and in the yearly Bartholomew Fair in London. Welsh friezes were also exported from Welsh ports or from Bristol. In the early 16th century cloth for export was mainly produced in south Wales and shipped from the local ports. During that century there was a shift in production to mid-Wales and north Wales, and the woollen production was exported via Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The Shrewsbury Drapers Company tightly controlled the trade. The Welsh cloth makers, who lacked capital, produced poor quality drapery for which there was relatively low demand.


In 1660 wool made up two thirds of Welsh exports. Slaveowners in the West Indies and the American colonies found that slaves were more productive if they were clothed. William Lee of Virginia stated that "Good Welch cotton seems upon the whole to answer best", and others were "light and insufficient." The main market was at Shrewsbury. The demand for colours was limited. In the 1730s a Charleston merchant ordered "White, Bleue, & Green plains for Negro Clothing." The South Carolina "Negro Act" of 1735 commended "white Welsh plains" and outlawed rich or colourful materials that might be discarded by the slave masters. In the 1770s one observer said the whole purpose of Welsh woollens was "covering the poor Negroes in the West Indies." Before 1800 there were very few factories in Wales, and almost all production was at home. As trans-Atlantic demand for Welsh cloth grew, growing numbers of people in the rural areas of Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire became dependent on the woollen industry, finding that spinning and weaving gave a larger and more stable income than farming. Some hamlets grew into woollen manufacturing centres. For example, Trefeglwys tripled in size during the 18th century. In the last decades of the 18th century there was a great expansion of woollen production. Sales of stockings at Bala rose from £10,000 to £18,000 annually, and the annual profit of flannel sales in Montgomeryshire was more than £40,000.


At first much of the cloth was shipped via Shrewsbury and London, but later the specialized Atlantic port of Bristol became the main place from which Welsh plains were shipped across the Atlantic. Over time, factors from Liverpool and Bristol took control of the trade away from the Shrewsbury drapers. Instead of the weavers carrying their cloth to the market towns, the factors came to them to buy the cloth. The factors would extend credit to the poorer weavers so they could buy wool. The Shrewsbury Drapers were losing their control of the trade by 1770. The port of Barmouth exported woollen products worth £50,000 around the world in the 1770s. An author wrote of Shrewsbury in the 1790s, 'From very early days this place possessed almost exclusively the trade with Wales in a coarse kind of woollen cloth called Welsh webbs, which were brought from Merioneth and Montgomeryshire to a market held here weekly on Thursdays. They were afterwards dressed, that is, the wool raised on one side, by a set of people called Shearmen. At the time of Queen Elizabeth, the trade was so great, that not fewer than 600 persons maintained themselves by this occupation. The cloth was sent chiefly to America to clothe the negroes, or to Flanders, where it is used by the peasants. At present the greatest part of this traffick is diverted into other channels, and not more than four or five hundred thousand yards are brought to the ancient mart. Flannels both coarse and fine are purchased at Welsh-Pool, on every other Monday, by the drapers of Shrewsbury, who now principally enjoy this branch of commerce.'


By the 18th century a transition was under way to textile production in workshops run by businessmen. However, the technological revolution took much longer in Wales than it had in England, with slow adoption of machinery. Until the latter part of the 18th century carding and spinning was done at home, and weaving in the village ty-gwydd (loom house), although fulling was done by machine in fulling mills. A 1799 report said "The chief staple commodities of North Wales, as well as of the nation at large, are those manufactured of wool. ... In Anglesey, the inhabitants buy quantities of the Snowdon coarse wool, at the fairs of Caernarvon, and Bangor; out of which, mixed with their own wool, they manufacture deep blue coloured cloth, flannels, blankets, &c. a sufficience for home use and no more. ... In Caernarvonshire, they apply themselves somewhat more to spinning and weaving; for, besides supplying themselves with wearing apparel, they annually send several pieces of blue cloth into Meirionyddshire ... In Flintshire, and the greater part of Denbighshire, they are still less disposed to the exercise of the wheel and the loom. ... In other parts of Denbighshire, in the south west of Meirionyddshire and Montgomeryshire, the inhabitants have imbibed more of the spirit of industry; and add the profits of manufacture to the value of the raw material...".


Mill owners were not always men. There are records of three women mill owners in Wales in 1840, Mary Powell with 16 looms and 8 men, Ann Harris with 14 employees including 6 men, and Ann Whiled with 9 employees. Large spinning mills continued to operate in Llangollen in the north throughout the 19th century. For example, the Trefriw Woollen Mills, originally called the Vale of Conwy Woollen Mill, was built in 1820 on the banks of the Afon Crafnant. Thomas Williams purchased the mill in 1859 and expanded the business. Products from the woollen mills were taken to the coast from the quay at Trefiw using the River Conwy. A 36 feet (11 m) diameter overshot wheel powered spinning mules and jennies. The yarn was then woven into cloth on hand looms. A smaller 7 feet (2.1 m) wheel powered a fulling mill, which washed the cloth and kneaded it with wooden hammers to thicken and strengthen it. The mill was still in operation (in a newer building) as of 2016.


During the Industrial Revolution the Teifi Valley between Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire came to employ thousands of weavers, spinners, dyers, knitters, drapers and tailors. The river and its tributaries powered dozens of mills, and sheep in the surrounding grassland supplied fleeces to be made into woollen products. In 1837 a Working Men's Association was established in the south Wales weaving town of Carmarthen in response to the Chartist campaign for democratic rights. By the summer of 1839 three more towns in the region had founded such societies, and the first Chartist convention had been held. While manufacturing declined in mid-Wales after the 1860s, the weaving industry grew in villages in south-west Wales, which did well until the 1920s. Skilled workers moved from mid-Wales to the Teifi Valley, mainly to the area around Dre-fach Felindre, Pentrecwrt, Henllan and Llandysul. A railway was opened from Carmarthen to Lampeter in 1864, and large mills were developed such as the Alltcafan and Derw factories at Pentrecwrt. Dre-fach Felindre was once called "The Huddersfield of Wales" for its wool industry. The Cambrian Mills in this village made blankets, shawls, stockings and other products for local sale and for export.


The water-powered factories in the south west were completely dependent on demand from the nearby South Wales coalfield, whose workers preferred Welsh goods. They could not compete with the mills of northern England in other markets. The Teifi Valley Railway, opened in 1895, further strengthened the link from the rural south west to the industrial south. The woollen industry flourished in South Wales until the end of World War I (1914–18), with high prices during the war. At one time there were more than 300 active woollen mills. The woollen mills of the Teifi valley were hard-hit by the drop in purchasing power of miners during the depression in the coal trade of the 1920s. In the inter-war period (1918–39) most woollen manufacturers did not adapt to changes in fashion and were forced to close. Small clusters of hand loom weaving survived in places such as Lampeter where there were spinners and fullers, making quality goods. A weaver said of this work, "One can make a fair living by it, but a man can never get rich at it." The number of active mills dropped from 250 in 1926 to 81 in 1947 and 24 in 1974, increasingly concentrated in industrial centres. However, the invention of the double weave and light tweeds caused significant growth in demand for Welsh textiles. When Burberry bought the Treorchy plant in the 1980s, 75% of the workers were women. The plant was closed in March 2007.


There are 4 designated disabled parking bays located in the carpark, before crossing the bridge. From the car park there are flat paved routes into the museum which can easily be used by all visitors. However, please note that there is a downward slope from the road to the museum entrance and that there is a grassed expanse between the overflow carpark and the entrance. Two wheelchairs are available on request in the shop. Seating is available at various locations throughout the museum. Please ask any member of staff if you require seating at any other location. There is a lift to the first floor in the main building. A stair lift is available in the Weaving Shed to view Melin Teifi at work. A number of museum displays have audio interpretation and there is use of ambient sound in some galleries. Some of the galleries have low light levels for conservation reasons, but walkways and text panels are clearly illuminated. The museum's café and shop are accessible to wheelchair users. Toilet facilities for the disabled are located off the main reception building and in the Resource and Collections Centre. Baby changing facilities are provided in the ladies toilet in the museum. Assistance dogs are welcomed into all areas of the site. Water bowls are available on request from the café. The museum is on the same bus route as the National Coracle Centre making a great day out.


Location : National Wool Museum, Dre-fach Felindre, near Newcastle Emlyn, Llandysul, Carmarthenshire SA44 5UP

Transport : Cardigan or Carmarthen (National Rail) then bus (460). Bus Routes : 460 stops nearby.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17.00.

Tickets Tours: Adults £2.50;  Children £1.50

Tel. : 0300 1112 333 or 029 2057 3070