Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Finally - the one about the Wool Museum

Today, after going on about it for some time I am going to tell you about the visit my sister and I made to the National Wool Museum of Wales at the beginning of December. We'd been promising ourselves a visit for some time, but it's quite a long drive and of 'minority interest' so we chose a day when it would be 'just us' while the children were at school.

The museum is housed in a former woollen spinning mill with most of the machinery still intact. It is a working museum with the exhibits arranged around the process although on the day that we visited the machines were quiet. In fact, the whole place had a tranquil hush about it with us being virtually the only visitors.

Despite its idyllic rural setting the museum is essentially about an industrial process with skilled workers spending long hours in noisy rooms for very low wages. It is important that we affluent textile artists by choice do not make the mistake of romanticising the weaving industry. We thought about our late Aunty Annie who started work in the cotton mills of Accrington in Lancashire at the age of 12 and was so small she had to stand on a box to reach the loom. By the time I knew her in her later years she had been made completely deaf by the sound of the machines but was an excellent lip reader - a skill that needed to be quickly acquired.

Here is one of the vessels used to wash the raw fleece.

And this is a boiler used to supply hot water for the process.


An enormous amount of craftsmanship was evident in the building of the machines for the woollen mill which is still in full working order.


And here are some examples of the sorts of traditional Welsh woollen cloth that this mill and many like it produced, some of which are still in action today.


Apart from the main exhibit which followed the industrial process through, the museum wove social history throughout the story they set out to tell. The role of hand spinning was not forgotten with a few examples of spinning equipment such as this great wheel on display. What I hadn't realised was that in the impoverished villages, spinning on the great wheel continued well beyond the invention of treadle versions because the great wheel was simple and affordable by a wider range of people. One poignant image that stuck in my mind was of an elderly lady standing barefoot outside her cottage at work at her great wheel.


The museum also put together some good interactive pieces of social history where they had collected memoirs from local people about the thriving bustle of the village while the mill was in operation compared to the few shops that remain to serve a far more dormitory settlement. Our attention was also caught by the window frame on which it had been a tradition to write the names of mill workers who got married while they were working there.

Whilst this museum was not specifically orientated towards hand knitting it was striking that a large amount of the folk art and photography of the archetypal Welsh woman would contain references to hand knitting. Again, women would knit not as a restful hobby at the end of the day but out of necessity, either for their families or as outworkers on piece work rates.

Here is an example of a rather romanticised image of an elderly Welsh lady knitting stockings at her doorstep.

And here is a rather fearsome array of Welsh knitters who don't look as if they indulge in the pastime for fun.


All in all Sue and I had a wonderful day at the museum. The exhibits are well presented and there is also an excellent cafe and shop (these things matter!). As we said when we got together this weekend it was one of those days we treasure away to revisit when we're feeling a bit low - two sisters having a day out together doing something at least one of us is passionate about.

10 comments:

Panhandle Jane said...

Thanks for sharing such a fascinating visit. I think my interest in spinning may come from a brass plate that used to hang on our wall. The scene was a Welsh spinner with a great wheel. I know she was Welsh because of the costume.

Rani said...

That is very interesting. It makes me wonder that knitting 'back then' was not, perhaps, such a relaxing pastime like it is for me now. I suppose 150 years ago or more, I would have been concerned with racing to get warm socks and underclothes finished before the winter winds blow.

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

suse-the-slow-knitta & Baldyboi said...

fascinating! A place that I must visit some day.
You're right not to romanticise life in the mills, it was hot noisy work in the *1980s*, never mind the 1880s (I worked at Courtaulds weaving mill,1979-82,in Durham which made corduroy). I didn't go deaf though, I wore ear defenders!

Kathy said...

I like that you could really see how things worked in the mill. People forget these days that once upon a time children worked in places like that. Not in a far away land, but near where we live.

stash haus said...

Thank you for sharing the history and images from your visit to the museum.

Happy New Year to you!

Knitting Out Loud said...

Wonderful post, thank you! Yes, we are lucky today to be able to knit for fun and not necessity.
Happy New Year!

Linda said...

That is so interesting, thank you for sharing your trip. have a happy new year!

mildawg said...

Fascinating -- thank you for sharing that museum with us!

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Accrington (where I live now) and your aunt who worked in the mills there. I know several women who are quite deaf now because of the noise from looms in years gone by. I think there are no mills here now that process cotton from start to finish. They just pulled down one of the last tall chimneys the other week. The end of an era.
MelindaJ

dreamcatcher said...

Very interesting post indeed. My gran also worked in the East Lancs cotton mills at the same sort of age as your aunt. Would also recommend Farfield Mill near Sedbergh, Cumbria as another interesting textile history visit.