During most of 2013, Whipup.net will be hosting a monthly mini-series, each month edited by different crafters and designers. Enjoy!
Today, Alexandra introduces Annie of knitsofacto. Annie is a blogger, photographer, knitter, natural dyer, and country girl who lives with her husband, four children, and six dogs in rural north Wales, UK. She spends her days wrangling yarn and whippets, and dreaming of owning a wool shop and a proper dye house.
There are ancient cottages here, slate roofed and built of local stone, that look to have grown from the soil. That they were once scaffolding and whistling workmen is almost beyond comprehension. They belong to this land, this place, and it is impossible to imagine them existing elsewhere. Much the same might be said of the old fulling mill at Trefriw.
The woollen industry has been economically significant here since Hywel the Good ruled Wales and included in the annual ‘tribute’ paid to the English “one hundred pounds of wool”. But woollen cloth, before it truly has value, must be scoured and fulled to wash away grease and dirt and to close the weave. This was the first part of the woollen production process to be mechanised and is the part that requires the most water.
In Trefriw that water comes from the fast flowing river Crafnant, which also powered the waterwheel that powered the mill’s fulling hammers, and which today powers its turbines. Crafnant, or ‘the valley of the wild garlic’ … even now, when the wild garlic flowers, Trefriw is suffused with its scent. And I can’t help but wonder if, centuries ago, the same pungent fragrance that I smelt while there to take these photographs tickled the nostrils of the village’s weavers as they carried their cloth from cottage to mill to be fulled.
Wild garlic, or ramsoms, and the ubiquitous yellow gorse both proliferate here, the first a food plant the juices of which act as a natural moth repellent, the second a coconut smelling godsend to the dyer (and the maker of country wines!). But where once the dye house at Trefriw might have been heaped with bundles of gorse, today the dyeing process is all about chemistry. The almost-alchemy of the past is consigned to the archived dyer’s ‘receipt’ books, yet the old stone sinks remain beside the modern stainless steel dye vats. And waiting to be coloured, the knitting yarn they still spin here. To knit with yarn from Trefriw, now that’s making it local!
The women of Wales have long been knitters. An 18th century traveller once remarked of them: “I cannot speak too highly of [their] industry … always knitting as they walk along even with heavy loads upon their heads, they must make a number of stockings which I suppose they sell, for they will go bar foot and bar skin as they themselves term it.” He was right, they were knitting stockings for the ‘stocking men’, who travelled from door to door buying the finished goods for a pitiful three pennies a pair and stringing them onto poles which they carried on their shoulders.
This was piece work and these women were poor, so of necessity they knitted as they went about the business of their day, often with a baby or a toddler slung in a nursing shawl at their waist. They knitted – our traveller again – “during the whole business” of taking a beast to market, “though many of them held a horse or a cow” throughout. They knitted without benefit of a pattern, having learnt all the design skills and stitch combinations they needed at their mothers’ knees. And they knitted at knitting evenings held in each other’s cottage homes, nosweithiau gwau, where they would gather together to be sociable and to save on fuel, to knit by firelight and to gossip. Clearly stitch ‘n’ bitch is nothing new!
Trefriw’s principal product in recent years has been woven Welsh blankets not so very different to the traditional wedding coverlets, orcarthenni, that were made hereabouts in the past. Visit when the mill is working and you can see and hear – you’ll need to shout to be heard above them – the carding engines, spinning mules, and looms in action. My paternal grandfather worked in just such a mill, his days measured by the clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, of the machines at the mill’s heart. He belonged in that mill just as the mill in turn belonged in the valley that supplied the stone from which it had been constructed, the water that powered it, and the generations of skilled craftsmen that kept it working.
If my grandfather had been born and raised in a different Welsh valley he might have quarried roofing slate or mined silver. But he was born where he was and so he did what men raised there did. It was in his bones. And that connection he had to place is something I fear we are losing and something I do not want to lose. The old woollen mill at Trefriw connects me to those who came before me. Men and women who made things local, and with wool, just as I do. Folk who knew where the wild garlic grows.