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Tucked away in an area of protected woodland on the Pembrokeshire coast, the Melin Trewynt woollen mill is almost too idyllic to be real. Last month I had the pleasure of visiting and speaking to its owners Eifion and Amanda Griffiths who gave me a tour of their factory, mill, shop and studios. You can read the full article for Dwell magazine here, but below are some of the edited images and excerpts from my interview with Eifion and Amanda.
“It was about 1918 at the end of the First World War when it all went a bit pear-shaped for the industry and a lot of mills closed about that time. They were supplying the coal mines, the steel works and the army with flannel. It’s strange because people always think of the woolen mills as being quaint and small, but at that time they were part of a much larger industrial system.
Obviously after the war, the market changed and the flannel wasn’t needed anymore. There was a small group of mills that survived and we were one of them. My grandfather moved here in 1912 and my father left school at 14 to help run the mill. They had a few people working for them but it was mostly family. It was a very rural way of life. That was up until the 1950s when they discovered tourism, or tourism discovered my Dad.
The mills that had survived up until that point did very well in that growth period of the 50s, 60s and 70s when tourism was a big deal. It was very much about selling to people who came to your door – the market was here.
When I first started working, there was no internet or anything like that so we had to go and chase customers but now the internet has completely changed the way that we do business. We are no longer dependent on people coming to the door. I think if my grandfather went into the mill today he’d understand it all perfectly, although the machines are very different, the principle, the fabric and the technique is actually not that different. However if he went into the office he wouldn’t know what on earth was going on.
We’ve had the shop since the 1950s, the mill is much older than the business. My grandfather built the extension in 1912 and we are still using it, we haven’t enlarged it at all. My Dad built the shop in 1950 and we’ve not had to extend, we use the buildings that we’ve got.
People used to ask a lot more ‘Why don’t you make it elsewhere so you can make more of it?’ but they ask that a lot less now. They understand, the customers want this additional layer of story now. It’s a niche product that people buy into and they require that extra story. There was a time when we might have almost pretended to be different. It’s lovely here but it’s not how you would imagine a industrial mill to be. We went off to trade shows and sold the fabric on its own merits without talking about where and how it was made, and it worked fine. We played it down because I’d grown up in the industry and seen overselling and under investment.
In the 60s and 70s double cloth sold really well in Wales as a sort of tourist souvenir. However when labour costs increased and the cloth became more expensive it was getting beyond an impulse buy for a tourist. So the woollen mills cut corners – they didn’t think about taking it up a level. Double cloth was devalued in the eyes of the visitor and in the eyes of the industry too. So we played down the fact it was Welsh and kept away form the double cloth weaves. We concentrated on making cloth in a country or traditional style instead.
These days people love the double cloth – the fact that it’s made in a small production in Wales and it has a story behind it. That part has grown, and I think that’s good – for us it’s come full circle.
There’s a recession on and we’ve never been busier, which is strange. I think though perhaps it’s part of this new attitude that people want things that last with authenticity. They value things more. They’ve realised that it’s not a good idea to buy everything cheap and that perhaps we ought to make something. Our orders this year have doubled.
We have the most amazing staff here because people want to come and live in this area for the quality of life – I cycle 5 miles every day into work along the coast. We always used to joke that this is Wales’ answer to California. We don’t feel like it’s a back water at all but we also like to travel and it’s important to keep the balance between here and the city. It’s always been a creative area for people working on their own because there is an incredibly strong sense of community.”