We recently interviewed Eifion Griffiths, owner of Welsh mill Melin Tregwynt and discussed the mill’s extraordinary history, the evolution of Welsh heritage with modernity, and a visit from a very special guest.
Can you tell us bit about the history of Melin Tregwynt, and how you continued the family business?
Melin Tregwynt is a longstanding family business founded by my grandfather in 1912, although the mill itself has been in continuous production since the 17th century. The mill is in a small remote valley in Pembrokeshire near the coast. It was originally built here because of the presence of water and the various small mills in the valley. Through the 1920s and 30s, the mill processed wool straight from the sheep which was then knitted or woven by local workers. There was a boom in the Welsh textile industry both during and after the war, as wool for knitting was not rationed and was easily accessible.
My father left school at 14 to work in the family mill. He learnt on the job and embraced the small-scale industry and the tourism it inspired – our front room at home became the mill shop.
I trained as an architect and practised for a number of years before making the decision to return to the family business. I was the only son so I thought I should give it a go before it was too late. Once I started, I realised that working in the business would help develop both my design and marketing skills and provide me with a very fulfilling job that I love.
How do you fuse tradition and modernity in your designs?
The fusion of tradition and modernity is not so much in the designs themselves. Doublecloth design has rules and limitations, which are to do with the structure of the cloth and how it’s made. Looms were probably the first machines to operate on a binary system and they haven’t changed that much. Doublecloth structure is integral to the design which gives it authenticity, but today’s digital world doesn’t affect it.
If my grandfather visited the mill today, he’d recognise what’s going on, as weaving hasn’t changed much over centuries. But if he went into the office, he’d have no idea what is happening. We try to combine the traditional values of what we make and how we make it with the modern online technology that enables a small mill in Pembrokeshire to sell all over the world. We use modern technology to communicate, sell and design, but it doesn’t really affect the way we actually make the cloth. The machines are just a little newer and faster, and they’re now made in Italy and not Yorkshire.
Being a family company gives us a heightened awareness of our own history and tradition. We see the products as a continuation – and each generation has reinvented the tradition to suit its market. Twenty years ago, we didn’t emphasize the traditional Welsh roots of our fabrics. We sold our work on its appearance and design. These days, we find that the authenticity and the story behind the company are equally important, perhaps because it’s rare to find a manufacturing company that has survived in the UK.
Many Welsh mills closed over the last few decades. What is the secret of Melin Tregwynt’s success?
Early in the 20th century, there were hundreds of mills in Wales. They supplied flannel for the industrial market to make shirts for steelworkers and coal miners. That was a huge market that took up the capacity of hundreds of mills. Geographically, the Welsh landscape was perfect for this traditional craft. Its lowland pastures and hilly areas were ideal for sheep farming while fast-running streams provided sources of power as well as water for dyeing and finishing the wool.
But the army stopped using flannel shirts (or sourced them cheaper elsewhere) after the First World War and the industry started to decline. Many mills went out of business at this time or were burnt down so their owners could walk away from them.
That Melin Tregwynt survived at a time when so many did not is mainly down to my father, Howard, who took over at the helm with his wife, Eluned, when Henry died. They found a new market: the tourist industry. When I joined the family business in the 80s, my training as an architect drew me to the repetition, structure and rhythm of pattern. What emerged were geometric fabrics that photographed well and looked good on the printed page, and this pared down approach helped define the brand.
We were lucky to have found a number of products that have proved popular with customers and we weren’t afraid to change the way things were made. I like working within boundaries but it’s sometimes great to stretch the limits a little bit.
Nowadays, the authenticity of the product is an important part of its appeal. Our products are rooted in one place, so the mill’s location is very important to us. We could move anywhere, but I can’t imagine doing that. For the same reason, we still use traditional methods – it’s all part of the authenticity.
How was it to have Prince Charles visit the mill last year?
It was a great day. We had got involved in a new initiative by Creative Skillset Wales to introduce apprenticeships into the textile industry in Wales. Prince Charles came to the mill to see our restored water wheel and to meet some of the apprentices in the pilot scheme. We shared the event with Creative Skillset who were holding an exhibition in a marquee in our car park so logistically it was complicated. He does this sort of visit so well. He was on a strict timetable but stayed far longer than was originally planned and ended up having a private tour around the millshop which wasn’t on the itinerary at all. He also managed to meet and speak to every member of staff which was very impressive. I think he enjoyed his visit and we certainly did. Our apprentice Sean even let the Prince have a go on the loom!
Discover Melin Tregwynt’s work and story in thewindow.com/melintregwynt.