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11 December, 2013

Tools of the Trade - December

And so we reach December, and the final entry in our 2013 Tools of the Trade Calendar. We take a trip once more to Wales, where we find Tom and Anna, proprietors of the Solva Woollen Mill, and makers of our Welsh Tapestry Rugs.

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Nestled deep in the Pembrokeshire countryside, the Solva mill has been in operation on this site for over a hundred years, weaving tweeds, flannel, rugs, blankets and stair carpets, and warping wool for knitting. 

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Originally established in 1907 by Tom Griffiths, Solva was passed down to his daughter Betty and son-in-law Eric on Tom’s retirement in 1950. Betty and Eric ran it for another thirty six years before passing it on to Cynthia and Robert Grime, who in turn passed it on in 2006 to their son Tom, and his wife Anna. The continuity provided by family is important at Solva, as Anna explains:

“The mill has only been owned by two families since it was built and Tom’s family history is intertwined with that of the previous mill owners all the way back to the early 1900s. His grandfather went to school with one of Betty’s brothers and they have always had close family ties. Tom was doing his A-Levels when his parents decided to buy the mill and he jumped at the chance of learning new skills associated with engineering and manufacturing.”

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Eric at work ( above ) and Tom ( below ). Eric stayed on at the mill after retirement to help Tom and Anna learn how to run the mill and how to operate the complex machinery, and in particular how to work the Dobcross looms used to produce the tapestry rugs. 

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The Hattersley Dobcross Box Loom was the workhorse of Twentieth Century British weaving, producing countless thousands of metres of wool, worsteds and tweeds, and although many hundreds were destroyed as mills around the country closed down, there are still a handful of producers who keep and maintain these hardy machines. 

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“The Dobcross was designed in the 1880s but the dates of ours range from the 1920s, with the newest one being built in 1957. None of them are original, they all have previous lives in other mills. Saying that we do still have an original but its not built at the moment.”

“Nobody carries new spares anymore. The original supplier retired in 1987. We hold a large stock ourselves from looms we’ve bought just to use for spares.”

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“The shuttle in our Tools of the Trade picture is probably 35 years old and is brand new – one of our spares! We now use nylon versions of these shuttles which became available in the 1950s and are more robust than the older wooden versions. We still use a pair of nylon shuttles that Tom fitted to a loom when his family bought the mill in 1986!”

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And what is the wooden tool on the top left? “Aha that’s no wooden tool! It’s an old buffalo hide picker hence why it’s not on the loom anymore - it’s worn out!! It slides backwards and forwards at the end of the loom throwing and catching the shuttle. Made from riveted buffalo hide, the modern equivalents are now made from nylon.”

We have come across the Dobcross before in Tools of the Trade, in March, when we paid a visit to Elvet Woollen Mill. This machine is the perfect loom for weaving the traditional Caernafon ‘Welsh Tapestry’ pattern that has seen such a resurgence in popularity over the past few years.

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“The Tapestry design is the oldest pattern we weave here and was adapted from one of the traditional Welsh bedspread patterns. The rugs and runners woven here were originally of a much simpler design, but in the 1950s Eric noticed how many people had been using the tapestry blankets on their floors, and so he adapted the design using heavier yarn to produce a tapestry rug." 

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Our Tapestry Rugs are available in our own Labour and Wait Airforce and Olive colours, as well as as in standard Black and Red colourways. The rugs are 'double cloth’, being two layers of cloth woven together, making them weighty and durable as well as fully reversible. Solva use 100% British wool, spun by a family company in Yorkshire.

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Tom winding the yarn from the creel onto a warping mill and, below, a warp of one of Solva’s striped floor rugs.

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"The Cats are an integral part of the mill team as they patrol the mill deterring unwanted guests!!”

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There were once 26 mills in Pembrokeshire; now Solva is one of only two. Anna and Tom feel proud to maintain the family history that is so closely entwined with the mill: “For my part being able to carry on the family owned tradition with Tom is of huge importance. Breathing new life into the mill and encouraging visitors to appreciate the importance of heritage is one of my reasons for enjoying owning a mill.”

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We are very pleased to be able to sell these handsome Tapestry Rugs, woven by Tom and Anna in their Welsh mill. In doing so we feel we are playing our part in preserving a traditional industry, one that has been practiced in this mill for over a hundred years, and which will keep on going for many years yet.

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Tapestry Rugs are available in Airforce, Olive, Red and Black from our Redchurch Street store or from our website. Our thanks go to Tom and Anna for their pictures and for sharing their story.

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Our thanks also go to all our suppliers who have shared their tools and their stories with us this year. We hope to have shown a little of the companies still proudly making their goods in Britain, many in a traditional manner, all of which we are honoured to sell at Labour and Wait.

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