Welsh crafts have always been at the heart of Welsh life and have derived from all corners of the country.
From potters, artists, carvers, to weavers there has always been a strong tradition of making quality crafts by hand. This is still very much kept alive today by great demand for quality Welsh products such as thick and warm tapestry blankets, intricate hand carved love spoons and contemporary pottery. This blog entry discusses the major areas of Welsh arts and crafts, including
- Welsh quilt making
- Welsh slate craft
- Welsh love spoons
- Welsh blacksmith craft
- Welsh beer making
- Welsh pottery making
- Welsh corn dollies
- Welsh wool craft
Moreover, it talks about places that can be explored to learn more about the magic of the Welsh craft making traditions.
Welsh quilt craft
With Wales being known for its wool production, a related tradition of Welsh quilt making developed from the seventeenth century. The early quilts were primarily functional and tended to be made from wool. A woollen blanket would be encased by woollen fabric or worsted material. This made the Welsh quilts very thick and heavy.
Later in the eighteenth century the quilts became more decorative with patch work and were made expressly for the rich. From the middle of the nineteenth century, quilt making in Wales had blossomed into a cottage industry. A farmer’s wife would often provide the fabric and the filling, whilst the quilter chose the design. The stitching was initially mapped out on the cloth by the quilter, but they had no formal templates, but rather, used pieces of cardboard, bowls, greased saucers, household items to mark out the pattern.
A familiar item in the cottage or farm house at that time would have been a quilt frame. This was a wooden frame that was used to stretch the material so that it could be worked on.
Most women had been taught how to make quilts and an event called a quilting bee became a tradition. Essentially, women in the local district would congregate at a bride-to-be’s home and set about stitching a quilt. The woman that finished her section design first would be the first to be married. On completion men would arrive to admire the artisanship and celebrate with a supper.
The amount of time, effort and creativity that went into the quilts was extremely impressive. The real skill was in the needle work. Often the women were widowed, their husbands having succumbed to the dangerous working conditions in the mines – slate or coal. With children and themselves to support they needed to find some form of work and quilt making was an outlet.
The quilt that was authentically Welsh was the flannel quilt. The cloth was woven in the Welsh mills and the woollen batting filling was secured from either Welsh hedgerows or end of life Welsh blankets. Flannel was a type of thin cloth, and often not dyed. In Wales it was made from Wool and one of it’s main production hubs was based in and around Newtown. Patchwork flannel quilts were a Welsh staple.
The patchwork quilts often had a lot of sentimental value with mothers patching together cloth that had special meaning e.g. a christening gown, baby blanket or wedding gown. Flower, oak leaf, rose and the lily became popular motifs in the Welsh designs.
As I final bit of factual knowledge, the most popular stitched pattern in Welsh quilting, was the spiral which represents eternity or long life.
Welsh pottery craft
Wales has a long history of making pottery in Wales. From the slipware produce of Buckley, and the popular copper lustre pottery of Aberthaw, quality ceramics could be found decorating Welsh dressers throughout the country. One of the oldest producers of the Welsh craft are Ewenny pottery that continue to operate today at Bridgend. They are particularly renowned for their Wassail bowl, made for purpose of being filled with spiced ale.
Contemporary Welsh pottery is on the rise with a number of rural based potters setting up studios. The national museum in Cardiff has an excellent exhibition of ceramics both old and new, often inspired by the Welsh landscape.
For more information please read our guide to Welsh pottery.
Welsh wool craft
The Welsh woollen trade from the Middle Ages through to the mid nineteenth century was arguably the most prominent of Welsh industries. The country was filled with weavers, spinners and dyers. Welsh cloth was highly spoken of and exported to all corners of the world. Though nowhere near the size of the industry it was during its heyday, there has been a revival of interest in Welsh wool in recent decades.
Traditionally, Welsh flannel was the woollen material that Wales’ woollen industry was centred around. Newtown is regarded as the original hub for its production. Flannel initially was a fairly thin cloth, plain and usually undyed.
With the introduction of power looms in 1880, largely bought second hand from North England, Wales saw a surge in demand for its product. The Mill owners made considerable sums and this created employment raising living standards. The new prosperity lasted up until the beginning of the First World War when prices reached record highs. However, it was to be short lived as the period after the war virtually put an end to the industry. Prices fell sharply and mills were forced to close.
Though flannel is sought after today on a small scale by fashion designers, a more modern form of Welsh woollen material is tapestry. Welsh tapestry is known for its longevity and warmth. It is created by two pieces of fabric being woven together, one on top of the other. The finished product reveals a different pattern on each side.
They are also now much sought after for their colourful patterns. Home decor designers and contemporary retailers have been quick to realise their potential. Mills in different parts of Wales historically developed their own tapestry patterns. One of the foremost has become the Caernarfon Tapestry pattern, that comes in all the colours one can comprehend.
These tapestry blankets are still woven by a handful of working Welsh mills that use traditional methods to give them that authentic quality. There is also a resurgence in demand for second hand Welsh blankets, as they are so hard wearing, often surviving over a century’s worth of wear and tear without much to show for it. Though small in scale, approximately ten mills continue the Welsh craft of making Welsh blankets, rugs and bedspreads. We have put together a visitor’s guide to the remaining Welsh woollen mills.
Welsh love spoons
Welsh love spoons are a lasting Welsh craft, and over the centuries they have been made as a token of affection. Initially they were carved by rural workers and gifted to potential female suitors. The story goes that the more intricate the carving, the deeper their love for the lady in question.
The spoons are often designed with symbolic meaning in mind. There is a library of symbols that a carver can draw from, to express their sentiments from horseshoes for good luck to a lock for security.
Some of the earliest spoons can be found on display at St Fagans Museum of History near Cardiff. These days love spoons are crafted for many different events such as births and weddings. They are often engraved with names and dates. Some of the more popular commercial spoon carvers include Richard Downes from Swansea that often carves using olive wood and Pontypridd based Paul Curtis who has been carving spoons for over thirty years. Ken Jones from Ceredigion has been crafting the spoons for many decades, selling the spoons to many countries across the world.
For more information on how to carve a love spoon visit our guide.
Welsh corn dollies
The tradition of making Welsh corn dollies goes as far as back as when the Pagans roamed the earth. Today one can still be purchased in a souvenir shop or online. Or they are sometimes spotted at church or farm harvest events.
Corn doilies are made with wheat and for the skilled craftsman wheat of a particular kind is highly prized. Wheat should be cut in the spring just as it turns from green to gold when it possesses a small head and thin stalk.
Traditionally, they were made for a ceremony called The Harvest Mare (Y Gaseg Fedi). The last sheaf of corn of the harvest would be plaited and shaped. This last sheaf was initially associated with the Earth mother Ceres, and it was originally in her honour that the female form (the dolly) was chosen to please her.
Each agricultural worker would shape the corn with their reaping hooks. The winner of the best dolly would have the task of carrying it to the harvest feast. The goal was to avoid getting the Harvest Mare soaked by women throwing buckets of water on route. Success would mean a seat at the head of the table where much beer and food could be enjoyed. Failure would mean no beer and regular insults. A task worth winning then!
As well as dollies, the wheat can be shaped in many different forms including angels, Celtic crosses and spirals. Moreover, rattles are made to celebrate a new birth, lanterns, umbrellas, bells, spinning wheels and many more shapes are fashioned from the wheat. You can sometimes find them hanging from the entrances to homes as house blessings. They are used in clothing accessories too, adorning belts or hats.
Welsh slate craft
As far back as the Middle Ages, Welsh slate was used to mark graves with simple icons and scratched names. As time went forward the grave stones became more elaborate. In the nineteenth century slate monuments became an impressive display of facets and fretting. Sculptors were highly sort after and well paid.
This Welsh craft has dwindled in recent times as machinery and routing technology have advanced. Though there are still slate calligraphers that manage to ply a trade.
Great skill can be witnessed watching Welsh quarrymen slate knapping at events such as country shows. This is where a craftsman would split the slate to very thin layers without it breaking; a task that was required for making roofing slates. Similarly washing and dressing the slate required a good deal of expertise.
In contemporary architecture and design there is a demand for quality Welsh slate. Wales offers as well as the dark black slate, a variety of different coloured slate – blue-grey, green, red and sea-green. Welsh slate companies such as Berwyn Slate are still turning their hand at making quality slate floor tiles, steps, tables, hearths, kitchen worktops, cladding, patio tiles etc. The Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff, beautifully shows off the potential for incorporating the material in contemporary architecture.
There are a number of artists that sculpt using slate as a medium, often in the form of relief carving e.g. John Cleal, Diana Hoare, Reg Beach and Ivor Richards. Slate has also become popular and used in Welsh gifts or as kitchen accessories e.g. coasters, cheese boards and placemats.
Welsh beer making craft
Often overlooked brewing has been a popular Welsh craft up and down the full breadth of the country for centuries. Whatever Welsh town you can think of it is more than likely they had a brewery at some stage. Beer was as common on the dinning table as bread or cheese.
Farms as well as large country houses all dabbled in the arts of brewing their own beer. An unexpected source for brewing beer during medieval times were the Abbeys. Monks were keen brewers making beer for themselves as well as travellers. Though they needed to be vigilant as falling sleep at prayer due to a few too many pints, for example, was certainly not looked favourably upon.
Welsh beer has recently had a bit of a revival with a flourish of micro breweries establishing themselves. Though on a very small scale when compared with the larger brewers, they are appreciated for offering more choice and have won high acclaim for their produce e.g. Tiny Rebel Brewery in Newport winning 2015 Champion UK Beer for their Cwtch red ale. Brains beer, Wales’s largest brewer still survives today and has been operating since 1882.
Welsh blacksmith craft
An important figure, particularly in Welsh rural community would have been the Welsh smithy. With strong links to local farmers and other tradesman, the local smithy would have been responsible for making and repairing horse shoes (farriery), farm equipment such as ploughs and fashioning tool heads. Though the craft has largely died out there are still some metal workers that earn a living.
There is real skill to a blacksmith’s work, with an eye for detail essential and strength of the arm too. It is very difficult to talk about skilful Welsh blacksmithing, without mentioning the Davies brothers of Wrexham. Their work from the eighteenth century is internationally renowned. In north Wales where there are beautifully formed iron gates or railings in front of churches, castles or manor houses, there is a good chance they will have been crafted by the Davies brothers. Some of their outstanding work includes Chirk castle gates, Erddig Hall, and Leeswood Hall (black and white gates known locally as heaven and hell).
One of Wales’ renowned blacksmiths in recent years is Ann Catrin Evans, who amongst another works, forged the bronze handles on the doors of the Welsh Millenium centre.
Other Welsh crafts
Other Welsh crafts include, but are not limited to
- Welsh lady ornament making
- Making figurines using Welsh coal to make miners, Welsh ladies and Welsh dragon ornaments
- Clay figures as popularised by the World of Groggs in Pontypridd, which specialise in making rugby players, movie stars, sheep, musicians, dragons and many more
Welsh arts and crafts today
The Welsh tourist board have been keen to promote traditional Welsh crafts, acknowledging that it can entice visitors to the rural areas of the country. Offering support for craft fairs and showcases at various locations across Wales, encouraging display cases at museums, and the construction of dedicated craft centres have been just a few of the steps they have taken to instigate a revival.
The decline in craftsmanship at primarily the hands of the industrial revolution, has seen a resurgence in interest, as people are keen to once again appreciate the skill and tradition of making and creating by hand. Not to mention the fact that the products offer variety in the face of mass produced commodities.
So where are the best Welsh craft centres to visit?
Tregaron Craft Centre
At Tregaron Craft Centre in mid Wales, Rhiannon’s Welsh gold jewellery takes centre stage. Workshops, a gallery and demonstrations reveal how the jewellery is made and the inspiration behind the designs. Moreover, the centre offers other locally sourced handmade products such as ceramics, slate gifts, glassware and more. There is a cafe on site too.
Corris Craft Centre
Located in Machynlleth, not far from Aberystwyth, is Corris Craft Centre. The centre includes nine units making pottery, soaps, chocolate, candles, toys, furniture, glass sculptures, jewellery and much more. Close by is a Welsh slate mine that can be explored with the help of an informative guide. Also, an underground waterfall and stories of myths and legends can be experienced at King Arthur’s Labyrinth. All in all a great day out for the family.
Hay-on-wye Craft Centre
Located right next to the main car park, the town of book’s craft centre is home to about ten units. This includes a glass shop where glass blowing can be witnessed, an art prints shop, a chocolate and fudge shop and a cafe.
Ruthin Craft Centre
An impressive facility is the Ruthin Craft Centre in Denbighshire. With several studios for resident Welsh crafts artists, workshops, gallery exhibitions and a cafe that sources local produce it is no surprise that it was shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Prize.
Cardiff Bay Makers Guild
A hub for contemporary Welsh crafts can be found at Cardiff Bay at the Makers Guild. It regularly hosts talks, exhibitions and workshops run by skilled Welsh crafts people. They also run educational classes for schools, colleges and universities, including ceramic and glass making instruction. There is a gallery on site that displays some of the best crafts that Wales currently has to offer. There is encouragement for new skilled Welsh crafts persons to join their guild. Well worth a visit if you get the opportunity.
When are the best Welsh crafts events?
Cardiff Craft Festival
Cardiff Craft Festival is run annually at Cardiff City Hall usually in early November. Approximately 150 crafts people run stalls and show off their handmade creations. There are craft demonstrations, opportunities to have a try yourself, talks and much more. Certainly one of Wales’s premier craft events.
Swansea Summer Craft Fair
Over 90 stalls of handmade crafts and food are on show at the summer craft fair at the Swansea Liberty stadium. The event usually takes place in August and includes many attractions for children. They also run a Christmas craft fair.
The Thirsty Dragon by Lyn Ebenezer
Welsh crafts by Mary Eirwen Jones
The Flannel Makers: A brief history of the Welsh woollen industry by J Geraint Jenkins