Introducing the project
Wool has been spun and woven in Wales for many thousands of years. Initially this would have been for family use, then for trade at local markets, but by the 1500's wool exports had increased with a growing demand from international traders. Initially raw wool was traded, but then laws were introduced that only let higher taxed woven cloth be exported. Much of this went to the Low Countries, that were then colonies of Spain.
"From Sheep to Sugar" is the most unlikely story of the production of a basic woollen cloth called Welsh Plains which was woven by poor sheep farming families that was exported to provide clothing for enslaved African workers in European colonies across in the New World. In the 1600s through to the 1800s the demand for this cloth changed rural life in many areas of Wales. Some communities flourished as the massive Plantation Trade demand increased, but international conflict, industrialisation and challenges from other cloth producers eventually diverted attention away from the valleys of Wales and "Brethyn Cartref" the home spun, hand woven cottage industry became a distant, and perhaps not a happy memory.
Now families and communities are reviving interest in the activities of their ancestors, noting "weaver" "fuller" "trader" in family records from generaltions ago.
The "From Sheep to Sugar" project has given opportunites to a range of people to explore what is written by the tourists who recorded their impressions of the spinning, weaving and fulling they saw in the 1700s as they travelled around Wales. Also the studies of the Welsh Woollen Industry by Walter Davies, then later by J Geraint Jenkins and others. There are also opportunities to explore local fulling mill sites and research other local buildings which may have been hand weaving "factories" or warehouses to store imported wool or finished cloth. Further afield Commiunity Research Volunteers have opportunites to visit the National Wool Museum and the Newtown Textile Museum and local Wollen Mills, all telling of the next steps in the industialisation process, and also to explore the transport history of Welsh Plains through Oswestry, Welshpool, Shrewsbury and Barmouth, as well as the Slave Ships ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol.
The next phase of the project is to pilot the next set of training materials, which will be introduced as an Open Learning pack, supported by local Research and Reading Groups. Check "Open Learning Opportunities".
As soon as the National Lottery Heritage Fund gave us the go ahead we hit the ground running to create a display and promotional materials to attract interest and recruit volunteers at Wonderwool. We also got a website ready to provide information for the potential Community Research Volunteers from across Wales who were interested in the history of spinning and weaving, or had families from farming communities interested in local history and heritage, to work together to explore and tell the history of the production of a woollen fabric called ‘Welsh Plains’ between 1650 and 1850 and its markets.
At first we thought this would be through finding "pandys", using archival records and exploring Welsh place names. Then we discovered a wealth of information online and in books, which was the first step and we have created an amazing library see sources of information
We recruited the first phase of Community Research Volunteers very quickly, mainly from the Wonderwool promotion and the leaflets which we got out to libraries, archives, museums and other places across Mid and into North Wales.
One of our ‘Community Research Volunteers’ Angharad Tomos is a journalist and she wrote this article in the Daily Post after hearing Chris Evans speak abut this project:
She sent us the article in Welsh and then this translation.
"It was in the Slate Musuem in Llanberis, it was a day to discuss Wales and the Slave Trade organised by the Museum of Wales. We're good as a nation for complaining that we are being oppressed, but believe we're too small to oppress anyone else. This can cause us to be seen as self-righteous. And if Wales has played a part in slavery, it is some rich people who have done that? – oppressors like the Crawshays or Lord Penrhyn, but our hands, the Welsh working class, are they clean – or are they not?
I had not heard Prof Chris Evans from South Wales University talking before, and he asked us to think about Jamaica's sugar plantations similar to oil rigs of today, where people are imported as well as their clothing, food and goods. Where did you think that slaves clothes came from? And the unexpected answer was 'from Wales'. I'd never heard that fact before.
The evidence comes from one of Thomas Pennant's books written in the 18th Century. "The flannel manufacture...for the army, and for covering the poor negroes in the West Indies, is manufactured in most parts of the county [Montgomeryshire]. It is sent and sold in the rough in Shrewsbury."
Recent work had been done on the subject by Prof Pat Hudson in 2014 'Not just a lot of flannel: the peculiar case of the Welsh woollen industry':
"This material, known as ‘Negro Cloth' was made at home, on a primitive loom, and it was a help to keep the wolf from the door. Cottagers had a hard life in 18th Century, and weaving brought an additional income to those people who suffered from low wages, high rents, taxes and tithes."
Then Chris Evans posed the question "Why hasn't this story been told?"
He explained that when slave trade ended, there was little demand left for wool in Montgomeryshire and the population left. Montgomeryshire's population today is lower than what it was in 1841. People dispersed around the globe, many also left for the coalfields, leaving the story behind.
What about Historians. why haven't they gone after the history? According to Chris Evans, they had more interest in the Princes of Wales, and the battle for Welsh independence.
What about recent anthropologists, why haven't they recorded this dark chapter in our history? He criticised Alwyn D.Rees and Iorwerth Peate because of their 'anti-modern prejudices'. In his book, 'Life in a Welsh Countryside', Alwyn D. Rees exalts the 'gwerin' and the community of Montgomeryshire as a picture of an ideal society, that has been swept away by the modern industrial world. Iorwerth Peate used these romantic ideas when he established the Folk Museum of Wales in Saint Fagans.
I have great admiration for Alwyn D. Rees, and Iorwerth Peate had a vison. They were men of their age, and I'm not sure if it is fair to blame them for not revealing the story of the Negro Cloth.
What is important is that we recognise the story today and face it squarely. This history that should be taught in our schools. It would be a good idea to have a loom in one of the houses in Saint Fagans and show the connection between Welsh people and the slave trade. Yes, I realise, we as well played our part in this terrible trade.
I went from Llanberis, enlightened. April 2019"