Carthen - Welsh Pattern Textile History
The heart of Welsh textile production dates back centuries. With an abundance of waterways for power and wool grazing on hillsides, Wales made the perfect location for creating practical and warm materials. By 1895 Wales was the home to over 300 mills producing textiles not just for their miners but cotton pickers in North America and even Indian Soldiers. The Carthen has been popular for over 100 years.
What does Carthen mean?
Carthen is Welsh for any sheet, blanket or material made of woven cloth. It’s literal translation to English is ‘coarse cloth’. Sometimes these articles are referred to as tapestry blankets for their resemblance in structure, texture and their decorative nature.
How were these cloths made?
Traditionally these blankets were handmade on narrow looms. A combination of panels could be put together to form a blanket, rug or other cloth. Blankets with a hand-sewn center seam would date back to 1910 before wider looms were being used. The government relocated discarded wide looms to Wales when the Yorkshire mills were advancing faster than other counties and didn’t need them. The wider looms allowed patterns to be made in a single piece with no joining and the double weave made them reversible.
What were they made of?
The cloth would be made of various materials but most popular and native to Wales the choice was always wool. Second hand or recycled materials were also combined, including materials that had already been used by ancestors. The Carthen symbolic coarseness comes from the original blankets. They often had a harsher more irregular texture because of the sheeps grazing habits and exposure to the elements affecting their wool. The modern equivalent of these blankets can be differentiated solely by the quality and consistency of the wool used.
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Where did the designs come from?
All families and mills have their own unique designs with the most iconic being the Caernarvon design or Portcullis. Colour schemes varied but were most likely bright orange, purples and greens that would contrast one another. The old design consisted of spikes, dots and pixelated-like squares. With little evolution from the original practice or design, the influence can be seen across the globe especially in Aisa, Japan and America.
Why did they become so popular?
The popularity of the Carthen is from it’s potential to keep anyone warm in all weathers and it’s ability to decorate anyone’s home. Traditionally the tapestry blanket would have been given as a wedding gift; after a fulfilled marriage this hardwearing and comforting piece could then be passed through the family generations as part of individual heritage. This heirloom would often be symbolic of tradition and the familial culture.
Where do they exist in the contemporary world now?
The statement Carthen blanket now exists in homes not only in Wales. With the contrasting colours, geometric patterns and flexibility of its reversible nature, these articles are made for more than a lifetime. The tradition and culture of such a practical item have been passed around the globe for families to enjoy, taking the rugged and safe Welsh wool to comfort everyone.
The art of weaving these coarse materials is still occurring in the remaining mills today. The craftsmanship is taught from generations of talent to keep the necessary skills and authenticity of the process alive. The industry is facing a demand for genuine items with a decrease in knowledgeable craftsmen who can maintain the equipment and continue passing on their trade. The threat to the industry remains a crucial motivation for more education on Welsh history and tradition.