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Texprint 2014: Meet the Judges, Eifion Griffiths

03 July 2014 by Jainnie Cho

We talk to Eifion Griffiths, Chief Executive Officer of Melin Tregwynt, a century-old Welsh wool products company that’s all about family, quality textiles and keeping tradition alive.

For Eifion Griffiths, a love of high quality textiles runs in the blood. His wool mill business, based in a remote valley on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales, is a family affair, started in 1912 when his grandfather, Henry Griffiths, bought the mill for £750 at an auction.

The 20th century’s tumult and challenges never broke Melin Tregwynt. The company survived the rationing system during World War II, the 1980s' recession and the 2008 global economic crisis. In fact, over the last five years, the company’s sales and production have more than doubled. Its unique range of wool blankets, throws and cushions – the majority of which is made through the traditional double-cloth weaving technique – has been the secret design ammunition for big name hotels, designers and retailers such as John Lewis, Heal’s, Margaret Howell and the Salthouse Harbour Hotel, among others.

A firm believer in maintaining traditional methods of producing textiles, Griffiths admits he is not a fan of digital print. “[Digital printing] replicates anything and everything, regardless of the process, seemingly without any additional effort from the designer/maker," he tells Texprint. However, he adds, “I am open to persuasion and would love to see a digital design that really explored the potential of the technology.”

Much as the slow food movement prizes local produce, Melin Tregwynt strives to use more British wool and labour. This year, the company plans to launch a range of fabrics using 100 per cent pure new wool sourced from British sheep and spun in the UK.

Talking to Texprint, Griffiths discusses the struggles faced by the British textile industry, the intricacies of creating top quality textiles and Melin Tregwynt’s rich history.

What are your thoughts on an organisation such as Texprint?

I feel very strongly that the industry needs to support its young designers. Texprint helps students negotiate the journey between higher education and the commercial world. It provides support, mentoring, some necessary signposts and maps to make that journey easier.

The textile industry has suffered as work has disappeared overseas. We are beginning to see an improvement as the market is learning to value home based and traceable production. However this is almost too late to halt the rapid disappearance of skills and an ageing workforce. There's a need to get design students and industry apprentices to learn the traditional skills associated with the textile industry and build on that knowledge before all that expertise is lost forever.

Our woollen industry in Wales is an example of an industry still based on family-owned companies and there is a succession issue for those companies whose family members may not be interested in continuing in the business. A demographic time bomb is ticking under what remains of the UK textile industry.

What is great textile in your opinion?

I like designs that have the maker's mark on them. You can see the imprint of the designer’s hand and the judgement of their eye in the finished design. I like it when the way that the fabrics are made/printed/woven partly determines the form of the design. They feel right and have an authentic quality that comes from the interplay of the designer and the process of making.

What differentiates Melin Tregwynt’s woollen products from others?

We work mainly in the Welsh weaving tradition of double cloth weaving. This has its disadvantages but it gives the products an authenticity and integrity that stems mainly from the fact that the design and structure are linked. You cannot alter the design without altering the weave set up, threading, number of shafts etc. It gives the product a depth that mere surface decoration would lack.

What did you do before getting involved in the family business?

Neither my wife nor I were trained in textiles. I was actually an architect before coming back to the family business. Sometimes a level of ignorance about what you can or cannot do is useful, as we have attempted and occasionally succeeded in achieving things that anybody with any sense would have probably left well alone.

How has Melin Tregwynt being a family-owned business for so long influenced the company?

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.

My grandfather used local wool and sold through local markets. There was barter and exchange but the mills of Wales were part of a much larger supply chain where flannels were woven and sold to steelworks, coal mines and army. Seemingly quaint rural mills were actually part of a much larger industrial supply chain. That came to an end after the First World War. Mills struggled to survive but we were lucky and found customers. 

In the 1950s, my father discovered tourism and sold directly to visitors to the mill and to other retailers selling to tourists in Wales. When I came back to the business in 1979, I set out to find a market away from the mill that would be interested in our products. Today, we operate in a global economy and sell to a global market place. We are once again part of a large supply chain.

How do you see Melin Tregwynt evolving in future?

We see our future as primarily a retail/design company with limited production facilities whose main concerns are innovation, product design and development. Within this framework we seek to protect existing jobs at the mill and to create new jobs.

We are a native Welsh company and we are committed to manufacturing in Wales. We are actively working with other small manufacturers to create and market the best Welsh designed and manufactured products.

In a textile industry where most products are sourced overseas, we also see ourselves as a possible training resource – an opportunity for textile students to have practical experience of manufacture.

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