Welsh Flannel was first produced in Montgomeryshire in mid-Wales, in towns such as Llanidloes and Newtown but it was Newtown that gained the reputation of being the capital of the Welsh Flannel industry!
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In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was in Wales that first started weaving flannel from wool. Flannel (Gwlanen) is a woollen cloth which can be brushed on one or both sides to produce a soft nap. Whilst in England the description 'flannel' was also applied to a cotton fabric, in Wales it remained a term for woollen fabric.
The English word ‘flannel’ is thought by some to be derived from the Welsh ‘gwlanen’ (from gŵlan, Welsh for wool.) In continental Europe, the French call it flanelle, and the Germans, Flanell. In reality, no one is entirely sure where the name comes from.
Newtown - the Leeds of Wales
After the Act of Union between England and Wales in 1536, the Shrewsbury Drapers Company became the middleman in the woollen cloth trade, governing the production and export of flannel and other woollen cloths. The guild only released control in the 1790s, finally allowing Welsh woollen manufacture to develop and prosper. During the 19th century, Newtown lay at the heart of a global boom in the Welsh woollen flannel industry and was known as ‘The Leeds of Wales’. At its peak, goods manufactured there, and branded and marketed as from Newtown, were sold across the UK and around the world – enabled by the institutions and structures of the British Empire.
At the beginning of 20th century, however, the Welsh flannel industry had fallen into terminal decline. It faced increasing competition from the better connected, larger and more modern textile factories of northern England and America.
Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones
Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones (16 October 1834 – 11 January 1920) was a Welsh entrepreneur who formed the first mail order business in the world and revolutionised how products were sold. He created the first mail order catalogue – which consisted of woollen goods including Welsh flannel – for the first time customers could order by post, and the goods were delivered by railway - and all this started in the small Montgomeryshire town of Newtown (Y Drenewydd).
Pryce-Jones became hugely successful in the United Kingdom, with his high profile customers including Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria. His business also took off overseas, selling Welsh flannel to the rest of Europe, the United States followed by Australia. During the 1870s he took part in exhibitions all over the world, winning several awards, and he became world famous.The Queen knighted him in 1887.
It is believed that Queen Victoria wore knickers made by Pryce-Jones. His soft Welsh flannel knickers were favoured by many of the crowned heads (and bottoms) of Europe, including the Queen of Norway and the Empress of Russia!
Pryce-Jones was born in Llanllwchaiarn, a tiny village just outside Newtown.He was an apprentice to a local draper, John Davies, and in 1856 he took over Davies's business. In the same year he also married Eleanor Rowley Morris of Newtown. Pryce-Jones first shop was just off Broad Street where he started selling drapery. It was later renamed the Royal Welsh Warehouse and by that time the business was flourishing. Newtown had always had a woollen industry but it was the locally woven Welsh flannel which formed the mainstay of Pryce-Jones' business.