10 September 2013

The memory of cloth, the cloths of memory

Imagine the biggest factory room in Britain, or perhaps the world. The year is anytime in the century following 1853, and the room is full of spinning machines, tended by hundreds of operatives, part of the 4,000-strong workforce of the mill who live in the model town outside its gates. So much industry, so much life - until the decline of the wool industry and the eventual closing of the mill. It was bought in 1987 by the Silver family and now houses a David Hockney collection and other art, shopping, eating, drinking activities, employing 1,000 people.
The spinning room in production (photo from exhibition catalogue)
Now imagine this room, which is at the top of the building and is 168 metres long (half again the length of a football field), empty but for the dust and lingering whiffs of machine oil - a windowless room, lit only by rooflights, spanned by thin iron beams. Thus it was a year ago, and in the 11 months after getting the go-ahead for this exhibition, 23 invited artists have populated it with a variety of interesting and beautiful (and sometimes challenging or at least stretching) textile work, made especially for this wonderful space.
Looking down the length of the room
Cloth, and things made of cloth, carry many types of memories; furthermore, memory is a component of any historical site, intensified when site-specific artwork has been produced. Though the exhibition at Salt's Mill (opened in 1853) is called Cloth & Memory, many of the works can be considered through the themes of Work and Waste.


The theme of Work appears both in terms of remembering the workers and the woollen industry of the area, and also in terms of the sheer amount of labour that has, in the short time available, gone into the artworks on display - for example, the three kimono by Yasuko Fujino are woven in a demanding technique using supplementary weft and a warp that has 3,600 threads over its 40cm width, such that a day's work would result in only 7cm (3 inches) of cloth. 
Closeup of weaving on one of the kimono
The kimono are anchored with loom weights

Much work, and other physical effort, in the 100 metres of digitally-embroidered cloth based on Karina Thompson's running of the length of the room 15 times, the distance run (one and a half miles) representing an hour's output of cloth by the mill.
Heart rate at the end of the run was three times that at the beginning
Prints from the runner's shoes mingle with ultrasound images of a heart beating

Caren Garfen's "cotton reels" represent a sample of 160 women millworkers from the 1891 census, each reel-end holding a memory plaque with the woman's name, year of birth, age, marital status, and occupation hand-sewn (imagine the size of the stitches) - then on a narrow tape the address and perhaps other information, sometimes at length. 
Embroidered with tiny stitches
"Women's" items added within the tapes
The ties of the apron were embroidered with occupations
of women (short tie) and of men (long tie)
The wider tape (a handling sample) is perhaps 2 inches wide

There is yet more work in Caroline Bartlett's 14 meticulouly, intensely, mysteriously embroidered monochrome wool cloths suspended in embroidery hoops, some seeming to absorb the oil and dust from the floor, each mottled with the marks of time.
Printed on the hoops are names of types of textile; on strings attached
 to the back wall are names of mills nearby

Patterning starts from the central ceramic disk, impressed with the memory of a textile

Annie Harrison's video interviews with former mill workers were fascinating, not simply for their stories of what working at the mill entailed, but also for the drawings of aspects of their work - a working diagram of the equipment, a layout of the room, quickly sketched on an iPad while they were talking.
Fascinating to see the drawings evolve - here, workers leave the factory
while a child waits on a wall, waving to acquaintances
Mill workers and mill work are stitched into a series of panels by Rachel Gray, who is fascinated by the backs of paper-pieced quilts. She has used old photos and also copies of mill records, trapping them with patching and embroidery.


Consciousness of wasteful practices informs the work of some artists; others have used material that has been overlooked or would be discarded.

Much more wool, from unfinished knitting projects, has been saved from being wasted by Kari Steihaug; unravelled, it forms part of a new knitting project
Unravelled yarn is reknit (photo by Linda Bilsborrow)
The strands of yarn hold the memory of the previous garment and
each have their own "handwriting"

The rice grains that Yoriko Yoneyama painstakingly sticks to silk threads are leftover grains of cooked rice (rice starch is a natural adhesive); she says that rice is very valuable, being grown over a long period of time and with much serious effort. 

The mirrors hold in memory those who have looked into them

The selvedge of cloth is not seen as valuable ... it is cut off during sewing, but Philippa Lawrence has used the selvedges of specially-woven cloth to contain her poetic compilation of words representing weaving and the life of the mill. 

There is waste too from the devoré process used by Peta Jacobs for a life-sized representation of the Bradford Wool Board in 1953/4, the men who set the world price of wool, which hangs in the "foyer" of the exhibition.
Cast shadows onto 4 panels of cloth
Round the back you see the actual devoré

Small pieces of waste wool found in the recesses of the walls have been spun by Hannah Leighton-Boyce and may well be the last wool ever spun in this spinning room. She has made a film of the process; see it here. The balls of wool - of various colours - are displayed on a plinth; I forgot to photograph it.

Darning - a way to prevent waste, to preserve usefulness - is used by Celia Pym in her sweaters, knitted and cut and darned and reconstituted. She started by knitting a sweater without a pattern - from memory - then used parts of it as the basis for another garment.

Wasted water, polluted after washing out the resist paste used in yuzen dyeing, lies behind Machico Agano's colourful river of patterned kimono cloth - a fabric running river. It uses photographic images of cloth, backed with strips of mirror sheeting.

Katsura Takasuka works with the core of silk cocoons, an almost-weightless part that is wasted in silk production - he has compacted them into substantial blocks each weighing 2 kilos, each with its own patterning.

On the right, cubes of waste silk; on the left,
work by Yoriko Murayama (see below)

From the setting

Other works responded to aspects of the space and its location.

Yoriko Murayama's kasuri (weft dyeing) technique and shifu (washi paper) weaving uses images of the mill and from the landscape, enlarged and printed onto washi paper, then cut into thin strips and used as weft. The spiral shapes evoke the cones for spinning the thread.

Diana Harrison's handkerchiefs covering the stone flags had been collected from relatives and friends, then dyed black and discharged. She is reported as saying that, when it came to arranging them, they laid themselves out. The metal squares are part of the pattern, and also help to hold the cloths down, as they are stitched to a moisture-resistant backing.

Katarina Hinsberg measured the spinning room with a spun thread, then used this resonant red thread to weave a diagram of the space at a scale of 1:100. The thread keeps the measurement of the room "in mind", and makes that memory visible in the woven surface.

Injecting an alternative space, Maxine Bristow's installation picks up on architectural details and elements of the history of cloth. Here is a series of structural spaces, given fluidity through the cloth curtaining, and a series of fragmented tableaux. The overlooked and familiar elements are a metaphor for memory.

Another mysterious piece, Hilary Bower's large grey sacks hang from the room's crossbeams. An indication of their contents - or is it rubble from the room that couldn't be swept away? - lies under them, and their ropes are tied up with purposeful pieces of wood. All is grey and silent; they create "a presence of being".

Looking at Masae Bamba's "floating letters", you feel water - as she did while pregnant with her daughter, and the piece uses her daughter's first attempt at writing, "I love you mummy". Unformed Japanese characters float on and around a sea of layers of indigo cloth, shibori dyed, that surges out from the corner of a large niche, casting off some of the random characters at its edges.
A tsunami of cloth
Writing on the water, cast onto dry land

Reece Clements comes from a family of textile workers, and he continued this tradition of working at Salts Mill by making his felted piece within the mill. It brings together wool from local sheep, onto which is needle-felted a length of cloth manufactured nearby and laser-printed with images of local scenes.

The lasercut image shows underneath the needlefelting

The 38 ventilation slots in the walls are what interested Hannah Leighton-Boyce - at hip height, they are the only glimpses of the outside world in this windowless room. In some, she installed camera obscura, adding a kneeler filled with alpaca wool to allow comfortable viewing. It was during the installation that she found bits of waste wool, which she washed and spun.
The wooden framing references Victorian camera obscura, boxed for use in the home

Other niches - wooden recesses used for storing bobbins - are used by Jeanette Appleton for her felt and embroidery evocations of the fabric sample books, only two of which remain, kept by the mill. The silencing medium of felt has absorbed sound and memory.
In the wooden niches, arrays of felted books
Threads and other objects can be found on hooks nearby
In other niches, threads and implements related to the sample books

Koji Takaki revisits a piece he made for exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, adding to it his current work, bringing together time and memories to float in the space of the spinning room.
The cloth had been washed many times, then hung outside in all weathers for months

Cloth&Memory{2} is at Salts Mill, Saltaire, West Yorkshire BD18 3LA until 3 November; open daily 11-4, admission free. It was organised by Lesley Millar, June Hill, Jennifer Hallam, and Keiko Kawashima; a catalogue is available, cost £20. 

Check the website (www.clothandmemory.com) to take a video tour and for information on related events. I was fortunate to go on June Hill's illuminating tour - it's one thing to read about the exhibits in the catalogue, quite another to hear about them as you stand in front of them!
Handling samples were provided by some artists
[A very much shortened version of this review will appear in the next issue of the Contemporary Quilt newsletter.]


Kathleen Loomis said...

great show and a great review. thanks!!

Jane Housham said...

A monumental post and fascinating. We used to live near Saltaire and went frequently to Salts Mill -- I feel great pangs for it, seeing this.

Unknown said...

Margaret, what a wonderful exhibit! Wish I could see it in person. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Frieda Oxenham said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. Had seen some pictures in various places but nothing as comprehensive as this. Such a visual treat.

ART said...

Thank you so much for the very thorough descriptions and photographs of the Mill exhibition. You are such a friend to provide your American fiber sisters with this view. We would otherwise be totally blank about what's going on in Britain. I also thank you for your photographic coverage of the August Quit Festival 2013.

Gillian Cooper said...

I really loved the show too and it sounds like June's talk was rather special. I was blown away by the building and the way it is being used now

Helen from Hobart said...

Thank you so much Margaret for sharing your art experiences in your blog. Every time I come back I really enjoy reading it.

Expect more visitors from down Under as I have posted the ink on an Australian/New Zealand art quilt group.

Stitchinscience said...

Thank you Margaret for such a thorough review of this exhibition. I am hoping to go soon, pending life disruptions caused by elderly parents.

Julie said...

Thank you for this very detailed account of the exhibition Margaret. I was sorry to miss the group visit but I'm hoping to get there before it finishes. I think I'll be taking a print of your blog post with me ;-)

Linda Seward said...

Thank you for posting this comprehensive overview of what looks like a fantastic textile exhibition. I wish I could see it in person, but reading your review and seeing those photos makes me feel like I was almost there!