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Exhibition is gripping yarn of Salts Mill women workers
Gertrude Shackleton was 11 when she worked in the enormous spinning room at the top of Salts Mill.
Like many child millworkers in the mid-1800s, she was a doffer – clearing bobbins of spun wool from spinning frames and replacing them with empty ones.
Gertrude was one of thousands of millgirls swallowed up by the mighty textile industry of Victorian Bradford.
Now long gone, the female workforce of Salts Mill is largely forgotten.
But hanging up in the old spinning room – once the longest industrial room in the world – is a series of little plaques dedicated to 121 girls and women who worked there.
Artist Caren Garden used the 1891 Census to find out more about the ‘unknown women’ at the mill and has created ‘plaques’ in their memory, made from patches of cotton attached to old wooden reels.
Handstitched on to each cotton patch is a woman’s name, age, date of birth, marital status and occupation – all are in memory of women who worked here.
Appearing on the vintage reels are such names as ‘Polly Trotter, Cloth Mender’ and ‘Annie Herd, Weaver’. There is something moving about these mini ‘blue plaques’ paying tribute to ordinary millgirls who would otherwise have been forgotten.
Caren’s striking installation is part of Cloth and Memory, a major exhibition exploring the relationship between fabric and human experience, and unveiling the hidden history of Salts Mill.
This is the first time the spinning room has been used for such a major exhibition, which features the work of 23 emerging and established artists from around the world.
Climbing the stone staircase, visitors are greeted by a portrait of Sir Titus Salt made using the devore technique of burning cotton to leave silk fibres.
Silver leaf running through the cloth pays tribute to Jonathan Silver, who transformed Salts Mill.
The spinning room is so long I can hardly see the end of it. Sunlight pours through the glass roof and I can’t imagine how hot it must have been in here when filled with workers operating rows of machines.
“The noise has been the starting point for some artists,” said curator Lesley Millar. “Once the noise would’ve been deafening. Now the silence is like a sound in itself.”
Lesley is Professor of Textiles at the University for the Creative Arts, which has organised the exhibition following a ‘test run’ last year.
Cloth and Memory explores the idea that our memories resonate with fabric. The cloth we wear close to our skin, or touch in daily life, leaves a trace of ourselves behind.
The old spinning room has retained the oil stains, peeling paint, dust and the smell of industry it was filled with 160 years ago. The artists working here today are covered in dust and grime that has clung to the walls and the huge stone floor.
“Over time their work will pick up dirt and dust from the building,” says Lesley. “In Japan a concept called wabi sabi means ‘beauty of the worn surface’. Installations by Japanese artists will be returned to Japan after the exbibition ends, taking a piece of the mill with them.”
Japanese artist Yoriko Yoneyama has used 30 mirrors to create a “reflection of memory”. Hanging alongside a web of cooked rice gently pressed onto fine cotton thread, the delicate structure gives the impression of raindrops falling through the space.
Bradford artist Reece Clements was inspired by a family tradition at Salts Mill. His great-great-grandmother, Sarah Willoughby, and his great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Higgins, were spinners there and his mother, Susan Wilson, worked in the office.
Treading in their footsteps, Reece based his artwork on the vast stone-flagged floor.
“It was what struck me most when I came here,” he says. “You can see where the machinery was pinned down, and the spaces where workers walked.”
Reece put rubbings of flagstones onto a felt and silk screen, on top of a Yorkshire wool base, and lasered on etchings of Saltaire scenes, including the United Reformed Church, street views and the village’s stone lions.
“Hundreds of people have walked on this floor. I wanted to re-create the ‘floor’ of the mill, at the heart of the village,” said Reece. “I like the idea of working in the dust of the mill, with bits of paint and cobwebs falling on me.”
Peta Jacobs, who created the devore image of Titus Salt, used a famous photograph of wool men gathering at Bradford’s Wool Exchange as the base for a ghostly life-size installation. The photograph, of a crowd of men in coats and hats, was taken in 1953. Peta reproduced it using the devore technique, leaving silhouhettes of men hanging from the ceiling. The installation brings a male feel to a space mostly occupied by female spinners.
“I wanted to populate the space again,” said Peta. “It will be accompanied by the sound of my daughter weaving and will be quite ghostly.”
Using archive photographs kept at Bradford Industrial Museum, Rachel Grey transfered images of Saltaire millworkers on to the silk lining of an old dress. The images, some of which are of the spinning room, are alongside pieces of text, including excerpts from Titus Salt’s handwritten daybooks.
“Some images are of people coming out of the mill, chatting and carrying lunch boxes. You see the people behind the workers,” said Rachel.
Karina Thompson recorded her heartbeat during a run around the top floor then translated the heartbeat data into a series of digitally programmed stitches and embroidered them on to 100 metres of Falcon Grey cloth from Hainsworths, near Pudsey. The artwork – the UK’s longest embroidery – also includes intricate stitching of the four chambers of Karina’s heart and patterns made by her footsteps in the dirt.
“The mile-and-a-half I ran represents an hour’s worth of wool production,” said Rachel. “I wore a heart monitor and recorded my heart rate and lap times at each end of the huge room. I’m using beautiful fabric from Hainsworth; I like the fact they have a long, prestigious history of making woollen cloth and have been supplying to the Army since the Battle of Waterloo.”
With no windows here, the workers would have seen nothing of the outside world.
Using ventilation shafts, Hannah Leighton-Boyce has created small camera obscura images of village scenes.
“When summer changes to autumn, the light of the scenes will change,” said Hannah, who has spun an old ball of alpaca wool she found stuffed into a wall space. Called The Last Yarn, it is just that – the last wool spun in this room.
Philippa Lawrence commissioned a piece of worsted flannel from Bradford company William Halstead; embedded in the cloth are words associated with fabric-making, such as ‘piecing’, ‘twisting’ and ‘carding’. Read out loud, they create a rhythm reflecting the repetitive nature of mill work.
Inspired by the vast stone floor, Diana Harrison collected old handkerchiefs, dyed them black and steam ironed them to slightly change the colours. Stitched together, they’re pinned onto the floor. “Hankies were precious to people, and often bore their initials. Each one has its own ‘personality’, like the women who worked here,” she said.
Hilary Bower responded to the “emptiness and stillness” of the space with a series of sacks, weighted with sawdust, hanging from pipes. A metaphor for people who worked here, it pays tribute to human endeavour and repetition of work. Dusty old stones from the building are piled around the bottom of the sacks, making use of what remains.