Friday, 23 August 2013

The Cotton Mills

If like me you've recently been hooked on watching Channel 4's excellent historical drama series The Mill based on the real-life stories of people working in Quarry Bank Cotton Mill in Cheshire, you will be aware of the harsh and cruel working conditions that the young apprentices, some as young as 9 years old, working at the mill during the 19th century had to endure. The Mill illustrates a crucial moment in British history, when militant reformers forced government to act to provide controls on children’s working hours and conditions.

Children were recruited as apprentices because their smallness and agility made them suitable for crawling underneath the looms and spinning machines to mend broken threads and keep the machines oiled and cleaned.  Health and safety in those days was unheard of and accidents frequently happened and sure enough in the first episode we see little boy apprentice Tommy Priestley lose concentration, get his finger caught in one of the wheels and lose his hand. The treatment of mill children, and youths at the hands of the managers of apprentice houses was at times inhuman and the drama draws on real-life accounts from Quarry Bank and other mills in the north of England. They were apprenticed till they reached the age of 21, having no other option to stay more or less imprisoned there, roam homeless on the streets or go back to the Workhouse from which more than likely they had originally been bought.  Boys were routinely beaten, girls were sexually abused and malnutrition was rife. The apprentices became known as England's white slaves with conditions no better than those of slaves working on the cotton plantations which supplied the cotton to the mills. In the 1830s campaigners raised public awareness about the rights of children with the Ten Hour Movement which was a call to reduce the 13 hour working day to 10 hours and also to introduce better working conditions.  The campaigning exposed the cruel exploitation of mill children and eventually ushered in compulsory education and the first factory inspectors. 

Now the reason why I was so keen to watch The Mill, apart from it being much-trailered on C4 during the preceding weeks and thus looking worth a very good punt to invest in a 4-part Sunday evening series when time is precious, is two-fold.  The first reason is the brilliant Matthew McNulty who plays mill mechanic Daniel Bate. Now Matthew just happens to be the cousin of my good friend Mandy Elliott and the pair of us keenly follow his rising career.  Mandy of course has the lucky and extremely jammy advantage of meeting up with him regularly at family get-togethers and events so apart from other things she can tell me what forthcoming programmes he is due to appear in. Interesting trivia note here is that he is actually Michael (Mike) McNulty but he had to change his name to Matthew as there was already a Michael McNulty registered with actors' union Equity.

Now if ever there was a budding James Bond waiting in the wings if Daniel Craig ever decided to regenerate (and lets face it old DC is getting on a bit now) then Matthew McNulty would in my opinion be the heir apparent. Fabulous looks with a great body (did you see him as Joe Lampton in Room at the Top?) and a brilliant actor to boot.  His other TV credits include The Paradise, The Syndicate (Series 1) and films
Little Ashes and Control.

As Joe Lampton in the BBC adaptation of Room at the Top (2012)

Anyway, I digress - a lot! So the other reason (and main reason really) I am so interested in The Mill is that my paternal family were cotton mill workers from Oldham, Lancashire. My grandfather Nimrod Prestwich (b.1875 - Nimrod - what a grand Lancashire name that sounds although it originates from the Bible) was a 'cotton peeler' whose job it was to separate the cotton from the cotton seed.  The raw cotton was shipped over from USA, India and Japan. According to the 1901 census Nimrod and my grandmother Hannah lived with Hannah's parents and her sister Mary who was also a cotton peeler. By the time my dad was born in 1913 Nimrod's profession as stated on his birth certificate was 'cop yarn packer', the cops I think were the large spindles that the yarn was spun onto before weaving. I hope that was a bit of a step up for him money wise.  He would have needed it with 6 children to clothe and feed with my dad being the youngest.

My dad aged 19

To give you some idea of the history of cotton in England, by 1860 at the height of the cotton mill industry there were 2650 mills in Lancashire employing 440,000 workers and producing half of the world's cotton. At the turn of the 20th century 8 billion yards of cloth were produced in Lancashire and exported to all over the world. After the First World War though, cotton could no longer be exported and Japan started to produce its own cotton and by the 1930s 800 mills had closed making 345,000 workers jobless. My dad and his siblings were expected to follow suit into the industry but owing to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the closure of so many mills, he and two of his brothers chanced their arm and left Lancashire to seek jobs in the Midlands where of course industry was booming in the car and airplane manufacturing  industry. Sadly today there are only a handful of working mills still left in Lancashire.

Today Quarry Bank Mill and Styal Estate in Cheshire has been preserved as a site of National Heritage by the National Trust which has brought the mill back to life with working machines and a giant water mill. I have definitely put a visit here on my 'things to do' list to and I know from time to time they have held textile exhibitions here. It's highly likely that some of my ancestors from the 19th century also worked as young apprentices in the same appalling conditions portrayed in The Mill which is a sobering thought. Maybe thats why and where my fascination in textiles originates.I hope they fared better than poor little Tommy Priestley.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


At the end of my last post which was about my visit to this year's Festival of Quilts at the Birmingham NEC, I did happen to mention that one day I would like to make an art quilt myself that might be worthy of exhibiting at the festival.  Well instead of talking about it with not very much doing, I have been kick-started into action by more than a little friendly and gentle persuasion last week at a meeting of Solihull Artists' Forum of which I am a member. We have a forthcoming exhibition Reflection to be held in the G1 Gallery at Solihull Arts Complex from 10th September to 12th October 2013 so what better opportunity to put my inspiration and ideas from last week's festival to good use and just go for it to create and my own art quilt to enter in the exhibition. Now for those of you who are wondering, the definition of an 'art quilt' is an art object that uses traditional quilting methods and techniques but is based on personal experiences, imagery and ideas rather than traditional quilting patterns and is generally either wall hung or mounted as sculpture.

This is quite a departure for me as I will create the quilt using my own hand-dyed fabrics from last year (knew they would come in useful one day) rather than the method I have used before which is to quilt and embroider onto pieces of vintage household linen.  As our theme is Reflection I have chosen to base it on a lovely photograph of Darling Daughter reflected in a mirror, taken in a St Ives restaurant when she was only 7 years old.  It's by no means anywhere near finished and don't want to give too much away but thought I would show a few photos of my prelimanary work and preparation.

Reflection will be my first exhibition since graduating from Solihull College last year with a fine art degree so I am approaching it with a mixture of excitement and more than a little anxiousness that I will be able to produce a quality piece of work and also get it finished on time. Plus it may even be a possible contender for the Festival of Quilts 2014 - you never know!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Festival of Quilts 2013

The Festival of Quilts at Birmingham's NEC is the biggest patchwork and quilting event in Europe with around 1,000 quilts on display from around the world from leading international artists and groups and over 300 stands selling quilting and textile supplies. Since venturing into the world of textile art myself it is something I eagerly look forward to each year and to anyone who might think that quilts don't deserve to be considered an art form or are just twee 'patchworky' things to throw over your bed to make them look nice then think again. Just take a look at some of the stunning examples below which are testament that patchwork and quilting really does deserve to be way up there sharing the same fine art arena as painting and sculpture and I defy anyone who might say otherwise. So nuff said - on with the show:

Here is  Janneke de Vries-Bodzinga from the Netherlands standing next to Hurricane which caused a bit of a log jam around the Winners' wall attracting much attention not only because of her amazing quilt but her fabulous jacket too I think. There was much oohing and aahing from everyone but amazingly her quilt only achieved 3rd prize in the Art Quilts section. 

Now, who are the critics and fossils in the art world who still maintain that textile art doesn't qualify being called 'Fine Art'.  The times they are a-changin.  I rest my case!

Competing in the Fine Art Quilt Masters competition this piece particularly appealed to me due to my interest in feminine issues and the everyday lives of women. Called 'I Lied When I Said I Was Happy' artist Linda Barlow has embroidered a vintage French bed sheet to show I think how women can often feel tied to the house by the constraints and drudgery of cooking and cleaning and the pressure of trying to be the perfect housewife, cook and mother.     

Portraits of a Memory by Christine Chester -
Another entry in the Fine Art Quilt Masters category this is Christine's personal response to her father's loss of memory owing to dementia.


Christine uses an interesting technique which combines burning voile with machine embroidery, screenprint, lutrador, paper and wool felt.
The Through Our Hands exhibition was also at the Festival bringing together a number of international textile artists to showcase the very best of contemporary art quilts. I love Annabel Rainbow's work and she was on hand at TOH  to talk about her work and was able to answer my numerous questions about the  techniques she uses.  Each quilt has a central figure of a woman. Annabel then creates a background story about that person which she then stitches onto the quilt using text. 
Life 3, Switching Off - Annabel Rainbow

Life 8, Motherland - Annabel Rainbow

Life 7,  On the Shelf - Annabel Rainbow

Another artist participating (and also curating TOH with Annabel Rainbow) is one of my favourite quilters Laura Kemshall. Have long been a fan of Design Matters TV, an on-line tutorial company she runs with her mother Linda Kemshall (another favourite quilter of mine and participant of TOH) showing textile and mixed-media techniques.  I am also part way through their Creative Sketchbooks course aimed to develop sketchbook skills and techniques in drawing, painting, printing and mixed-media. Highly recommended and very addictive. 

Self-Portrait - Laura Kemshall (this may not be the right title as forgot to note it down)

A look now at the best of the rest.............


Irene MacWilliam - A Blog

I Need Some Advice - Liked the advice 'Don't Talk to the Artist' 
Recycled Denim Dress - Ineke Berlyn

Today I am in my Fifties, Tomorrow I am Sixty

 Every Text He Ever Sent Me - Lara Hailey
Lexicon of Fabrics

A quilt from the SAQA (Studio Art Quilts Associates) Exhibition Metaphors on Aging

Detail from above.  The artist uses cheescloth and muslin to acheive the effect.

Another great festival.  I always run out of time to get round and see everything. You really need more than one day here to do it justice and the show lasts for 4 days. I am always here till the very last minute, running around trying to see every single quilt and buy last minute supplies but I always go home full of admiration,   inspiration and the aspiration that one day I will create an art quilt worthy of exhibiting at the Festival of Quilts.