This blog will document the development of a project to be shown in the ‘Cloth and Memory’ exhibition at Salts Mill, August – November 2013. I will be working with surviving mill workers to recover lost memories of place and produce site-specific work that combines new technology and participatory practice as a means to explore elements of the past life of Salts Mill.
This week I’ve done two more interviews and am about half way through collecting data. I’m starting to think about how to construct the film and what to do about the stories that have no image.
Yesterday I interviewed David, who worked in Salts Mill from 1968 – 1980, he is the youngest of my subjects so far. He worked for the company that managed the mill, and a number of others around the country, and was responsible for managing the changes in technology that were introduced in that period. He was what used to be called a ‘time and motion’ man, watching the work (and the workers) to see how it (and they) could be made more efficient. But towards the end of his time there, he could see the writing on the wall for the British textile industry and got out, moving into the financial sector.
On Thursday, I had my most successful interview so far. It was with Anthony who worked for 51 years as a plumber in Saltaire. He never worked at Salts Mill, but as he said, he worked ON Salts Mill for 3 days, fixing the flashing on a new connecting bridge between the old and new mill buildings. But he lived in Saltaire and had lots of connections with the Mill, neighbours, friends and colleagues who worked there. As he said, there were many things he didn’t take any notice of at the time, as they were just the background to everyday life. But he was also aware of the changes that were happening and was involved in some of them, for example, changing the lighting in the houses from gas to electricity and installing inside toilets. He collected items that were becoming obselete such as the butchers weights, and washboards, bakelite fuses housings, and kept the in his own ‘museum’.
Anthony also trained as a draftsman, so was very comfortable with drawing. When he arrived for the interview, he presented me with a watercolour painting of the famous Congregational Church in Saltaire that he had done in the week between receiving my letter and our interview. He knew the church intimately, having worked on it over many years, repairing the roof, recasting some of the lead decorations, clearing the gutters. As he said, much of the detail can’t be seen from ground level, but he knew exactly what it looked l like.
Anthony made some wonderful drawings, to accompany his stories, of life in the village and the characters he knew as a child and a young man. I am really looking forward to starting to work on the film and listening to the recordings again.
It has been over a month since I was able to work on the project with any real attention. A work trip, followed by a residency followed by a family bereavement have got in the way. But two weeks ago I went to the Saltaire Archive – housed in the library of the local college – and look at images of the mill and the work that went on there. The archivist was very busy, but sat me down with books and books of photographs to go through. The best set were from the 30s, a bit too early for my participants. But I pulled out quite a few that I think will be helpful in the project.
At that stage, I was still unsure whether my participants would be able to manage to use the iPad, so I wanted to have images, partly to help jog memories, but also as a fall-back if I was unable to get usable drawings.
So this week I’ve finally done my first two interviews, with Joyce, who worked as a burler and mender in the mill from 1944-1951, and Frank who started learning textile design, but moved into costing and worked at Salts from the mid 1930s for his whole working life, retiring in the 70s.
It is hard to say whether the technology is a barrier for them, because I didn’t see how they got on drawing on paper. Frank found it hard to get used to, and struggled to make a consistent line. and neither of them are used to drawing. I found their images really beautiful, and the stories are fascinating. But since the films will have to stand up alone – the sound will be accessed through headphones – is the image enough to attract people to stop and put on the headphones? It is hard to say at this stage.
My aim is to use this drawing technique to help my interviewees access new memories, but I’m not sure I have achieved that so far. I need to think more about my prompting. in these interviews I asked about locations, because I thought that would be the easiest thing to help them get started with the drawing. But I’m not sure it stimulates them in the right way. Maybe I need them to start by making a drawing on paper and then reproducing it on the iPad. Hmm, need to think.
I spent today in Saltaire at the World Heritage Weekender – a celebration of Saltaire’s UNESCO World Heritage status. I saw my first Steam Punks – who were out in force! But more importantly, it was a chance to meet Maggie who has been researching the experiences of Polish immigrant workers in the North West textile industry. Most came after the war when it became clear that they couldn’t return to their homes after being caught in the political manoeverings between Germany and the Soviet Union. Maggie is going to try and link me up with some of the people she met through the Bradford Polish club. Her research focused on their journey to the UK, and some were unwilling to recall those difficult days, particularly the women. She thinks they may find it easier to talk about their time in the mill
I also got a chance to meet Sandy from the Saltaire Archive, and she gave me some names of people she knows who worked at Salts Mill. Shipley College host the archive so I asked Sandy whether I could get access to electronic whiteboards for doing group interviews. She will find out who I should talk to.
I also visited the United Reform Church. The building is a real landmark in Saltaire, but it seems that their congragation were mainly from Bailsden on the other side of the valley, which was where the Salts had their big houses. Their connection with the mill workers was less strong. But I did see a copy of F’s 1945 wedding photo in their archive. He looked exactly the same as he does today!
Another tiring day, but really useful contacts. It’s a bit frustrating that I can’t do anything more for a while, a work trip and a residency will keep me busy for the next three weeks. That’s what it is always like, juggling work and art projects. I wish I could focus on this project full time for even a week – I could get so much done!
I just got an email from Germany, from a man who used to live in Saltaire, whose parents worked at Salts Mill, and who saw a poster I put up at the mill when he was visiting at Easter. I was assuming that all my interviews would be done in person, but maybe we could do this one remotely! What an opportunity to try something really different. i’ve emailed him back and will wait to hear what he thinks.
It’s funny. I made the posters and went to Saltiare specially to put them up, but I didn’t really believe that they would generate any interest. Now I’ve had two responses. I’m amazed and delighted!
Yesterday I headed out to Saltaire for my first meeting with a potential participant. J’s daughter had seen one of my posters and suggested to J that she might be interested. I felt quite nervous but Dave from the History Club met me at the station and we drove up to J’s house, discussing how to approach the meeting. J lives in a village above Saltaire, and came to the door with her huge German Shepard, who was put into the kitchen where he couldn’t disturb us.
J had looked out some family photos and as she showed them, told us about her connection with Salts Mill. He grandmother had moved there from Lincolnshire with her five daughters, following a conversation with a truck driver who said that Titus Salt was looking for workers. J wasn’t sure how the arrangements were made, but Titus must have been pleased to take on six workers in a single family, because he paid for their move and they settled in Whitlam Street around the time of the first world war.
The move brought it’s own troubles, as in the space of a year, between 1923-24, three of the daughters and three grandchildren died. J wasn’t sure what happened, but it may have been TB.
J worked at Salts Mill from 1944-51, when she left to have her first child. She repaired faults in the fabric, such as knots and missing warps or wefts. It was skilled work. She worked in a team of women on the top floor of one of the mill buildings. The women all got on very well, and J is still in touch with some of them. I asked if any of them might be interested in the project and she will ask them.
We left J with an arrangement to come and visit again in May to do some recording. We headed for a cafe, and Dave phoned F, a local gentleman who has had lots of contact with the Saltaire History Club and who lives just up the road in Shipley.
F is 93, but his memory is extraordinary, and he has wonderful stories. He was at Salts Mill his whole working life, apart from a period in the army during the second world war and was responsible for costing the goods that were being produced in the factory. He and Dave spent a bit of time catching up, and once I’d told him about the project, he was very happy to take part. We arranged to be in touch again in May.
So a good first meeting with them both, it was great to have Dave there. He was particularly excited about meeting J who has had no previous contact with the History Club and has lots of interesting information about the Mill and it’s working practices.
I still think that the technology will be a sticking point. I need to think of a better way to introduce people to working with the ipad. Both J and F had a little go, but were a bit tentative. I hope it will be easier when they have thought of something specific to talk about. I wonder if we should start by doing drawings on paper? Maybe I could set them a little drawing project to get them started. I need to find a way to make it more accessible.
Next Saturday I’ll be going over again for the Saltaire Heritage weekend, and will get a chance to meet the Saltaire Archivist from Shipley college who may be able to help with access to digital whiteboards, which would make it easier to work with a group. Dave is going to send me a disc of History Club photos, but I’ll also be able to see what they have at the archive. I’d like to look at some plans of the Mill if they have them. I feel more confident now I’ve met some people, and I’m excited about finding more participants and hearing more stories.