The other day I finally managed to see “Clothes to Die For”, the excellent, harrowing BBC2 documentary about the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh, which caused the death of 1,138 workers. I have been following the news about Rana Plaza, and subsequent initiatives to compensate victims and make Bangladeshi factories safer,  since the day of the disaster. For me, Rana Plaza is  the Chernobyl of the textile industry – a disaster so big and shocking that it might, just might, trigger real changes for the better in the global textile industry. One thing I particularly liked about the film was that it made it clear that jobs in the garment industry are much needed and wanted in Bangladesh – they just need to be decent, safe, properly paid jobs in buildings that don’t fall down on the workforce!

One of the new things I learnt from the documentary  was what had triggered the building’s collapse on the day. I had been aware that Rana Plaza was a disaster waiting to happen because of shoddy  and not-fit-for-purpose construction (the building was not planned for garment factories) and the non-permitted adding on of additional stories on top of the building.  But what actually triggered its collapse on the morning of 24 April 2013? Turns out that the death knell for the building –  and many people inside – was a power cut, which meant the building’s enormous generators kicked in, adding yet more vibration to the already ongoing vibration caused by the 1000s of whirring sewing machines. It reminded me of the fact that weaving sheds in 19th century Lancashire were typically single-storey, not only because of the need for natural light but – perhaps more importantly – because the weight and vibration of hundreds of  tightly-packed power looms would make a multi-storey building collapse. I wonder how many buildings had to collapse before the single-storey weaving shed became the norm….

I have been wanting to make work about the Rana Plaza disaster for some time, and when the ‘Tangled Yarns’ exhibition came up it was clear to me that  Rana Plaza would be one of the stories told through the works in the show. The big challenge I always face when making work inspired by a current event is how to find my own artistic language to explore these events. I am not a reporter, photographer or documentary filmmaker, and with the kind of slow, studio- based processes and media I like to use (eg textiles, paint, stitch) it would be pointless to try and ‘compete’ with the flood of shocking images and news coverage in the media.

Creating an aesthetically successful piece, and the process of making it, are just as important to me as telling a story. The work should be capable of engaging  viewers from an  aesthetic perspective,  even those who don’t  look for any narrative in art. And ideally, the work should also transcend the event/issue that prompted me to make it in the first place. In summary, the work should be accessible on several layers, offering different levels of engagement and discovery.

With Rana Plaza, what I found is that I wanted to make a memorial for all the workers who died. I desperately want something good to come out of this tragedy. Therefore it is important to me that these workers are not forgotten in the Western society I live in, where virtually everyone will be buying clothes made in Bangladesh at some point (check the labels in your clothes!), and where one headline- grabbing disaster is quickly displaced by the next one.

On a  quick stroll through Walthamstow market and the adjacent charity shops I had no trouble finding clothes made in Bangladesh – and not just rock-bottom cheap ones, also more expensive brands. I bought a bag of clothes as ‘raw material’ for artworks, but quickly found these inappropriate for works that commemorate the Rana Plaza victims; I wanted something much more quiet, using white (the colour of mourning) and finding a way to make one mark for every worker who had died. I also experimented with incorporating some of the quotes from survivors, which my Bengali- speaking neighbours kindly wrote out for me in the beautiful Bengali script.

The clothes ended up in a separate, quite sculptural (but still wall-based) piece inspired by the chaos of the disaster site rather than the victims.

For me, the most significant development triggered by the Rana Plaza disaster was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement signed by over 170 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia; two global trade unions, IndustriALL and UNI; and numerous Bangladeshi unions. Several NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign are witness signatories. Among the corporate signatories you’ll find many brands familiar from UK high streets . The Accord  commits corporate signatories  to contribute real cash over several years to fund inspections, structural and safety improvements and safety training in Bangladeshi garment factories. Importantly, it also commits the companies to keep ordering textiles from Bangladesh i.e. not to abandon the country in this challenging time of (hopefully!) improving industry standards. It’s early days for the Accord; there are a lot of challenges such as ensuring workers continue to get paid if a factory has to be closed down whilst improvements are made (see e.g. this story in The Guardian), but it’s a start. What I really like about it is the transparency – all the 1500-plus factories that are being inspected are listed online on the Accord’s website with address and contact details, and the website also includes information on progress with the agreed corrective action plans to make the factories safer. So no fashion brand ordering from Bangladesh has the excuse anymore that they didn’t know what was going on. NB some North American companies have decided to set up a separate initiate, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which looks broadly similar at first glance but, importantly, does not include trade unions or NGOs as members and lacks the enforceability of the Accord.




In my studio space 1840s ladies’  fashion is having a bit of a moment. I am working on a painting that links the spectacular, voluminous women’s dresses and gowns fashionable in the 1840s with the women who made these dresses.

Why the 1840s? Well, if you are looking for exploitation and misery in historic fashion supply chains, the 1840s are a good place to start:

–  Slavery in the cotton fields. Until the start of American civil in 1861, the rapidly expanding Lancashire cotton industry was much relying on the slave economy of the Southern United States:  It is estimated that by the mid-1800s, over three quarters of the raw cotton used in British textile production came from the cotton slave plantations in the US. This was not  something that was likely to be on the minds of retail customers of  textiles and clothes, while within  the industry the high quality of US cotton would invariable trump any concerns about its link to slave labour.
–    The factory workforce. Meanwhile working and living conditions of workers in the Lancashire spinning and weaving mills were pretty terrible. Engels wrote his first influential book, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, in 1844/45, based on his observations in Manchester: overcrowded, damp and unsanitary housing, environmental pollution, and long hours of hard, monotonous, often dangerous work in noisy, dusty factories at mostly very low pay. NB: Men were paid more than women and got the better paid jobs (sound familiar?) and children’s pay was the lowest. Child labour was common in the 19th century and not regarded as wrong per se. However, the excessive use of child labour in factories did cause concern, which led to the gradual reduction of working hours for children (and eventually everyone else) in the Factory Acts of 1833, 1844 and 1847. The 1844 Act limited the work days of children 9-13 to 9 hours/day whilst the maximum hours for women and children 13-18 were  12 hours/day and 9 hours on Sundays. The 1847 Act effectively limited the work days of all workers to 10 hours/day.
–    Distressed seamstresses: The stage in the production of our 1840s dress that was most in the consciousness of bourgeois  society was the actual dressmaking – not surprising since it was closest to the ultimate retail consumers. Dressmakers were often  self-employed women working from home, and the exploited, starving seamstress in the garret was a much-publicised moral outrage in the 1840s. Named the “white slaves of London” in an article in the Times of October 1843,  these  underpaid, overworked needlewomen also featured in Punch cartoons and were  a favourite topic of melodramatic novels which today  we would probably call “misery porn”. At the crosshairs of this sits Thomas Hood’s famous “Song of the Shirt”, published anonymously in the 1843 Christmas edition of Punch and inspiration for many paintings.  NB: Ironically, the public attention to the plight of the needlewomen did little to improve their lot –  self-employed , they did not benefit from the legislation that gradually improved working conditions of the factory workforce;  unorganised, they could not increase their power by bargaining collectively for better pay. The parallels to today are striking.  —  For further reading on this topic I recommend Beth Harris’ “Famine and Fashion: needlewomen in the 19th century” (2005). 

Having settled on the 1840s I then set out to find a suitable reproduction fabric that I could use as canvas for a painting. Not that easy…. The amount of patterns and colours used in printed dress fabrics just seemed to be overwhelming, and I felt very ill equipped to judge whether a reproduction claiming to be in the style of the  late 1830s / 40s was any good. But help was at hand from Dr Philip Sykas,  textile historian, pattern design specialist, and research associate  at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), who very kindly screened the images of some of the available reproduction fabrics I had found at and suggested a couple of patterns that appeared to look ok. One of them was this one, which is in the style of an English dress fabric from the late 1830s/early 40s.

This would have made a fairly easy ‘canvas’ to work with –  a quiet, almost uniform background for a painting. Trouble was I didn’t find it very inspiring. And then came a revelation: When I visited Dr Sykas  during one of my research trips to Manchester he showed me one of the London warehousemen’s pattern books from the Downing Collection held at  MMU, Manchester. It honestly took my breath away – there is simply no substitute for seeing actual, original fabric swatches. The patterns were a trippy combination of ultra-modern looking/ abstract and more naturalistic, floral designs, and the colourways were bold and bright. I especially remember the combination of a deep blue with reds and yellows, and the overlaying of ombré stripes or ‘rainbowing’ with other patterns. The type of fabrics (delaines, ie. a cotton/wool mix) meant that the colours were particularly vivid. The combined effect was distinctly over the top  – there seemed to be no such thing as “too much” in pattern design of that time. I was so mesmerised that I forgot to take any photographs of the sample book pages; however Dr Sykas kindly sent a couple through after my visit, and there’s also a nice example from the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Manchester.

Inspired by these  discoveries, I decided to use the ‘wildest’  reproduction fabric I could find (one of my studio colleagues commented: “Are you sure this is not a 1960s pattern?”):

Suddenly the project of painting on an 1840s-style patterned fabric had become a lot more challenging! Especially because I didn’t just want to use the pattern as a background, I wanted it to play an active role in the painting’s narrative, interwoven with paint layers that showed the wearer of the dress as well as the makers at different stages of the production chain, from cotton growing to dressmaking. I am still wrestling with it. To find out the result, come along the exhibition!


For me, an exhibition in the midst of a historic museum like the William Morris Gallery is a dream come true because it actively encourages making connections between the past and the present, between the permanent collection and the new work. And this is what I always do in my mind anyway – making connections and comparisons between current and historic events, between events in different times, in different geographic or cultural contexts. I guess it is my attempt to make sense of the world and the human condition. I never lose hope that we might, possibly, sometimes, learn from mistakes of the past or draw inspiration from past successes. These thoughts inevitably make their way into my art practice.

A couple of years ago I had juxtaposed paintings of female garment workers in present-day South Asia and 1930s Hackney, using fabric with contemporary prints and vintage 30s designs as “canvas”.

This planted the seed for the Tangled Yarns exhibition, a much more ambitious project. Having said that, I hadn’t quite expected Tangled Yarns to cover stories spanning 300 years! The initial idea was to connect working conditions in the British Textile Industry during Morris’ lifetime with the conditions in the industry today, focusing on recent disasters in Bangladesh (the Rana Plaza factory collapse;  factory fires such as the one at the Tazreen garment factory), and showing the contemporary relevance of Morris’ thoughts and ideals. But once I started reading up on the Lancashire cotton industry and the history of the cotton trade, I stumbled upon fascinating stories from other times which I just couldn’t let go. I suppose this happens when you keep your research quite open and just see where it takes you. You might look for A and you find B. Like when I had travelled to Bolton to look at records of a particular cotton mill, but my most exciting find at Bolton Museum & Archives were beautiful old “bolt labels” from Lancashire firms exporting cotton fabrics to India with images straight out of orientalist fantasies!

Or when I went to the Textile Society’s Antique Textiles Fair to look for Victorian shawls and came home with a very intriguing fragment of cotton patchwork.
So given the space and time constraints for this exhibition, I pretty soon had to make a decision whether to drop some of the stories that had captivated me in my initial research and just explore a limited few themes in depth, through a larger number of works. In the end I decided against this because it is precisely the fact the global cotton/textile trade has always been associated with so many socio-economic issues at various parts of its value chain that I find so fascinating, issues that keep cropping up in different parts of the globe at different times, linking people on different continents, where one person’s desire for fashionable clothes could mean another person’s economic lifeline, escape from poverty… or endless drudgery, exploitation, slavery or death. And more often than not, the individuals at the different stages of the value chain would be women.

There is also a very personal connection to textiles and making clothes. My mother used to make all her own clothes – and mine, until as a teenager my fashion choices became rather incompatible with hers, at which point I discovered how useful it was that she had taught me how to sew myself. My childhood memories include many exciting trips to fabric stores where fabric bolts where piled higher than me, looking at seemingly infinite numbers of beautiful patterns, feeling all these varieties of cloth; the rattling of my mum’s sewing machine on the dining table, and her patience and industry in turning out those perfectly fitting garments. Hence I am very familiar with the time and effort involved in making clothes – they don’t magically make themselves and fly onto the shop rails. So when mass market clothes got cheaper and cheaper (due to the outsourcing of manufacturing to ever poorer countries) I remember thinking : this is not possible – somewhere along the line, someone is getting a raw deal. As it turns out, they do.