This is a first – two blog posts on the same day! But I just have to get this one out because it, depressingly, shows the contemporary relevance of my “Calico Madams” painting (image on my website)

When catching up with this weeks’ newspapers earlier today, I read of a spate of acid attacks on Iranian women who were wearing “inappropriate clothes”. Just like the acid attacks on women wearing Indian calicos by English wool weavers  around 1720 (see post of 21 August).  The Iranian  assailants were  reportedly throwing acid at women who were driving  in the street with their windows pulled down. Back in 18th century England, acid was also used to attack (the more well-off) women who were driving in carriages i.e. the attackers couldn’t get close enough to rip their clothes off or set them on fire, like they did with (poorer) women who were walking in the street.

In both cases, morality is invoked to justify gendered violence.  In 18th century England this was ostensibly routed in patriotism and protection of local industry, whereas in contemporary Iran it is claimed to be routed in religion. What both cases have in common is the conclusion that the women’s attire is immoral, immodest, provocative…  and therefore the women must be punished. Also, in both cases  there is a call for regulation to legitimise the attackers’ stance.

It is heartening to learn that 1000s of Iranians have protested against the acid attacks, so maybe times have moved on after all?


Well, that’s stating the obvious. What I mean is this: After working really intensely and obsessively on a big exhibition for the best part of a year, it’s just really great to have a launch event to celebrate the fact that the work is finally in place, and to set a very definite  milestone. I think many of you may know that anticlimactic feeling you get after putting up a solo  show with new work: “And now what do I do?” Instead of feeling excited and relieved, one may feel exhausted, flat and maybe even a bit down. I’ve been there, more than once. But I’m glad to report that this time there is none of that feeling, and I put that down in no small part to the fantastic private view last week. It was just such a lovely night, great atmosphere, more than 140 people came and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.  I had a chance to say thank you – to Arts Council England, to Anna Mason and her colleagues at the William Morris Gallery for their unfailing support all the way through the project, and to all the experts and organisations who helped me during my research and contributed to making the exhibition happen. And we had a fantastic poetry performance by Other Theresa. I just bobbed along  happily, like a log on water…

Looking ahead, I don’t think there will be much chance of me being at a loss of what to do in November: With fashion lecturer Fenella Magnus, I’ll be running a series of ethical fashion workshops for GCSE/BTEC students.   Then there will be an evening  panel discussion on 12 November “Is fashion still to die for?” which I’m very excited about as the panel will include Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Label, who has spent a lot of time in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster, as well as Clara Lissaman who has her own sustainable menswear business   and is also  Director of SOURCE, the Ethical Fashion Forum‘s consultancy arm. Also, I will be giving talks to members of the Textile Society on the back of their Annual Conference, and to students of the V&A/RCA MA History of Design course. Busy times ahead – all good.




I can’t believe it – the work is actually up on the walls (and in a display case) at the William Morris Gallery! The installation was quite exciting, given that three works had to be installed high up in the stairwell. It’s a good thing that it wasn’t me who had to get up on these long ladders – I felt queasy just watching!

The most delicate moment was when the work was passed between the two installers, each leaning out and holding on to one end …. they were fine, but I literally stopped breathing (and taking photos). Did I mention I have a bit of a ladder-phobia?

The works pictured  are the pieces I made in response to my investigation of Morris & Co’s cotton supply chain (see blog posts of  25 and 30  September). I wanted these large hangings to make the link between the beautiful Morris & Co fabrics, hand-block printed at Merton Abbey,  and the Lancashire cotton mills  where the cloth used my Morris was  spun and woven. My original intention was to  draw attention to the cotton mill workers; however as I discovered there are very few  visual records of workers at work – if people took photographs, they would be of a group of workers posing for the camera away from their workstations, and even most of these photos tend to be from the early 20th century (or later) rather than  Morris’ lifetime. The painting “The Dinner Hour, Wigan” at Manchester Art Gallery  is a rare example of  picturing the working life of mill girls – albeit during a break from work.

So  I decided to focus instead on the machines that powered the mills, and interlace them with classic  Morris & Co patterns: ‘Brother Rabbit’ and ‘Honeysuckle and Tulip’.  These designs are still in production by Morris & Co, who kindly sponsored the fabrics I used. The machines I painted on them are based on Victorian illustrations of an 1874 boiler with fuel economiser and of an 1892 triple-expansion spinning mill engine.

I was immediately struck by how the “Oldham Economiser” looks uncannily like a skull or gas mask. As for a mill engine that has its formidable cylinders named “Capital” and “Labour” – well, nothing could be better to illustrate the complex, and conflicted, relationship between Morris the entrepreneur-designer and Morris the socialist. I suspect many visitors to the exhibition will simply assume it was me who made this up. Honest, I didn’t!

How I got to see these Victorian illustrations  is quite  a story in itself –  but that will be for the next post.


I just finished my last piece for the Tangled Yarns show! Well …. I wouldn’t mind going back over a couple of works, and I already have ideas for more work, but there just isn’t enough time for new pieces, and better not risk overworking any of the completed ones. The last work was an embroidery piece on a patchwork fragment I found in one of the Textile Society‘s  Antique Textiles Fairs.

There was something about this piece, a  faded, threadbare part of a larger patchwork, that I found immediately intriguing. I was wondering who had made it, and when. I asked the vendor when she thought it dated from, and she said “Victorian”.  I thought that was quite funny because after all, Queen Victoria’s reign lasted for over 60 years. To my mind, the patchworked patterns looked more modern, but I am not an expert. Also, many of the patterns are classic shirting stripes which probably changed little over decades if not centuries. Anyway, I bought the fragment, and after a while the idea of doing some kind of embroidery on it crystallised.

But I didn’t want to do that without having a better idea of when it was made.  Fortunately textile historian Dr Philip Sykas from Manchester Metropolitan University  agreed to take a look, with the proviso that these kind of  cottons  are notoriously difficult to date given the longevity of the patterns and the well-worn state of my fabric.  Watching him examine the piece of cloth was fascinating. He had a kind of zoom magnifying device that was connected to his computer and as he passed  it over a section of cloth we could see a mega-magnified image of of that section on the screen. This allowed him to gather much more information on things like stitch length and quality, weave, colour and fading.

But as always the expert’s real skill lies not only  in gathering information, but also in being able to interpret it it. For example, I also had noticed that there were pieces of patchwork with the same pattern but in different colour ways, but I  hadn’t drawn the conclusion that therefore, the fabric swatches were most likely from a cloth merchant’s or garment maker’s ‘out of date’ sample book. The magnified view confirmed that the stitching was made on a sewing machine; the quality of the stitch suggests that it was worked by a skilled seamstress who may well have been  a professional machinist, but was doing this patchwork at home, in her own time. It is impossible to tell what the original intended use of the patchwork might have been because I only have a fragment of it. In the end, taking clues from pattern, stitch and fabric type, Dr Sykas thought  that this piece was most likely made in the early 20th century. This was exciting – I now had a much more specific time period to trigger my imagination.

When thinking about women in the early 20th century I almost immediately thought of the suffragettes. Maybe because they had been in the news so much this year, but also because for me there is a logical progression from women’s economic empowerment through participation in the workforce to the  political empowerment the suffragettes were fighting for.

When talking about work in the (female-dominated) textile industry, whether in 19th century England or 21st century Bangladesh, the need to highlight bad labour practices sometimes risks drowning out the fact that for many of these young women from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds a job in a textile factory was and is a much-valued opportunity to earn their own money and gain a measure of independence. However, prior to universal suffrage this empowerment remained limited: a woman may have been able to make decisions about how to spend her hard-earned wages, but she she had no say in the political process.

Therefore, with my patchwork piece I wanted to make a link between the fight for decent jobs and the fight for political equality. I had been looking at the suffragists’ history in the Museum of London and the People’s History Museum in Manchester as well as in books on the movement; I was particularly intrigued by the contrast, in my 21st-century eyes,  between the quaint, old-fashioned look of the marching women in their long frilly frocks and wide-brimmed hats, and the bravery and radicalism of their actions. In the end I decided to adorn my patchwork piece with appliquéd letters spelling out a popular suffragette banner slogan that still feels very relevant today: “Deeds Not Words”.

For the letters I used fabrics from the other works in the exhibition – bringing all my tangled ‘yarns’ together in the last piece. At least that’s the idea!