After the opening of Tangled Yarns, a lot of my friends and artist colleagues  were asking: Are you enjoying all this free time that you have now?  Are you taking a holiday? – Well, not quite. November was packed with talks and workshops – the staff of William Morris Gallery are probably considering me part of the furniture by now!

First, there were the ethical fashion workshops for GCSE/BTEC/A-level students from various schools in Waltham Forest, which I ran jointly with fashion lecturer Fenella Magnus. The workshops included: discussing  the global textile supply chain and how today’s ‘fast fashion” industry frequently leads to the exploitation of the workers who make our clothes; learning about William Morris’ artistic and political ideas and his campaign against  exploitative labour conditions in the Victorian textile mills; a visit to the Tangled Yarns exhibition; and a practical session where each students was given a “damaged” T-shirt (e.g. ripped, burnt, stained, …) that they were to transform into a unique piece of fashion or art, working  with the damage rather than hiding it. After the workshops all students had the opportunity to continue working on their T-shirts in school.  An event is planned for early  2015 to showcase the best pieces from all workshops in the Gallery.

It was heartening to realise how aware many of the young people (mostly age 14 and 15)  were of the problems associated with our fashion industry. Less well known were the details of  what exactly happened when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, and why so many workers died an entirely avoidable death. According to my observing colleague, my account of the Rana Plaza disaster never failed to captivate, and  it certainly felt a lot like telling a dark thriller about ‘extreme unfair fashion.’ Pointing out that many Bangladeshi garment workers are the same age as my young audience  helped to make an event that happened half way round the globe even more relevant to them. One group had another special connection to the disaster: their entire school uniforms were made in Bangladesh.

Not surprising then that in the exhibition, the Rana Plaza pin pieces attracted a lot of attention.

What I also noticed was that seeing something that relates to them personally really helped students engage with the work: For example,  many students of South Asian origin were drawn to “End of Empire” because they could immediately identify the Gandhi figure. “On the Move” was also a popular piece, maybe because students could identify with the young women on their scooters.

One of the students asked: “Do your paintings always have to be about something?” Now there’s a good question.

After all the listening, observing and talking, students were more than ready for the creative part of the workshop!

In the last workshop, there was definitely a skull theme going on, quite possibly influenced by “The Spectre”.

Another event we organised in the Gallery was the panel discussion “Is fashion still to die for?”. The discussion centred around what (if anything) has changed after the Rana Plaza disaster, and what the various stakeholders can do to improve working conditions of  the people who make our clothes, and ensure they get paid a decent wage. Hearing Sam Maher from Labour behind the Label, just back from her latest visit to Bangladesh, was sobering. Yes, the conclusion of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety has been a game-changer – but it only covers Bangladesh, it won’t cover all factories, financing factory improvements remains a problem, and it certainly won’t deliver a living wage for garment workers. Meanwhile, Western clothing brands haven’t even given half the money needed to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster. In the fast fashion industry it’s Business As Usual, meaning the systemic problems that are at the root of labour exploitation (ranging from corruption in Bangladesh to unreasonably short deadlines for suppliers and over-consumption on Western high streets) have not yet been addressed.

Regulation and worker organisation appear to be key to improving the garment workers’ lot. A look at the evolution of working conditions during the industrial revolution seems to confirm this: the key drivers for improvements for factory workers were not customer buying patterns or supply chain management- regulation and collective bargaining were much more important. We cannot buy our way out of the problem and, certainly from an environmental perspective, maybe we all need to buy less and value  the clothes we wear more.  Many participants felt is was important to  overcome consumers’ disconnect from the ‘labour behind the label’.

As for those who want to do better now, Claire Lissaman, owner of small ethical fashion business Arthur & Henry and ethical fashion consultant, highlighted another important point: transparency. “Ethical” can mean all sorts of things to different people, hence producers – whether big high street brands or small entrepreneurs – need to  define clearly what they mean by  “ethical”, “fairtrade”, “sustainable” etc, and be absolutely clear about what their business does, and what it doesn’t do.

Another highlight of the month was the opening of “Torn Justice” in the William Morris Gallery’s Discovery Lounge. This exhibition features  the artworks done by the young people who had visited my studio in August (see post of 14 August) and then spent a few super-intensive days making their own pieces examining the injustices of  the global fashion industry. There is a strong focus in the works on the fact that in today’s “fast fashion” the hard work of the garment workers is not recognised – that they are just an army of faceless toilers who are taken for granted, and whose lives are dispensable. Some pieces emphasise the anonymity and soullessness in factory production  while others aim to  making the workers visible,  highlight their individuality and give them back their dignity.

I was really pleased to be asked to open the exhibition as part of the launch event, which was organised by another group of young people (16-19 yrs): the participants of the Gallery’s first Young Curators Programme. Their first task had been to organise the “Torn Justice” exhibition, with everything that this entails: hanging and captioning the work, preparing an exhibition handout, organising the launch event and another Gallery event specially for 16-22 year olds later on, and ultimately taking the work down.

The launch was fabulous. The young curators had decided to give the whole evening a South Asian theme, complete with Indian fabrics, snacks, and a wonderful dance performance by Khyal Arts. I was so impressed (and laden with the beautiful flowers I got given) I forgot to take pictures! Naturally, one of the curators was tasked with photographing the event, so I’ll try and get some pics off her.


This cold and breezy autumn day seems like a good time to finally finish the story of how I  made my Morris & Co-themed works for ‘Tangled Yarns’.

To recap: My idea for these pieces was to interlace classic Morris & Co patterns with images of the machines that powered the cotton mills which supplied the grey cotton for Morris’ prints  (see post of 15 October). In my research I kept seeing these great Victorian illustrations of  machinery used in the spinning and weaving mills; many of them came from the  trade magazine “The Textile Manufacturer”.  I was interested in  machines that  would have been used or coming on to the market from the time Morris started his dye and print experiments with Wardle until Morris’s death. Conveniently, The Textile Manufacturer Journal started in 1874.  As it happened, the only place where I could access the early years of the journal was University of Manchester’s Library,  so I made this part of a research trip to Manchester and Bolton in February this year. I  ended up spending  a surreal, dark, stormy evening in University of Manchester’s Joule Library  leafing through the years 1874 – 1895 of the  magazine, whilst gales  were howling outside.  There was hardly anyone in the library – severe weather warnings had been issued telling people not to venture out after 5 pm because of the increasing gale forces expected that evening. I had been dimly aware of this – there were multiple train cancellations as I travelled back from Bolton that afternoon, and it was indeed kind of very windy… but I wasn’t going to change my programme was I? I was on a schedule! I made it into the Library just after 5 PM and then got completely  carried away looking at images of Victorian mill engines, boilers, looms etc, and only when I looked at my watch to check how much time I had left before the library closed I noticed that the wind really sounded a bit scary out there (the reading room was on the 6th floor I think). Never mind, when I got out at 8 pm I stuck to my original plan of walking to the place  I was staying, about a 20 minute walk away through town… in ‘normal’ weather. It was an interesting walk – I was nearly  swept off my feet a few times, and had to stop ever so often because the storm was just stronger than me.  Not to speak of the biting cold, for which I was of course quite ill prepared. The few other intrepid walkers  that were out there were struggling too, and we must have all looked quite  comical.  I made it eventually, frozen but in one piece, and had fun next day seeing the newspaper reports with images of people who were indeed swept off their feet. Turned out that the library had been the best place for me to be, as the storm apparently peaked between 6 and 7 PM.  Talk about good timing!

And it was well worth it too. I was very pleased with my haul of wonderful images, but although I took lots  and lots of photographs  it took me no time at all to decide which machines I wanted to use for the two large wall hangings I had in mind for the stairwell of the William Morris Gallery:

My next mission was to select the Morris & Co patterns and colour ways  for the two hangings. I decided to focus on patterns developed by Morris during the pre-Merton Abbey period and which were actually printed on cotton at the time. Many of these patterns are still in print today, so still a lot of options to choose from.  The Wardle Pattern books  were a great reference for colour ways used during Morris’ lifetime. In addition, I accompanied William Morris Gallery Staff to take a look at a Morris & Co sample book from the early 20th century held at the V&A Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, open since October 2013. It  was really exciting to be there because the V&A’s textile collection had been closed for so long. We walked by long rows of storage cupboards …to imagine they were all full of textile treasures!

The sample book held a few surprises – seeing the classic patterns in some really quite high-octane,  daring colours and colour ways that couldn’t be more different from what we typically see in the books and catalogues about Morris & Co textiles.

Somehow I doubted that the man himself would have approved…

Anyway, the colour ways in print  by Morris & Co today are, generally speaking, much closer to the colour palettes used during Morris’ lifetime.  Certainly the red “Brother Rabbit” I chose is quite a classic, and the “Honeysuckle & Tulip” I used for my  Morris’s Dilemma hanging feels broadly  similar to the examples  in the William Morris Gallery and textile publications like Linda Parry’s wonderful book.

I did have a great time checking out all the patterns and colour ways in the Sanderson showroom in Chelsea. When I got there I felt like an illegal alien  – surrounded by all these well-heeled customers who would never even look at price tags. I wonder what they thought of me, manically draping lots of  samples on the floor and taking pictures … (Luckily, Morris & Co sample books were in a corner of the shop, not in a main ‘thoroughfare’, and no-one else wanted to look at Morris & Co then.) The staff, however, could not have been more helpful. I was afraid I’d be a nuisance – seeing as I was not a paying customer –  but they were more than happy for me to get on with my research for as long as I wanted. And  when I mentioned that Morris & Co were sponsoring materials for my exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, they were positively ecstatic.  Which reminds me : must send some exhibition flyers to the showroom and invite the staff to see the end result of my search!