One of the things that fascinated me in my reading on the history of the textile/cotton trade was how cotton has linked the people and the economies Britain and the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years, with changing fortunes:  Around 1700, imported Indian fabrics threatened British manufacturers (see previous blog post) ; in the 19th century, India became the largest export market for British mass-produced cotton piece goods; combined with crippling import and export duties imposed on  Indian cotton goods,   this led to the collapse of  the Indian hand loom industry. This is why in the 1920s Gandhi, in the struggle for Indian independence, called for a boycott of British-made goods, in particular cottons, and the hand-spinning wheel and hand loom became symbols of freedom. The boycott was perceived to be the main cause of the decline of the Lancashire cotton industry at the time. Post Partition, many people from Pakistan and India came to work in the remaining Lancashire textile factories when the industry was in severe decline and these jobs were no longer desirable for the locals. An then from the 70s, textile manufacturing for the UK market was progressively outsourced to  South and Southeast Asia because labour costs were lower there, accelerating the demise of UK manufacturing.

I was particularly intrigued by Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931.  During this visit he also met with workers at the Greenfield cotton mill in Darwen to explain why he championed a boycott of British cotton goods. Even though he was essentially a bearer of bad news (no end to the boycott) workers gave him a warm welcome, maybe understanding and sympathising with his cause even though it had the effect of hurting the local economy. There is a famous picture of Gandhi surrounded by mill workers, which I found really inspiring:

So then I started to look for other things with a connection to this story. First , I found,  at one of  the Textile Society‘s  Antique Textile Fairs,  an (allegedly) original 1930s English cotton print with a  great English/Indian hybrid pattern: paisley (a pattern originating from Iran and India) combined with the kind of little flowers that I associate with Liberty or Laura Ashley prints – i.e. quintessentially English.

This would not have been a pattern exported to India; it was designed  for the British market. The Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Manchester has examples of textiles made for export to India:

When visiting MOSI I also noticed that companies were using  bolt labels (also called shipper’s tickets) and stamps that were stuck to the ends of bolts of cloth – a sort of company trade mark or brand logo. Each label was designed specifically for the market it was sent to, and the labels I vaguely remembered seeing at MOSI were these really colourful pictures of African scenery – designed for export to African markets.  So when I travelled to Lancashire again I asked the archives at MOSI and at Bolton Museum whether they had any bolt labels from the early 20th century, hoping to maybe find some that were designed for exports to India. And they did! Bolton Museum has a treasure trove of bolt labels, many with designs in the style  of orientalist fantasies or celebrations of Empire, whereas MOSI I also found examples of more abstract designs with a heavier emphasis on displaying the company name and export locations.

Now the fun started: How to somehow incorporate all these elements into an artwork? I was torn between wanting to show off these beautiful bolt labels in my work but also reflecting the decline of the British Empire, so I experimented with “decaying” transfer prints on my paisley fabric. I also made a block print of the spinning wheel that was at the centre of the Indian flag 1923-47 and played around with printing it like an ornamental border. Stupidly, I forgot to cut the print mirror image, ooohhps! So I’ll have to do it again.  Not to worry, still a month to go until the exhibition…..


When investigating the social costs of the fashion industry the first thing that tends to spring to mind is the unfair deal workers are often  getting – overworked, underpaid, exploited –  whether in the garment sewing factories of today’s Bangladesh and China, the textile mills of 19th century Lancashire or the cotton slave plantations of the antebellum Southern US. However, during my reading on the history of the cotton trade I found that the wearers of garments can be “fashion victims” too. Basically,  some 200 years ago women were attacked and harassed in the streets of London and elsewhere for wearing the wrong clothes. Here’s why.

From the mid-17th century clothes made from Indian printed and/or painted calicos or chintzes became very popular in England, offering light, attractive, affordable and easily washable alternatives to clothes made from wool, linen or  silk.  Predictably,  local weavers  felt threatened by these attractive imports and successfully lobbied for a ban on the import of patterned Indian cottons, which came into effect in 1700. However, plain Indian cottons were not banned, and  local printers   quickly learned  to imitate the popular Indian pattern designs, so the 1700 ban did not achieve its aim to slow the consumption of  cotton. (Also,  it must have been pretty hard to distinguish between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ cloth). Therefore, from around 1719, the campaign by English wool and worsted weavers against Indian cotton imports became increasingly violent. Mobs of weavers and their supporters roamed the streets and attacked women wearing the ‘offending’ garments in public, ripping or cutting them off, setting them on fire, or throwing acid at the wearers to burn their skin. These violent events are extensively described in Chloe Wigston Smith’s “Callico Madams: Servants, Consumption and the Calico Crisis” (2007), as  well as in chapter 3 of Beverly Lemire‘s book “Cotton” (2011), as part of her  survey of the social politics of cotton and the democratisation of style between 1600 and 1820.  The anti-calico campaign led to the Calico Bill of 1721 which imposed a ban of plain and patterned Indian textiles.

Lemire and Wigston Smith both highlight the fact that whilst the attackers purported to protect local industry they were also quick to brand ‘calico madams’ as disreputable or whores. More often than not the attackers did not appear to contend themselves with destroying the clothes; they specifically wanted to hurt the women wearing them. This was very gendered violence; men were not subjected to similar attacks.  One of the attacks mentioned by Lemire and Wigston Smith (quoting from old newspapers and the Old Bailey Proceedings) particularly stuck in my mind: “In June 1720, Dorothy Orwell was caught ‘by a Multitude of Weavers in Red Lion Fields in Hoxton, who tore, cut, and pull’d off her Gown and Petticoat by Violence, threatened her with vile Language, and left her naked in the Fields; that she was in such a Fright that she did not know them again.'”

So what we see here is an issue of competition policy/protectionism  rapidly morphing  into an anti-fashion and anti-women campaign. Printed cottons were pretty and conspicuous  – hence seen as decadent, frivolous and corrupting. And if the fashion was like that, then surely the wearer must be too! Potentially even more dangerous was the fact that calicos were affordable, meaning that now  working class women could dress  (almost) as nicely as their richer peers. Contemporaries remarked that the calico craze extended to all social classes and blurred the sartorial distinctions between them. Now, if the servant can dress like the lady, will she then also want other privileges? Will she want her place?   You can see where this was going. Misogyny and class appear to have been at the root of the violent nature of the anti-calico campaign.

On reading  Lemire and Winston Smith’ research I was  completely fascinated. The anti-calico campaign rang so many feminist bells: Women harassed in the street…. women attacked for wearing the wrong clothes….women’s ‘immoral/immodest’ dress… women  ‘asking for it’ by dressing in a certain way… women having ideas above their station….  that casual equation woman = slut …..women’s appearance and sexuality seen as a threat…. the desire to control women….And then there was this  period illustration celebrating the passing of the cotton ban:

The weavers are dancing around a bonfire supposedly fed by bolts of cotton textiles, but what it reminds me of is the burning of witches.

All this provided a very strong inspiration for an artwork.  I wanted to focus on the cycle of women fighting off their attackers, lying defeated (like Dorothy Orwell in the field), but then carrying on wearing the ‘forbidden’ clothes regardless. As life drawing is a regular part of my practice, preparing this aspect came easy – although I had to book a model for a special session where we experimented with (invariably very short!) poses “fighting off an attacker”.

The next step was to find out how  imports of early 18th century Indian calicoes and chintzes  looked like, and then find a suitable reproduction fabric to incorporate  in my work. Not that easy, as I discovered, because there are actually not many surviving examples from that period. It seemed  easier to find examples from 1650-1700 and from 1750 onwards than from the time in between. I attribute this at least in part to the import ban which, whilst far from 100% successful, must have greatly reduced the number of Indian printed cotton textiles available in the UK. Plus those that did manage to get in were probably worn “to death”  via the second hand clothes market.

The V&A has some nice examples of patterned Indian cottons on show in its South Asia section. Additional items are in  the V&A’s new  Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, which can be visited by appointment. But because the Museum’s textile collection had been closed for a long time while it moved to the new Centre there is a very large backlog of interested visitors, so it’s not that quick  to get an appointment ( a bit like a trendy London restaurant!) . However, I found that I didn’t actually have to do this because Rosemary Crill,  Senior Curator for South & South East Asian textiles and dress at the V&A, has written a beautifully illustrated book about the very textiles I was researching: Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West. Sorted!

The second challenge was to find the right reproduction fabric, preferably at an affordable price. First I had to make decision whether to go for a simple, one or two-colour small pattern  that would have been affordable to working class women, or for a more elaborate, larger, multi-coloured pattern which would have been worn by more well-to-do ladies (although poorer women might have worn them second hand).

Although my heart was with the servants, the more elaborate patterns seemed both more challenging and interesting artistically so I decided to go for those. I had samples sent for and then… back to the V&A! The invigilator in the South Asia Galleries looked on bemused as I was sitting on the floor next to the textile displays, comparing my pattern samples in detail with the original patterns, struggling, given I’m not an expert in the field.  I did have a first choice  but nothing seemed 100% right. Fortunately Rosemary Crill had kindly agreed to take a look at my samples, and she pointed very decidedly at my first choice. I did feel a bit chuffed.

Making the piece was a lot of fun. As usual I put a lot of effort into composition but once that hard  bit was done, I really enjoyed interlacing paint, print, and pattern. I had to change my plans though. Inspired by the fact that some anti-calico campaigners threw acid at women wearing patterned  cottons,  I had initially wanted to splash bleach on the fabric and bleach out parts of the printed pattern. All my fabric samples bleached beautifully…except the one I had decided to use in my piece –  this is the most colourfast print I’ve ever seen in my life!  “Just use white paint instead” suggested my partner. No,no, no – it would look different, and also that’s adding, not reducing, and process is important.

1 Comment

Last Tuesday my studio was very busy: a group of budding young artists aged 16-19 from East London came to visit the studio and see my work in progress for “Tangled Yarns”. They were taking part in a Creative Project run by the William Morris Gallery as part of its Young People’s Programme. The theme of this year’s project was to explore working conditions in the textile industry in Bangladesh and India and to create an artistic response to this issue.

Starting off with a visit to my studio, the young people would then spend the rest of the week experimenting with various mixed media techniques and surface treatments  – using e.g. acrylic paint, transfer print, and collaging with paper and fabric – to produce their individual artwork for exhibition at the William Morris Gallery later in the year. An ambitious task to accomplish in a week, considering that the group were also learning about other aspects of the textile industry theme: (i) the Indian ethical textile company  Anokhi, visited by Gallery staff earlier this year, as an example of sustainable, non-exploitative and community-rooted textile production in South Asia, and (ii) William Morris’ socialist activism which condemned, among other things,  the “useless toil”  in the textile factories of Victorian England.

The bad  working and living conditions of 19th Century English factory workers are of course very reminiscent of the toil of today’s textile factory workers producing ‘fast fashion’ in  countries like Bangladesh.   Using  the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster as a case study, I gave the students a very quick introduction into the characteristics of modern sweatshops and why they continue to thrive in the global textile industry.  This was followed by a discussion of my own processes to find a personal artistic response to these issues, research methods, and techniques used in the work displayed in the studio. The young people also had a chance to look around the whole open plan studio space which is shared between 5 artists.

For most of them it was their first visit to a working artists’ studio, and there were lots of questions about the practicalities of being a practising artist, e.g. “is it important to have a studio?”; ” Is it better to share a space or to work on your own?” Many of them are now having to think about their further education and career options , so the question of  how to choose a school and course that’s right for  them was also  on their minds. To those worried whether they could afford further art education at this stage I could offer that it is perfectly possible to pursue a career as an artist a bit later in life – they might have to contend with some ageism in the art world but their  practice may well benefit from additional work and life experience.

Later that week I joined the group in the Gallery’s learning studio to see their work in progress. Under the expert guidance of multi-disciplinary artist Della Rees everyone had been busy developing ideas and experimenting with materials and techniques, and were now  in the middle of producing their exhibition piece.  It was really exciting to see the variety of responses to the theme. Many seem to have been drawn to the contrast  between anonymous fashion producers in the East and  glamouros Western consumers, linked by the textile supply chain yet a world apart. I can’t wait to see all the finished pieces on the wall in the Discovery Lounge of the Gallery.





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!