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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…..