Wednesday, 18 April 2012

OCA Textiles Study Visit - Cotton: Global Threads

Today I travelled to Whitworth Gallery in Manchester for an OCA study day led by tutors Liz Smith and Pat Hodson.  Pat happens to be my distance learning tutor so it was good to be able to meet her and hear some encouraging words about my first assignment that she had reviewed this week. I was also looking forward to meeting other textile students face-to-face.

Cotton boll my mother-in-law picked in Barbados


Over Easter I'd been to visit my parents in Liverpool and took with me the study visit briefing pack the OCA had sent.  Two of the seven contemporary exhibitors particularly interested me.  There was Aboubakar Fofana who is dedicated to preserving and renewing the cultural textile heritage of his homeland Mali, resisting the effects of global mass production. Also Lubaina Himidwho explores the cultural contribution of people of African diaspora.  One of the suggested activities in the pack was to research into your forgotten family history, race and identity and consider ways to visually communicate elements of your past to share.  This idea interested me as I'd enjoyed the Sue Hiley Harris exhibition Ancestor Bags, where the artist's ancestry was represented by abstract woven structures.  I've traced my own family tree back to the 1700s and as my roots are in Liverpool I took advantage of my location and visited the Museum of Liverpool Life and the International Slavery Museum.

Liverpool - My home town

I'm guilty of being pretty ignorant of British history and though I've read about the horrors of conditions on plantations, I'd not considered before the relevance of the transatlantic slave trade on my home city and my life. In fact it could not have been greater. I discovered that Liverpool slave ships transported half of the three million Africans across the Atlantic to British cotton and sugar plantations. The trade played a vital role in the economic development of Liverpool and by 1770 Liverpool was one of the world's premier ports. The majority of Liverpool's merchants, renowned for being commercially astute, invested in the slave trade.  The enormous wealth it brought to the city, meant that most Liverpool citizens were involved in some way, whether through trading, supply or industrial development. Without the slave trade, I am reasonably sure that my ancestors would not have moved to the expanding town in the 1700s seeking work and I would not be here now.

'Almost every man in Liverpool is a merchant.....Many of the small vessels are fitted out by attornies, drapers, ropers, grocers, tallow-chandlers, barbers, tailors.'

J.Wallace, Liverpool Writer, 1795

A couple of days earlier, we had a trip to Speke Hall, a National Trust property and a place I often visited as a child.  At the slave museum, I read that the house had been bought by Richard Watt a Liverpool merchant who amassed a huge fortune from his sugar plantations in Jamaica.  As I started to look more closely at some of the fine buildings in the city centre, more signs of the source of the wealth become apparent such as stone carvings of lions, elephants and crocodiles. 

Speke Hall, puchased by slave owner Richard Watt

In the Liverpool life museum there was a display of objects that children had offered as something to represent themselves and their Liverpool life today.  I'd been thinking about what my object might be and decided that it would probably be the Sergeant Pepper album I used to play over and over as a child.  My parents watched the Beatles in the Cavern of a lunchtime when they were courting and had all the records but I was fascinated by the cover of this one and particularly loved Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.   Later at home, I acknowledged more African connections as the the Beatles were of course influenced by African-American music such as Bob Dylan, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. New American sounds were heard in Liverpool before many other parts of the country because of the sailors who brought the music home with them.  I also read that the infamous Penny Lane (where my school bus used to pass) was named after James Penny, a famous slave ship owner and ardent anti-abolitionist.        

The object epitomising my Liverpool life

The legacy of the slave trade and it's profits indirectly affected my ancestors after their immigraton.  The population of Liverpool grew from 6000 to 80000 in the eighteenth century.  This massive influx of people attracted by the town's prosperity resulted in a huge problem with housing and overcrowding that led to terrible living conditions and the spread of disease.  My great great grandfather, Thomas Beach, like his father, was an illiterate dock labourer or porter. In 1850, over 12000 men were casual labourers in Liverpool, queueing to compete for work loading and unloading ships for a pittance and there was no guarantee of returning home with pay.  They lived off Scotland Road, the poorest, most neglected area of Victorian Liverpool and probably the whole country. The influx of Irish immigrants because of the potato famine exacerbated the problem and thousands of people lived in cellars declared unfit for human habitation, under bridges or in warehouses.  Malnutrition, disease, drunkenness and crime were rife and life expectancy here in 1861 was just over 30 years.  The burial registers for the parish make grim reading with the high infant mortality rate. Thomas Beach lived in Hodgson's place at the time of the 1861 census.  Ironically, it appears it's named after Thomas Hodgson, a rich Liverpool merchant and slave trader who owned a Lancashire cotton mill. He was the brother-in-law of Samuel Greg who built Styal Mill.

My great grandmother Emma Beach was born into these conditions

Thomas Beach died about 1872, aged 39, sometime before his daughter, my great grandmother Emma's birth was registered.  The address on the certificate is 4 Court, Great Homer Street.  In the Liverpool Life Museum, there is a reconstruction of a Court.  My nine year old daughter was moved to tears by the idea that anyone could live in those conditions.  Often there were three families to a single ten square foot room, one communal water tap and one toilet for around sixty people.  Access to the courts was via a passageway that was dark and airless because of the cul-de-sac formation, usually blocked by a warehouse at the end. 

Emma Beach 1872-1911

These were hard things for my daughter to see and I felt that she grew up a lot that day. She wanted to come to the slavery museum with me too.  For the first time she heard about the horrors of the slave trade and the damaging legacy of racism and we both found it hard to comprehend the cruelty and the thinking of the times.   

We went on to see White Gold:the true cost of cotton, an exhibition exploring the complexities of the cotton supply chain and highlighting the abuse of labour rights in Uzbekistan, essentially modern day slave labour.  We were shocked by the plight of teachers being forced to take children as young as seven out of school for months at a time to pick cotton with their bare hands, often shoeless, for little or no pay.   

One Stage of the Cotton Supply Chain

Study Day - Task 1

Back to the Whitworth study day and after the introductions, our first exercise was to spend 45 minutes choosing one of the following four themes explored in Cotton: Global Threads. to learn more about.  These were:

Early global trade in cotton - the reputation and impact of India in development of cotton.
Revolutions in technology - the extent and adverse affects of demand, growth and inventions.
Global Cotton - trading leading to sharing and amalgamation of culture, ideas and technology.
Moral Fibre - environmental and ethical issues.

Moral Fibre was the natural choice for me after my Liverpool experiences. After reading about the conditions in Uzbekistan, I was adamant that I wouldn't buy clothes again until I'd researched where they had come from.  As well as a video about the exploitation of cotton workers there were shocking statements about the environmental impact of the production process. These were printed onto organic cotton t-shirts. I learned that producing a single t-shirt from non-organic cotton uses 2700 litres of water and the chemicals used often seep into and pollute water reserves. When I read ' farming comes with financial risks, as yields are initially lower and therefore prices higher', I was interested by the word 'initially'.  To me this implies that yields will eventually match non-organic but there was no further information displayed to back this up. 

Thinking about pollution reminded me that we had been to Parkgate on the River Dee that week to have look at the birdlife.  Estuaries such as the Mersey and Dee are vital for the survival of the world's migratory seabirds, other marine life and sustainable fish populations.  From 1715 when Liverpool's first dock was opened, industry and the town's population expanded and the pollution problems began.  The textile industry with it's bleaching, dying and finishing was a major contributor along with domestic waste which was historically disposed of directly into the river.  The Mersey clean-up has cost over £1 billion and taken 25 years to transform it from probably the most polluted river in Europe. My dad had told me he'd spotted seals for the first time on the Mersey this year. Salmon, otters and dolphins have returned for the first time in centuries.

Clean water in the Mersey & Dee estuaries is vital to sustain marine wildlife

The Moral Fibre facts were thought-provoking and in one display was a case of jeans, pretty much identical to look at, apart from the price tags.  Prices ranged from £5 for supermarket jeans to £195 for Sharkah Chakra jeans.  Sharkah Chakra jeans claim to be made from Malian Fairtrade organic cotton.  Then the jeans are hand-woven and hand-dyed in natural indigo in India, where the company focus on developing local skills and creating sustainable livelihoods.  I wondered why the jeans are not also woven and dyed in Mali, a country with a desperate economy on the brink of famine.  The indigo plant has grown here for centuries after all. I later found out the jeans are hand-finished in Italy.  Can they really be so eco-friendly if they've travelled 3 continents even before distribution?  

Now my problem is that I want guilt-free jeans but how can I be sure that product claims are all that they seem?  One of our handouts states that a high street retailer claimed it's t-shirts were Fairtrade cotton but this only applied to the growing, just part of the process and not the manufacture. Also I'm in no financial posion to spend 40x more for a very similar-looking product, although they are probably superior quality and possibly longer lasting (though I checked the product reviews for Asda jeans and they are very highly rated).  How do we get that price gap to close? I've started to read a book I bought in the gallery shop, 'Naked Fashion: the new sustainable fashion revolution' that I hope will give me some ideas.

Study Day - Task 2

After lunch our task was to spend 15 minutes scanning the work of the seven contemporary artists exhibiting and select 1 piece from each room that captured our interest (broad selection). Next we had another 15 minutes to choose just one work from our shortlist to re-visit (focused choice) and determine why, considering content, form, process and mood (critical enquiry). We then had 30 minutes in groups of three to share our thoughts,  then finally consider how our chosen work related to the four themes and evaluate the visit.

The work I selected was by Aboubakar Fofana.  It was the beautiful range of indigo shades that attracted me.  Indigo is a colour I often wear and it reminded me of my comfortable, familiar clothes. The blue structures on the sand evoked memories of being at the beach, feeling happy and warm surrounded by calm water and cloudless skies. 

Les Arbres à Bleus

The title translates as 'blue trees' but the structures didn't make me think of trees at all (apart from the pattern on one that resembled bark). To me trees must branch and I think of a forest as a cool, shady, canopied place with dappled light.  These 'trees' seemed symbolic and spiritual and I assumed they represented family or ancestors as in the Native Americans totems they resemble.  There was definitely a relationship between them all, although each was different from all the others in some way. Some tall, some short, some fat, and some thin.  The shades of indigo made me think of variations in skin colour.  One 'tree' was particularly tall and stood out as it was left undyed.  This made me think of albinism.  The different patterns I imagined as characteristics.  The dyed loofahs on the sand I thought at first were pebbles but then I decided they could be seeds, ready to grow into new unique trees.

Each structure was dyed fabric strips wrapped diagonally around a cylinder.  Though the patterns were simple, the appearance could alter considerably depending on the thickness of the cylinder, the angle that the pole was wrapped and the direction. A huge number of variations could be achieved just from a few differently patterned strips.  Straight lines become more exciting and energetic when arranged on the diagonal.  Overlapping the strips in places changes the distance between the lines and generates tension.

In the corner of the room, there was a lonely 'tree'.  On it's own it looked small and insignificant.  Perhaps this could be symbolic of an outcast or loner?  The large group together looked strong and impressive and it was interesting to debate how much the composition was planned.  Would the artist have sketched or used a computer to get the balance of shade, pattern, spacing and height that seems so right, or would the trees have been placed and rearranged until the result was pleasing? I can't imagine that they were completely randomly placed but I think the artist would have partly arranged them by eye, maybe starting with the tall, interspersing these with small and placing medium ones in between, checking as he went that the colours looked balanced.  I think he must have planned how many trees he would need to fill the space. This was the only exhibit in the room so there were no other distractions which helped make the composition so compelling. 

Why the lonely tree? 
I'd done some background reading on the artist and indigo dying before the visit. Aboubakar Fofana says he uses organic Malian cotton for his trees, that is hand spun and hand woven and he dyes the fabric using natural indigo in a combination of traditional Malian and experimental patterns.  As you could get extremely close to the outer trees, you could see the weave of the cotton and the stitches.  It was very difficult not to reach out and touch. The slightly uneven qualities prove that these were done by hand and although I couldn't identify how all the patterns were achieved, I could see that some stitch resist techniques had been used.

The dying technique is complicated and requires skill. Although indigo is substantive, it still needs fermenting and deoxidising to become soluble in order to penetrate the cotton fibres. I haven't found out how the dye here was extracted from the plant. Usually it is by boiling but sometimes in West Africa, the traditional technique is to simply roll the leaves into a ball and leave to dry. The woven cotton is stitched with strong thread and pulled tight so the cloth compresses.  Then it is dipped into dye vats and the fabric would be repeatedly soaked for up to six days until the desired shade is achieved. Just part of the fabric could be redipped to achieve colour graduation. The fibres come out pale yellow until they are exposed to the air and the oxidation causes them to become blue, insoluble and colourfast. Stitches are removed and the pattern revealed in the negative where the dye has been resisted.

The cylinders are completely covered with the fabric strips that have been hand stitched into place so it is impossible to see what they are made of. The exhibit information label states the medium is metal, PVC, sand and indigo dyed cotton.  Presumably then the cylinders are hollow plastic pipes and the wrapped trees are inserted into the metal base.  These must have something like a wide plate hidden under the sand to keep them upright and stable.  

Relationship of chosen work Les Arbres à Bleus to the themes
Moral Fibre is the theme I feel most relates to Aboubakar Fofana's work. His inspiration for the exhibit is nature and though the work is contemporary, his methods are traditional and kind to the environment. Mali is suffering economically. A third of the population depend upon cotton for their survival but recent poor harvests and the all-time low price of cotton has plunged many Malians into debt and poverty and they cannot afford to send their children to school. Malians receive no subsidies, unlike cotton farmers in developed countries. Aboubaka Fofana supports the more sustainable production practises and uses locally grown organic cotton and natural vegetable dyes.

Group Work
In our groups of three we went together to our chosen exhibits.  I was pleased that someone else had chosen the same work as me to see if our thoughts were the same.  Some were - we had both been reminded of the sea for example but then she could easily interpret the structures as trees where I couldn't. I was also glad that the other group member had chosen Anne Wilson's Local Industry Cloth to study as this amazing long handwoven strip was on my shortlist.  We enjoyed just observing the colour combinations and effects of different widths and debating whether the kinks we found were deliberate or not.  Although we only had 15 minutes or so together, it was good to think out loud with like-minded people who love textiles and have their own opinions.

Anne Wilson's Local Industry Cloth
Deliberate kink?

I found the study visit a really positive experience beyond the opportunity of meeting other textile students.  Doing a little research to get some background knowledge before the visit I felt was very helpful.  It really enhanced my enthusiasm for the subject and the visit and I understood what I was looking at quicker. On the study day, the main thing I think I learnt was that I don't have to feel guilty if I don't stop and look at every exhibit in a gallery.  Even if I only have an hour, there's a lot I can gain from a visit, now that I have scanning and selection techniques to draw on. Focusing on the four components - content, form, process and mood - will help me to interpret work. I am sure that previously I've not considered stage by stage the practical skills needed to make and effectively exhibit a work. Also, I've previously avoided studying work I am drawn to if I feel there is not enough information available to help me understand it.

As for next steps, I've got my reading on sustainable fashion, I'm keen to try some indigo dying and I'm considering ways to visually display aspects of my own genealogy. I've an idea brewing that stemmed from the transatlantic slave triangle where I would plot (maybe on something transparent so I could overlay) the locations at birth and death of my ancestors by generation so I could easily see who ended up where and when, which could help me understand why.

Reading List
Benjamin, Richard and Fleming, David (2010) Transatlantic slavery: an introduction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
Cooke, Terry (1987) Scotland Road: the old neighbourhood. Birkenhead, UK: Countryvise
Gillow, John & Sentence, Bryan (1999) World textiles: a visual guide to traditional techniques. London: Thames & Hudson
Minney, Safia (2011) Naked fashion:the new sustainable fashion revolution. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications

Roydon, Mike (2010) Tracing your Liverpool Ancestors. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword


  1. Thanks for the great, thought-provoking post.
    I'm very envious of the opportunity to go on an OCA study visit. I'll have to follow up and see if at least the OCA briefing materials are available to those who can't participate.
    Sustainability, fair-trade and so on get so complex as you learn more and try to consider all aspects. The "best" choices aren't obvious - really I think "best" is more a theory and aspiration than part of real life, there are always balances and trade-offs.

  2. Thanks Judy, I've done so much thinking over the last couple of weeks, my brain hurts! Hope to meet you on a future visit. One of the greatest benefits of the study day was interacting with other students though maybe we should suggest the OCA puts the briefing pack as a link on their website for those who can't go. I've deleted my electronic briefing pack now but the suggested reading included the Educators Research on the home page (scroll right down) and also the Essay tab from the Global Threads link above. The critical approach guidelines Liz Smith gave us on a paper handout were drawn from Taylor R 1986 Educating for Art: Critical Response and Development.

  3. It was a great day wasn't it. Not sure if we spoke to each other or not. Next time you are in Liverpool perhaps we could meet up.

    I had 3 choices including Aboubakar Fofana and Ann Wilson's pieces but as I was standing by my other choice Liz Rideal, Ghost Sari so we discussed that.

    I've been tracing my family tree and my great grandad on my Dad's side lived in the courts and on the 1891 census it says 4 court so I wonder if they lived in the same place. Next time I go to the Museum of Liverpool I'll have to check out the reconstruction. You never know what you find in the closet when you dig deep into your family history :)

    1. I'll get in touch Susan next time I'm over, probably during school summer hols. I wonder if our ancestor's families know each other? There were a few hundred courts in the area. I've been looking at historical maps and I'll send you the details if I find anything interesting.

  4. Thanks Liz
    Liz Smith has sent me the pack, plus Lee in student services has written that I can get future packs whenever I ask.
    I live in Australia (Sydney), so am unlikely to get to a study visit. However a friend (Claire at enrolled at the same time and we're now planning our own mini-study visit, using the critical approach guidelines and maybe the task sequence and timeframes.

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