Wind the bobbin up. COTTON: Global Threads.

Kate Feld

It famously built our city, but how much do we really know about cotton? A new exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery knits together a provocative history of the not-so-humble fibre. Kate Feld gets all wrapped up.

It is a fabric so ever-present in our lives that we don’t really see it anymore. But look down at what you’re wearing: chances are at least some of it is made from cotton. And most of us now realise that our cotton garments and homewares aren’t as springtime pure as the laundry-soap adverts would have us believe. From the days of slaves harvesting cotton in the American South to the present day, when factory workers in Asia routinely spend 16-hour days bent over industrial sewing machines, there is barely one step of the cotton boll’s complex transformation into a pair of jeans that isn’t tainted with someone’s blood, sweat or tears.

COTTON: Global Threads, a new exhibition at the Whitworth, travels the world to tell the story of what might truthfully be considered the first global commodity. The story of cotton is the story of globalisation, and here you can see it unfurl in all its complicated glory. The main exhibition space displays cotton items from the Whitworth’s justifiably famous textiles collection and elsewhere – many things of which are jaw-droppingly beautiful. A 10-metre high wall of the Tipu Sultan’s tent, for instance, an 18th century treasure lent by the National Trust, is block-printed, dyed and hand painted in an intricate repeating design of flowers in pots. It makes you shiver to think what the fully assembled tent must have looked like in its original setting.

The exhibition is neatly split into three sections: early cotton trading in India; how the Industrial Revolution changed the production of cotton in Lancashire; and ‘Moral Fibre’, a look at cotton’s darker side with specially commissioned work from contemporary artists including Yinka Shonibare, Lubaina Himid and Anne Wilson. The inclusion of this new work is a cunning curatorial strategy that breathes fresh life into what could so easily be a rather stately, worthy affair. “The artists’ work engages with some of the themes set out in the front room,” explains curator Jennifer Harris. “It becomes very contemporary, quite provocative, because they’re asking questions about cotton in the world today, human rights, free trade, use of pesticides, globalisation… We can use art to tell these stories in a different way.”

The show also has another context. It’s part of the UK-wide ‘Cultural Olympiad’; the strand in Manchester, called Stories of the World, will see young people develop an interactive space at the Whitworth over the next three years, featuring video games and upcycled fashion. There is also a busy programme of workshops and events during the exhibition, not least of which is a talk by author and Observer ethical columnist Lucy Siegle that we’re presenting on 24 February as part of The Boutique Weekender (full details, and Lucy’s green fashion tips, here). If you’re coming along, you might want to think extra hard about what you’re wearing.

COTTON: Global Threads, until 13 May, Whitworth Art Gallery. Free.

Images: (from top), Tipu Sultan’s tent, Erik Pelham courtesy The National Trust; Yinka Shonibare MBE – Boy on Globe, courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery, Lubaina Himid-laughterbuckets, courtesy the artist/Whitworth ArtGallery. 

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