It’s probably fair to say that most people, especially living in the north, are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Britain as the birthplace of industrial-scale textile manufacture. By the end of the 19th century, Pennine Lancashire was producing 85% of the world’s cotton goods, and the traces of this history are still apparent throughout the surrounding landscape; from the former factory mills and winding canals to the grand civic buildings and cavernous homes built by wealthy industrialists.
A narrative perhaps less often re-visited, however, is the ways in which textiles have continued to shape the Pennine Lancashire region, its people and identity ever since. The inaugural edition of the British Textile Biennial, produced by Super Slow Way, looks set to address this with an ambitious programme that interweaves past and present, and celebrates that story while showcasing its contemporary expression with the community that has textiles in its DNA. The month-long festival will take place at various venues along Britain’s longest waterway, the Leeds & Liverpool canal, many of which, like the canal itself, have their origins in cotton.
The easily overlooked significance of clothing as a form of individual, creative and political expression comes to the fore in T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion, an exhibition curated by the Museum of Fashion and Textile in London and The Civic in Barnsley that charts the garment’s invention at the start of the 20th century and the innumerable messages with which it has been emblazoned across the decades.
In a switch of apparel, Fashion, Football, Faith explores the adoption of the training shoe as an important cultural marker of when young working-class men found cultural expression in one item of clothing. This exhibition brings an iconic collection of vintage trainers together along with an invitation to the public to Instagram their own treasured pairs, along with the stories they hold. Manchester-based Eggs Collective will continue the thread of fabric as a means of expression, by setting up a clothes stall at Accrington’s iconic Market Hall trading in conversation rather than cash. The stories generated through speaking to customers and other market traders will form the basis of a new performance, presented in the Market Hall, that explores how clothes shape our everyday.
Football and fashion re-surface in a series of photographs of Burnley FC’s ‘girlfans’ taken by Jacqui McAssey (founder of the GIRLFANS project) that document the importance of clothing within female football culture. And artist Jamie Holman will present new work developed through his investigations into acid house, football fandom and folklore that celebrates the potential of DIY creativity within the hands of the historically disempowered. This theme returns in a huge banner exhibition at Brierfield Mill in Pendle, where a mass staging of banners ranging from traditional 19th century processional banners to contemporary messages of protest movements and campaigns of the current day, crowd sourced from across the UK, will be presented.
Over at Blackburn Museum, a new film collaboration between award-winning filmmaker, Aaron Dunleavey, and designer Patrick Grant’s social enterprise, Community Clothing, will document the lives and families of Blackburn’s modern textile factory workforce. Alice Kettle’s monumental tapestry series at Gawthorpe Hall considers cultural heritage, refugee displacement and movement, while engaging with individual migrants and their creativity within the wider context of the global refugee crisis.
Lastly, British Textile Biennial 2019 will offer visitors the opportunity to step into Frederick Gatty’s experimental dye house at Elmfield Hall in Accrington and experience the abandoned space as it once might have been. Artist Claire Wellesley Smith has spent two years researching the local 19th century inventor’s innovative dying techniques and working with local residents to create an immersive installation around his legacy.
Today, China is the largest exporter of textiles, yet local design heroes and manufacturers with national and international reputations continue to keep this important part of Lancashire’s history alive. The first ever British Textile Biennial looks set to celebrate this story in ways we haven’t heard it told before, expanding audience’s understanding of this important strand of heritage and championing the region’s creativity.