Working Textiles: Textile Workers
The sixth textile study day, organized by Professor Deborah Wynne, took place on 14th April 2018 at the Guildhall, University Centre Shrewsbury. The focus this year was on textile work and workers and the topics discussed ranged from the conditions in a Shropshire flax mill in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to home dressmaking to the traditional smocks worn by rural workers.
The event was organized in conjunction with the Friends of the Flax Mill Maltings at Ditherington in Shrewsbury. The mill was established as a heritage site in 2015 and is supported by Historic England. Shrewsbury was once an important centre for the production of flax, which was woven into linen, and the mill a Ditherington was designed in the late eighteenth century as an innovative fireproof structure which became an influential model for the design of factories. Our first talk was presented by Maralyn Hepworth and Penny Ward, both of whom were instrumental in the project to reclaim the derelict flax mill and convert it into a heritage site. Their talk, 'From Flax to Fabric: The People of Shrewsbury Flax Mill', discussed how flax was grown and processed, and the lives of workers at the Shrewsbury flax mill. Using archival evidence from Shropshire Archives, Penny and Maralyn focused on some individual workers' lives, showing how men, women and children fared, with some success stories as well as bleak accounts of child exploitation. The joint talk was full of interest and particularly helpful in highlighting why the mill needs to be preserved.
The Friends of the Flaxmill and Maltings created a wonderful display stand which indicated key apsects of the Mill's history. Spinners and 'hecklers' in nineteenth-century costumes showed how flax was traditionally processed and spun, using a traditional spinning wheel. There were also beautiful pieces of linen to buy and an opportunity for participants to donate to the important work of the volunteers who are bringing the mill into a new phase of development as a significant heritage site.
Our second speaker was Brenda Rewhorn, who has recently submitted a PhD on 'The Art of Tatting Lace' at the University of Chester. Brenda gave a fascinating talk on tatting, 'Tatting: Lace for Working People'. Tatting is a hand-held form of lace which was popular with the poor at a time when bobbin-lace was extremely expensive. ironically, the two most significant proponents of tatting were extremely privileged nineteenth-century women, Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Lady Catharine Hoare based in Norfolk, both of whom worked hard to highlight the beauty and importance of this craft. in a lavishly illustrated talk, Brenda explained the remarkable history of tatting. she also had set up a wonderful display of tatting shuttles, pattern books and tatted work, much of it which she had done herself.
The next speaker was Jane Thomas, who once taught needlework in a London comprehensive school, and now researches many aspects of needlecraft, from smocks to buttons. Her interesting and informative talk, 'Traditional Smocking: Workers and Clothing', was accompanied by a traditional smock she had recreated from an old pattern, displayed on a dressmaker's dummy. Jane explained that smocking was a traditional English rural craft which had thrived for centuries before the industrial revolution, only dying out in the early twentieth century. Agricultural workers wore smocks over their clothes to protect them. Incredibly strong and hard wearing linen garments, smocks were also beautifully decorated, often with symbols of the wearer's trade. Jane also showed how smocking continued in different forms when working smocks were no longer worn. Smocking techniques are now incorporated into dresses, particularly children's clothing and craft products. jane's smock was examined closely by people in the audience after her lively and informative talk.
After a lovely lunch provided by the Shrewsbury catering outlet, Stop.café, we returned to the lecture room to browse through the displays and stalls, which included a lovely display of wool by Thelma Thompson, a sheep farmer from Wenlock Edge, Shropshire, and a display of historical artefacts by Sarah Thursfield, who researches traditional needlecrafts and the history of textiles. Tereshina WildColours displayed information about the natural dyes she makes and sells.
The next talk was given by Elaine Rowland, 'Good Men and Little Women: Gendered Roles in Clothing Production'. Elaine is currently working on an MRes dissertation at the Institute of Gender Studies, University of Chester. her project examines home dressmaking in the context of heritage clothing. Her talk offered a fascinating history of the ways in which needlework had been gendered, with male tailors being perceived differently from female dressmakers. Elaine offered a lavishly illustrated talk which gave us insights into dressmaking and tailoring as crafts and professions which have long had complex gendered cultural dimensions.
The final talk of the day, 'Cotton in the Nineteenth Century: From Southern U.S. Slavery to Manchester's Mill Workers', was delivered by Professor Deborah Wynne from the University of Chester and UCS. Deborah showed how cotton production and manufacture had helped to shape the modern world. After a brief history of cotton production in Europe, she highlighted the links between slavery in the cotton plantations of America and the mass-production of cotton in Manchester. Deborah showed how two novels, North and South by the Manchester-based author Elizabeth Gaskell and The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W.E.B. Du Bois, a black activist and writer based in the U.S. writing at the turn of the twentieth century, foregrounded cotton as a key component in worker's lives. She showed how novelists often explore themes and ideas which historians shy away from as 'unrealistic'. Both Gaskell and Du Bois, she suggested, imagine utopian alternatives for exploited workers which help their readers consider new ways of thinking and acting.
Feedback from participants at the event was very positive with comments such as:
'Thank you to all the speakers and those displaying and demonstrating. My mind has been opened and questions are being asked in it. I have made a note of your suggested books and look forward to reading them. I have thoroughly enjoyed the day. See you next year';
' Very enjoyable day and event. Excellent';
'Excellent day with varied and relevant subjects. Informed details of local Flax Mill and its regeneration. Thank you for an informative and enjoyable day';
'A full programme, well presented and co-ordinated. Interesting display stands. I have enjoyed the variety and research information.'