Bradford College Textile Archive Conference - Wednesday 22nd April 2015
"For thousands of years, the hand of man had directly fashioned the materials of his apparel, but now by a wonderful combination of automatic machines, which obey, like willing slaves, the will of the master mind, a power of production so infinite and various, so prodigious in its operations and results, as to surpass the fabled power of the ancient Genii, or the marvels of Arabian story, has been attained."
John James, History of the Worsted Manufacture in England, 1857, pages 323-33
The prodigious production James observed as the Industrial Revolution was in progress has led to an infinite and various amount of material held within textile archive collections, stimulating, in turn, infinite and various responses by current academic researchers, historians and designers. This conference, held in the Michele Sutton Lecture Theatre at Bradford College on 22nd April 2015, presented an exciting and eclectic collection of these responses. The conference was opened by College Principal Kath Oldale, who welcomed a large number of delegates which included artists, authors, curators, textile designers, teaching professionals and students to 'an interesting and informative day of sharing and engaging with research.'
Dr Susan Kay-Williams, Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework gave a fascinating paper entitled Opening the Box – Rediscovering the Work of David Smith, Pre and Post 1856 Watershed Dyer. After explaining that ‘textile history is the hardest of the decorative arts to get to know', Dr Kay-Williams brought the work of this important nineteenth century dyer to life and revealed the joys of archival discovery.
Helen Farrar, Curator of Textiles at Bradford College Textile Archive presented a comprehensively researched paper Pride, Precision, Productivity & Prosperity: Bradford’s Textile Education in 1900 which disclosed the visionary nature of textile education in 'Worstedopolis'. Pride in the College’s history and collections infused this absorbing presentation, where the ‘quality and depth of textile education’ made Bradford students 'ready for a life of innovation and prosperity.'
Pam Brook, Curriculum Team Leader for Creative Industries at Bradford School of Arts and Media, gave a fascinating paper Material Worth: Innovations in Textile Manufacture in the Aire and Worth Valleys focussing on the textile trade and developments in Keighley and surrounds from the seventeenth century onwards. She spoke of the difficulties and serendipity of textile archives as the survival of records depended on commercial firms, and she eloquently noted the 'shiver that a researcher gets when they make connections' with an unexpected contextual find.
Hannah Lamb, Lecturer in Embroidered Textile Design at Bradford School of Arts and Media gave a presentation on Using Textile Archives Creatively in which she declared that 'learning in museums and archives is experiential & transformative' but stressed the differential needs of artists to historians. She advocated open-ended browsing and curiosity rather than the usual specific searching as a spark to creativity and noted that limits set for preservation, for instance, wearing gloves, became barriers to creatives who benefitted from physically handling and texturally reading objects.
Richard Ashworth, Colour Experience Manager, Society of Dyers & Colourists gave an illuminating scientific presentation, Colour, an Introduction, which explained the visual perception of colour and how the brain processes colour information. It was gratifying that he used carpet designs by our former lecturer and artist Sydney Harry as an example of colour theory and he confounded expectations in a fun audience participation section.
Helen Parrott, artist and author, gave an enthralling presentation A Richness of Archives, which recounted her journey of discovery researching the eighteenth century calico printer Mary Ware and developing her findings to create her piece ‘9 yards or thereabouts’ for the recent Bradford Pick and Mix exhibition. The Wares were uniquely known for their double strike fabric she recalled the 'shivery moment' as she connected them to a renowned American quilt. She advised that ‘coherence of the end result does not reflect the circular nature of the research process’ as ‘a lot happens quite subliminally and you have to trust the process.'
Artist Claire Wellesley-Smith offered a community-based learning perspective in her presentation Fragments of Intimacy: Exploring the Commonplace through a Dyer’s Notebook. She described opening archive boxes to take anonymised contents to intimacy as the secret life of the maker was revealed. She explained the work she had done with groups involving communal stitching and storytelling, research and reminiscences, activated by archive objects. The possibilities for sharing collective memory and collective heritage to enhance wellbeing she outlined were most inspiring.
Celebrated costume designer and our former lecturer, Ruth Caswell gave an enthralling presentation, Hind Robinson Collection and Bradford's Key Role in the Development and Manufacture of Rayon. Cross-referencing designs, sample and running cards from different collections which had never been kept together in the mill, plus oral history, she demonstrated that Rayon was manufactured in Bradford more than a decade before accepted authorities claimed. She described how Courtaulds threw down a challenge to weavers and designers to make own experiments with artificial silk, and the innovative skills of trained designers meant that our students and alumni made an important contribution to the fabric’s development. Commercial sophistication and technical expertise in Bradford allowed the city to capitalise on opportunities, exporting artificial silk around world. She asserted that Rayon was not a cheap substitute for silk but a glamorous and glitzy choice, declaring, ‘With Bradford's help there would be party frocks for everyone!’
Liz McIvor, Curator of Social History and Technology for Bradford Museums, offered fascinating insights into comparatively recent, but forgotten, textile history with her presentation Leopard for the legions: Making fashionable furs available to all - the rise of synthetics and the ethical debate. She explained that the race to salvage material from closing mills when Bradford Industrial Museum opened in the 1970s means that they held a wealth of archive material, including archived synthetic furs used in this research. Although these were not the usual types of samples and collections thought of as 'historic', they provided a context for change in industry and markets as well as a benchmark for what opinion regarding natural versus synthetic fibres. She described how furs were in demand as glamorous and aspirational luxuries during Bradford's textile heyday. Synthetic furs were on trend in the 1960s and 70s and the audience enjoyed the advertising imagery and slogans such as 'Honestly it isn't mink, it's Wink!' Lister’s marketed new fur fabrics in 1970, blending natural and synthetic furs and exotic animal prints became very popular. As ethical and sustainability concerns came to the fore, the market declined but the original Lister's fur fabrics popular vintage items.
Dr Brenda King, author and Chair of The Textile Society, gave a masterly presentation, Full Circle:India-England-India, in which she spoke of her seminal research into collections of Indian silks in England and the lasting legacy of master dyer Thomas Wardle, President of the Bradford Society of Dyers and Colourists, and the samples he produced in the 1870s. She acknowledged a debt to Ruth Caswell for saving material which now comprises our magnificent Textile Archive. She recalled her first visit to College in 1995 to use the Forbes Watson Textile Fabrics of India when she found a clear link with student notebooks containing unexpected woven silk samples of a standard found in the silk centre of Macclesfield. Her discoveries took her to India to examine samples in Kolkata that were dyed with India’s dyestuffs in England, and back, to recount the fascinating story at home and abroad.