'Before, After, and Between'

Yellow aniline dye growing up a thread between the floor and the ceiling of the gallery throughout the period of the exhibition.

 

Commissioned by Bow Arts for Raw Materials: Textiles, and exhibited at the Nunnery Gallery, London, 2017   

A story of three threads

Freya Gabie

Catalogue text for ‘Raw Materials: Textiles’ The Nunnery Gallery 18th April – June 2018

 

Approaching this project seemed very similar to exploring a vast old piece of textile, in my mind I imagined heavy brocade, the gold flecked weave catching the light and drawing my attention over the fabric to different areas within its undulating folds. This material did not lie flat but crumpled, shadowed and mysterious, the pattern contorted and concertinaing, obscuring parts altogether while other swathes layered up, entwining and connecting disparate sections of pattern into a strange montage. Some of the fabric had eroded away entirely; thin edges of cut strands and lost threads forming pools of absences across the cloth. I wanted to pull these stray fibres, catch a golden thread and tug, drawing out a line of stories like a song from the fabric.

Much later during this residency I was lucky enough to see remnants of cloth in the V&A archives that reminded me of my imagined textile, beautifully stretched out, pressed flat, darned and patched, areas kept from sunlight retaining glints of glorious colour that then slipped into bleached obscurity. These different textiles seemed like individual landscapes to travel through and discover, each retaining their past through the gashes, rips, tears and stains; traces of history we could guess at but never really know for sure.

From the landscape of cloth to the landscape of East London, the lower Lea Valley, I walked its folds and traced its patterns and found it a fabric continually torn apart and patched over, histories and stories ripped away with new textures and designs in place. The Olympic park has swallowed great swathes of the areas old industrial past, eradicating streets I remember walking down only a decade ago. During the residency someone kindly lent me their copy of a London A to Z from the 1940’s. I leafed through areas, tracing fingers across the pages on walks down streets and hovered in front of factories and warehouses long since raised to the ground and superseded. I tried to navigate this new landscape of East London through memory but became almost immediately disoriented and frustrated with my fickle mind that I couldn’t supress the present enough to remember the past. The river was the only constant, funny that a river, which is never the same from one moment to the next, should be the only continuous marker in this landscape. In a place so disconnected to its past it felt important to anchor myself to real factories that had once stood streets away, their workforce treading the same ground if not the same roads. I found three factories, three threads to follow..

 

Yellow

 

The first thread led under the clean swept antiseptic pathways, beneath the concrete and back down to an earth clogged with the pigment and chemicals of an age of industry not computer designed landscapes. On Carpenters road, now home to the London Aquatics Centre, once stood a chemical factory, producing much of the dyes used in the surrounding textiles works. This led me on an excavation in a search for colour. Throughout the Industrial Revolution gallons of coal tar was produced providing a treasure trove for scientists as the substance contained approximately 10,000 chemicals, of which still only 50% have been identified. These chemicals were readily experimented on, primarily in the hope to provide cures for malaria and other diseases prevalent in the age of the British Empire. However what was uncovered was quite different, from this thick, dark, gloopy mass came acid bright and dazzling colour. In 1856 William Perkin discovered Mauveine, a striking violet and the first of the aniline dyes. This colour created such a sensation in Victorian Society that Queen Victoria herself endorsed its incorporation into formal mourning attire. A rainbow of colours ensued but the colour I followed down through the earth of East London was yellow, a chemical, Trinitrotoluene, first discovered in 1863 by German chemist Julian Wilbrand and used as a dye in textiles factories throughout the area. The dyers were in the majority woman, due to the cheaper labour costs incurred but also the greater dexterity in the work produced.  However after decades of use in the textile trade another German chemist, Carl Haussermann discovered this chemical’s explosive properties in 1891, so came the birth of TNT to this day one of the most commonly used explosives.

TNT for obvious reasons is now a banned substance in the UK. It’s curious to work with a material that remains always just out of reach, absent and mysterious, another hole in my imagined cloth. I’ve been told that due to their composition all yellow chemicals are explosive, without its material presence I would sit in my studio and instead imagine this yellow; yellow spools spun into threads woven together into great reams of cloth, yellow ribbons of detonated explosive tearing through landscapes, cutting them in pieces.

The end of the 1800’s saw the expansion of the textile industry, factories moved out of London to other areas of the UK and in the build-up of impending war a new industry became increasingly prevalent, munitions. Buildings formally serving to dye cloth were now used to pack the explosive shells of bombs, again a workforce of woman, again cheaper labour and dextrous hands. And many of these hands would have known this yellow, many of these hands would have handled it before, sunk it deep into folds of cloth and embroidered its acid lemon along seems. These hands too would have known this yellow in the folds and seems of their own bodies, as it stealthily tarnished all that handled it with a slow burn of colour. In its new role the compound was now packed tight inside taught metal drums but as before the yellow pushed back, no boundary impervious to its stealthy encroachment, the pigment advanced on and into, fingers then hands then bodies were slowly infringed. Dubbed the Canary Girls, the woman of war turned yellow. This chemical, like a dye and like an explosion will always change its environment to suit its colour.

Today measures have been taken to stop this incursion. The Olympic commission extensively excavated the area of the lower Lea and covered its entirety with a fabric that literally separates the past landscape from the present one. This Geotextile acts as an impermeable division between the ground beneath and the ground above; below I imagine a landscape of dense, explosive, jostling colour, above impassive, clean, brown, earth; there is now a before, after and between.

 

Gold

 

Cloth and the its raw materials, almost from inception has been traded globally, I was concentrating on the local of the Lea but like a winding twine as I followed the story it always seemed to lead away, across the sea to a very different landscape. The Industrial Revolution in particular radically changed the way textiles were made and traded. Industrialisation meant vast quantities of cloth cheaply produced in factories could be exported abroad for great profit. India then under British rule was the perfect market, not only an excellent trading opportunity but also providing raw materials.

Jute was shipped to the UK, spun into twine, woven sacks and rope before making the return journey across the sea to be traded back to the place it was bought from. If the first thread I followed was vibrant yellow, this thread is gold, named the golden fibre because it brought much needed income from its trade. But this trade also exploited the natural resources of India for the profit of British merchants. These mills imperilled the Indian textile trade, powering Gandhi’s growing independence movement. Gandhi visited the UK with his hand spinning wheel, a ‘charkha’ with which he spun Khadi as a peaceful protest for self-reliance. On a visit to Valance House, nestled on a low shelf a spinning wheel from the man himself was found on display, a remainder from his visit to Kingsley Hall, Dagenham, in 1931.

The Jute works in Stratford Le Bow, stood across four acres of land, erected in 1864 to be as close to the river and the ship docks as possible. The workers, many young woman and small girls were referred to by factory directors as ‘hands;’ as though truncating minds and bodies down to the specific article of action. 1,000 sets of busy fingers were employed across 4,000 spindles, like a multitude of miller’s daughters in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold. The creation of these 'hands' was 158,400,000 yards of jute twine produced weekly. This number was ungraspable to me in its hugeness, how many ships across the sea to India and back would that string journey allow? I converted it to miles, a distance more intelligible to me, and found it was 90,000. This still felt too wide a span to envisage, what road wound that long, what kite flew that high? I typed the number into Google and something magical came back; 90,000 miles is the distance across the planet Jupiter.

 

Black

 

The third thread took me on a journey devoid of colour but rather of light. This thread followed a path of undulation, of constant alteration from white through a spectrum to black and its bleached transformation back. One of the raw materials imported to the Lea valley was silk, which in the Grout and Baylis factory was woven into mourning crepe on huge jacquard looms. This fabric held its roots in a Victorian Britain with its surrounding strict society rules around mourning and the wearing of ‘Widows Weeds.’ This tradition slowly died out through the beginning of the 20th century until in the 1920’s the factory solely relied on the export trade of crepe to Catholic Latin countries where it remained in demand.  During its peak between the years of 1861 and 1901 the fashion held many directives, mainly towards woman to isolate them during their time of grief. For the first year of mourning no woman was allowed to exit her house without full black mourning dress and weeping vail. The dress was constructed of crepe, with broad cuffs of 9 inches called ‘Weepers’ allowing the mourner to hide their tears by shadowing their face with an upturned arm. 

Mourning dress was also a display of social standing and middle and lower class women would go to great lengths to appear in keeping with its fashion. Dying clothing black and then bleaching it out again became commonplace, recycling fabric in correspondence to life cycles. This in turn threatened the vital industry of mourning among tailors so rumours began to spread concerning the bad luck of salvaging funeral attire. I tried to find examples of this among the many archives we visited in the research for this project, but although many samples of the fine crepe mourning dress of the rich had been preserved, this re-dyed textile, with its many lives of black and many lives of white had not survived the years.

It was these remnants and these stories that I wanted my thread to draw out; a story of survival through resilience and versatility, the tale of change and alteration. This seemed to draw heavy comparisons to the history of textile trade itself through the years, which has survived through constant modification and evolution and also brings me back to my first remnant of imagined cloth. Its cuts and bruises, patches and seems, this fabric has changed and morphed through time to become its current formation, without losing its witness to its past.

I like to think that woven through my minds first vivid vision of heavy brocade three threads pass through and momentarily entwine; a thread of undulating black and white, a thread of vivid yellow and a thread of gold, glinting at the sun.