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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the pages on walks down streets and hovered in front of factories and warehouses long since raised to the ground and superseded.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..




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.




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.




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.




All at Sea – A Journey Freya Gabie January 2018

"A path is a prior interpretation of best way to traverse a landscape" 

Rebecca Solnit

A journey is both an embrace and a release, like a breath you inhale and then exhale; it transports and is transporting.

I have spent a year tracing other people’s journeys; the 450,000 routes taken almost 100 years ago by stateless people caught in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and WW1 with the aid of the Nansen Passport.  Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian arctic explorer and marine biologist who in later life became a visionary humanitarian. In 1922 as High Commissioner for Refugees within The League of Nations, Nansen issued a historic document to the world’s first political refugees, offering sanctuary to thousands of displaced people unable to return to their country of origin and providing the means to cross borders in the pursuit of new lives.  By 1942, the passport was recognised by 52 countries, 53 by today’s borders.  


I too was on a journey when I first started researching Nansen’s passports. I had left a Britain still reeling from the shock of BREXIT to spend three months as Artist in Residence at USF Verftet in Bergen, Norway. Being there, in the context of daily news reports of President Trump’s executive orders detaining thousands of people entry to the US, the ongoing refugee crisis across Europe with accounts of people being pushed back over borders; stories of tragedy no one could comprehend, a divide bigger then geography; isolationism was in the air.  


And I was in a studio bigger then I had ever had before, staring out of French windows onto the vast expanse of Byfjorden, watching the constant passage of huge fishing trawlers, commercial ships, the Hurtigruten passenger ferry and icebreakers come and go. I felt at the edge, disconnected; isolated within the world of my warm studio on the brink of a cold, unknown city watching this procession connecting far off landscapes that I could only imagine. What could I possibly make or do that would have any relevance in a world such as this? That would create a connection or form an exchange with anyone from my studio at the edge?  Finding Nansen felt like an answer of sorts, also a challenge; a call from the outside. An explorer, a man who spent his life at the frontier, both in physical and mental landscapes and whose pursuits as a pioneer grew from the Romantic Nationalism of the 19th century, was instrumental in facilitating thousands of life changing and life giving journeys. His passport gave rise to 450,000 expeditions Nansen didn’t take but instead gave.


So I began researching these journeys. The routes I uncovered highlighted how much the landscape of the world has changed in 100 years, 114 new countries have been created since the 1920’s. Border changes and how we move through them are becoming more and more important to many people’s lives.  Increasingly, global organisations and trade agreements such as the IMF, NAFTA and even the European Union don’t operate through borders, causing a greater disparity between the movement of money and goods and that of people.


The outcome of this research will I hope be a mass participatory project where people across the world will be filmed walking entire re-traced routes of some of the Nansen Passport holders. A global echo to the refugee crisis; a quiet, conscious, endeavour; a pilgrimage, a protest march. 

After spending months looking at maps, translating letters and telegrams, leafing through, dusting down and carefully unfurling old and tattered papers; deciphering the aged and inky voyages taken through countries and continents, a passage of stamps on documents so timeworn even the paperclips had rusted a stamp of their own, I decided I needed to take a journey myself.  It’s one thing to run a finger along the ridge of countries on an atlas from the comfort of a library chair but I needed to feel space move in a real way, to shift between landscapes in the physical time it takes to do so. I didn’t know what this journey should be, only that it shouldn’t be prescribed by me as an artist but one in which I had no control or in fact status, I should be the other in the landscape, passing through.

A chance conversation at USF led me to the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen where I learned of the EAF Nansen Program. This program both fascinated and deeply impressed me, a benevolent initiative, funded by NORAD, The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and executed by the FAO and IMR.  The vessel, Dr Fridtjof Nansen, is deployed to carry out ecosystem surveys, marine research and humanitarian support to developing countries around coastal Africa. Much of this comprehensive marine data is the first of its kind to be collected and its outcome both promotes sustainable fishing resources in these countries as well as protecting the marine environment.


Several conversations, emails and less than a year later I found myself in the blistering heat of Namibia, stepping off the concrete dock at Walvis Bay port and up onto the swaying metal stairway leading me onto the Dr Fridtjof Nansen vessel.  


“There are sights too beautiful to swallow. They stay on the rim of the eye; it cannot contain them.”

Olivia Laing, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface


Since returning, my time aboard the ship has taken me a while to unpack. I have needed a sort of interval of adjustment, a period of land sickness. Interestingly, it was the first time where a change in environment had as big a physical impact on me as its mental counterpart. I had been warned about getting my sea legs, and indeed for the first three days I felt always on the edge of sickness. Like a heavy glass marble let loose, I didn’t move with intent but rather lurched, rolled, groped and smashed my way through the spaces of the ship. Entering the mess hall for lunch would either be a slow uphill battle against the waves or an uncontrolled skid into the nearest solid surface. Before we left dock I watched the fishing master lash down any unanchored object on deck; the ornamental plants were all fastened with elaborate knots to the nearest pillar and the chairs in the upstairs lounge area were grouped together and secured with bungee ropes. There were times later on when I felt jealous of this stability. I remember the first day on board being showed some zoo plankton under the microscope. When I asked the classification of plankton I was told they were defined as creatures that couldn’t swim against the currents of the ocean but instead drifted with them, I later watched my bath towel hooked onto the back of the cabin door swing like a pendulum from one side of the ceiling to the other. On a ship where everyone had a regimented and prescribed role and timetable to follow, I too felt like a drifter, swept like wind down corridors and amassed into corners with the movement of the vessel. From this strange, precarious position I was able to experience the ship and our progression through the sea from a very different angle. As I slowly adapted to the seas swell beneath my feet and was able to garner a more contained momentum of movement I began to visit the differing territories of the boat. I would sit with the crew, learning to contort my fingers in their quick, slippery way to produce a meshwork of intricate knots that could be unravelled by a single tug. I would spend days with the scientists, enjoying gliding between their individual territories of knowledge. A chance conversation at lunch might progress onto the in depth workings of quantum physics, diagrams sketched onto napkins, until my haywire brain would connect to something off kilter, I would question a seemingly unrelated association, but that may be beyond this particular and deep sphere of knowledge, time to jump from one tectonic plate of information to another. I was spoiled for choice, a treasure trove of expertise could be found in any conversation, I only hoped I would be able to retain everything I’d gleaned each day, as I lay in bed at night my head swimming with dazzling fish eyes and dazzling ideas.


In this way space on the ship felt expandable. So much was going on, there was such a vast array of research and experimentation happening and each trawl brought in a new adventure in fish and new landscapes in science. It felt bigger and more piercing then my everyday experience, everything felt intensified, saturated.


Even so, it is strange to be in a relatively small, confined physical space in the middle of a vast landscape, watching miles of ocean move past that you could never enter. The ships route was a to make a procession of lawnmower lines through the sea, from the coast outwards and then back again, so although we travelled almost 3000 nautical miles, the distance from Walvis to Rio de Janeiro, in nearly a month’s sailing we only moved from Namibia to South Africa. What fascinated me was that the boat was not just defined by its physical presence in the Atlantic Ocean but rather became a conduit to other landscapes through the stories told on board. It seemed that everyone travelling had brought other places with them. Norway was vividly evoked in the tales of the crew, sitting in the fierce Namibian sun on deck while mending the fishing nets I was shown phone photos of monochrome, misty lands far away. This in turn recalled my memories of the place, a landscape harsh and bold; unrelenting, piercing granite stripped by the wind, the white of snow and the black of water. Thinking of this in aggressive heat, the salty ocean crashing and spraying, Norway seemed to share a forcefulness and starkness with Namibia, strange that one place, so contrasting in many ways could speak so deeply of the other. 


This idea of connection to places, how one relates and moves between them was an important aspect of the voyage for me. Both in the context of my research, the individual historical journeys that I’d traced with the Nansen Passports but also the hundreds of thousands of people today making (or attempting to make)  similar journeys for similar reasons.


As someone who didn’t belong, I felt very connected to the boat almost as soon as I entered it, something I hadn’t anticipated and that was surprising to me.  I enjoyed being the outsider in such a dynamic but closely conjoined group; I watched graphs and charts appear on screens in the scientific office and up on the bridge with the captain. I couldn’t read the language they were meant to be understood in but none the less they held a deep beauty and enthral for me. One of the scientists on board had the task of analysing nutrients and mercury levels from the fish caught on the cruise and one evening I helped her with the sampling. Twenty five fish of each different species needed to be collected and on this occasion it was Atlantic horse mackerel, a fish that is common both in Norwegian waters as well as African. These fish are muscle machines, built to swim distance at speed, you know instantly if they form part of the catch because they jump, wriggle and turn somersaults when they are deposited onto the trawl deck. I found this movement very upsetting, twenty five fish lined up in the laboratory to be weighed and measured, their throats slit, and not one inch of their bodies still. They leapt and jumped with more energy and agility then I have ever possessed, these dead fish by far the most alive things in the room. At my protestations, to prove that these fish had died, the scientist I was working with deftly split a fish open and pulled out its heart. It was the size of the end of my finger, deep red and vivid. It sat on the counter next to its corpse and pumped vigorously throughout the rest of our work. I still think of this heart, and when I think of it its still pumping. The scientist had a different reaction to those fish because she knew they were dead, I of course also knew this, but sometimes other knowledge creeps in,  I am not a scientist, I was left to read things in a different language where other aspects or features take precedence. Certainty can perhaps form a barrier around how far we can see, where unfamiliarity and vulnerability causes one to look around things and to decipher them in new ways. We are all subjective, reflecting from our own isolated perspectives, uniting across a distance. I was an outsider on the ship in an obvious way; maybe that was comforting in the relief it held from being an outsider in a space I’m meant to belong to.


This was something I had been thinking about in the previous months while researching my project where people will hopefully participate en masse in walking the traced refugee routes. I want people from different perspectives, outlooks and circumstance to together create a collective experience while the thousands of individual voices remain distinguishable. The act of walking is to slow down; it is a considered act, a means for encounter and connection. Aristotle wrote about Peripatetic walking, which grants our thoughts a natural flexibility and fluidity as we negotiate our surroundings, the people and places we move through. I felt this happening as I travelled on the ship, moving through the liminal landscape of the ocean and the vast territories of knowledge and opinions, at a slow, methodical pace, led to an interesting negotiation between myself and the others on board. Conversations that started across a great distance between perspectives felt closer, more bonded by the end of the journey. Everything on the ocean needs flux to survive, even the vessel is built to contract and expand with the pull of the waves and I felt a tangible fluidity in our own interactions; appreciating and empathising across distance.


As an artist much of my work is looking at connection and exchange between people and their environment. Like the scientists on board I too analyse data, using the particular materials and artefacts found within any given context as gathered components, translating my environs into new vestiges of themselves, provoking a conversation with place. But perhaps instead of looking for absolutes I am drawn to the tentative, unconscious and peripheral. I don’t seek an answer, an emphatic hard point, but rather hope to reflect and re-frame environments revealing hidden qualities often left unspoken or overlooked.


A journey on reflection seems a very particular experience, unique to all of us who partook in it, and always somehow separate from those who did not. It is not a place, I will never be able to revisit, the ship and everyone on board will not be there, and even the waters of the sea will be changed. It was not just a time, it belongs deeply connected to every wave we crossed, every seal that drifted past us, every storm we encountered, every nautical mile we travelled.

Like one of the sponges that were brought up from the sea floor in a trawl, completely sodden so they seemed to be more sea than sponge, I hope this journey has seeped into me. I hope a thousand myriad moments have accumulated like water.


A journey is both an embrace and a release, like a breath you inhale and then exhale; it transports and is transporting.


I’m reminded of the quote by Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”


I want to thank in particular Jens-Otto Krakstad and Kathrine Michalsen who made it possible to take this incredible journey, and also all the crew Otto, Arve, Kim-Helge, Tor-Henrik, Tore, Kent-Ivan, Thomas, Anders, Asbjorn, Aron, Viggo, Justein, Robert, Camilla, and Anne Lise. Also big thanks to scientists Delphine, Thomas, Fannie, Magne, Bjorn-Erik, Sarah, Ines, Lekne, Saskia, Libby, Jan Arne, Jan Frode, Silje, Moses, Leevi, Veronica and Steven.

Freya Gabie, January 2018 – Artist invited onto the Dr Fridtjof Nansen Vessel, for the Namibian and South African Pelagic cruise November – December 2017


There Is Much That Darkness Knows

A series of famous Icelandic lullabies, translated into English and re-ordered alphabetically.



The Gardener - Freya Gabie

Berlin 2015

In 1983 the gardener found a small, unused plot of land running adjacent to the East side of the Berlin Wall.

150 foot of the city belonging to the West but separated by a clerical error to the wrong side of the line, no-mans land: a land of no-one.

Protected by this mistake, the gardener planted a fruit orchard on this ground, building a dwelling at the far end. A ferocious survivor, the plantation is still alive 31 years later.

I went to this garden on the first day of the year 2014 and met the son of the planter tending the fruit trees. He let me into the plot and I walked around the garden and through the rooms of the house., listening to his story in a language I couldn't understand.

The floor of the house was the unchanged pavement of 1983, the balcony running around the periphery a patchwork of old bed frames found along those pavements at that time.

It reminded me of being told once that the ubiquitous metal fences bordering many houses in the UK were made from recycled stretches left over from the 2nd World War.

It reminded me of being told that my grandmother, Sophie, was never in her life allowed a passport, no country would own her.

It reminded of a tree I once saw, whose branches were full of pairs of shoes, their laces tied together, tossed into the boughs and dangling like bunches of fruit. In winter when the tree was bereft of its leaves, it seemed adorned with the whole cities feet.

After leaving the garden I walked through the city with a friend, he was speaking of his Aunts funeral. The word for funeral in German is 'Beedigung', which means 'to put into the ground'. I thought at once of the gardener in that plot of land in 1983, planting seeds.




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