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This October sees the return of the British Textile Biennial festival, throwing a spotlight on the nation’s creativity against the backdrop of the impressive cotton industry in Lancashire. With its epic mills and extravagant civic architecture along the country’s longest waterway, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the landscape tells the story of textiles.

Housed at Gawthorpe Hall, Burnley’s Gawthorpe Textiles Collection is excited to be involved in inspiring new work for the festival. Throughout the festival, the Hall will be a host to two exhibitions as well as inspiring work that will be shown at other venues in Lancashire.

The collection was launched as a charity in 1959 by Gawthorpe Hall’s last family resident, The Honourable Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth MBE. Rachel collected examples of textiles from around the world to preserve and teach the skilled crafts that she feared were dying out. Born in 1886, Rachel learnt how to sew, draw, and paint from a young age, when at her family’s South Kensington residence in London. Her passion for textiles and design was fuelled by regular visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Rachel dedicated many years of her life to creating a ‘craft house’, where people could take joy in learning new skills and feel pride in creating. She filled the Hall with her collection, opening up it up to the public for tours and study visits. Standing at over 30,000 items, the Collection continues to be used for educational purposes by the charity today, inspiring the next generation of designers, makers and artists. Each item in the Collection has its own story to tell, of tradition and skill, creativity and innovation.

The festival turns its attention to the global nature of textiles with a major new commission by Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid. With an enduring interest in the history of textiles of Africa and Europe, Lubaina will present a major new work exploring the histories of industrialisation, female labour, migration and globalisation in the Great Barn at Gawthorpe Hall. The installation will be made from many metres of fabric which will be interwoven through the structure of the barn and will tell the tale of the closely linked trading relationship between Britain, Europe and parts of West and East Africa. The barn itself will act as a kind of modern Tenter Frame lifting and stretching, holding and dropping the fabric as it mimics the oceans, rivers, brooks and streams woven through these colonial stories.

Lubaina is joined by ‘999 Call for the NHS: The Threads of Survival exhibition’. This exhibition will capture people’s experiences and reflections throughout the pandemic. The 18 quilts will represent groups and individuals of all ages and abilities from across the country weaving the personal experiences throughout ‘COVID’ and the role of the NHS. Over 100 people have been involved in the making of the exhibition, with quilts coming from Somerset, Yorkshire, County Durham, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Shropshire and London.

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In the beautiful Arts & Crafts interior of a former mill owner’s house, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington, exhibition with pieces chosen from the Gawthorpe Textile Collection is presented. The always impeccably dressed Amber Butchart (who many recognise from the 2018 BBC show ‘A Stitch in Time’) explores the threads of imperialism and tells the story of movement, migration and making through cloth. The fashion historian and writers exhibit is represented through four fabrics -wool, linen, cotton and silk alongside a series of podcasts.

Homegrown/Homespun is a collaboration with designer Patrick Grant, Super Slow Way and North West England Fibreshed, inspired by Gandhi’s homespun clothes. The project started in Spring 2021 in a field of flax and woad was planted on a piece of unused ground on the banks of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Blackburn, to be harvested in the autumn. Then finally, spun, dyed and woven in to create the first pair of commercial homegrown and homespun jeans.

Northern actor, Maxine Peake collaborates with Lancaster-based textile artist James Fox on a new film exploring the tragic continuum of women’s experience of the criminal justice system over two centuries. The piece will be presented at Helmshore Mill alongside a new installation by Fox that draws upon the history of protest and punishment via the Lancashire Loombreaker riots of 1826. The tension between the industrialisation of cotton manufacturing and traditional cottage industry is the starting point for James Fox’s new work that explores the history of protest and punishment.

Artist Brigid McLeer’s Collateral project is a tribute to the hundreds of textile workers whose lives have been lost working in factories around the world supplying the fast fashion industry. Brigid has designed a large textile piece inspired by a Battle of Britain Nottingham lace panel housed at Gawthorpe which was made to commemorate RAF airman lost during World War 2. The project has contributions from embroiderers both local and national, Brigid’s panel will be shown at Queen Street Mill Textile Museum, Burnley.

Emerging artist Azraa Motala is creating a new series of painted portraits in a co-commission with museum and gallery, The Harris in Preston where, as a young, aspiring artist she did not see herself represented on its walls. ‘Unapologetic’ represents art for an overlooked community of young British South Asian women from Lancashire. Her work through large scale oil paintings seeks to untangle culturally inherited expectations and the aspects of her own identity as a young British-Asian Muslim woman. The painted portraits will be displayed in the Harris collection and reproduced on banners, hung on civic buildings in Preston, Blackburn, Pendle, Accrington and Burnley.

In the year marking the 90th anniversary of Gandhi’s historic visit to Darwen, ‘Rethinking Khadi’ is an ambitious new installation by Bharti Parmar. The work stems from Bharti’s life-long interest in textile history and her personal story as the daughter of an Indian immigrant textile mill worker in Yorkshire. The work consists of archival images of the Gandhi’s visit, artefacts from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery and delicate drawings and sculptures made from Khadi paper. Khadi is homespun cloth promoted by Gandhi as a protest about English rule in India which also refers to a thick cotton watercolour paper made by hand. Bharti sourced Khadi paper from India made from recycled cotton t-shirts to show matters of global connections, fast fashion, labour and colonialism.

Get yourself over to the biennial festival to commemorate stories of the community up north that has textiles sewn in its DNA…

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