When reading about the history of Bradford's wool industry - 100 boom years followed by a long decline - one might be tempted to think that the industry has all but disappeared. However over the course of my project I gained the impression that not only does some of the industry survive but that the worst slump may be over.
The British Wool Marketing Board is located in Bradford. According to them, 60% of British wool is exported (either scoured our combed). This means that 40% is used in Britain, and the Marketing Board operates a licensing system for companies wishing to carry the trademark "British Wool".
Detail of a bale of wool delivered for scouring.
So where, I wondered, is that wool scoured and combed? Turns out that there is a large wool scouring & combing plant right in Bradford City called Haworth Scouring, and it processes not just British wool, but also Norwegian, New Zealand wool and others. This was not what I had expected in an age where manufacturing tends to be to be outsourced to low-wage countries - particularly hard, dirty work (and wool is definitely dirty and greasy when it comes off the sheep!) So I decided to visit the Company.
David Gisbourne, the Director, couldn't have been a nicer host and guide, showing me round the site not just once but twice. I had been quite apprehensive about visiting - I didn't want to be that ignorant person wasting his time and disrupting operations - but apparently Haworth Scouring welcomes a lot of visitors.
I discussed the question of global competition with him. Factors that ensure that Haworth Scouring remains competitive include: (a) EU and UK environmental and health and safety regulation means the Company has to be state of the art. They actually have an environmental testing laboratory and consultancy on site. (b) Focus on recycling of "waste" products that can be sold on at a profit, notably cholesterol and vitamin D. (c) To clients in the UK and Europe, the company can deliver faster than competitors overseas.
Visiting a modern plant is obviously not quite the same as seeing one of England's historic mills with their wonderful Victorian machinery - the modern, automated processes don't quite have the same steampunk appeal! Still, Haworth Scouring left quite an impression on me. For one, in the scouring plant and packing hall there were bits of wool hanging everywhere, clinging to the metal pipes and machines and giving the whole scene quite a gothic appeal.
Then there was the smell of greasy wool. It didn't really bother me that much when I was in the company, but then it stayed with me the whole day, which took some getting used to.
I had told David that I was visiting to get inspiration for artworks. I'd come with the idea of doing portraits of some members of the workforce - who very much reflect Bradford's ethnic diversity. But that was clearly not feasible in a half- day visit. Also, unlike a Victorian shop floor that would have been teeming with "hands" (i.e. workers ) Haworth Scouring was very much dominated by machinery and equipment. The company employs some 90 staff, but because they are spread over three shifts and through warehouses, scouring and combing lines and office, it doesn't feel that many when you walk through.
I got interested in exploring that relationship between worker and machine/space in paintings inspired by the images most stuck in my mind:
1) A worker doing maintenance at one of the scouring lines. The line looks pretty flat and innocuous during normal operation, but then a worker turned it off and opened up one part to reveal what looked like a gaping mouth with multiple rows of teeth, regurgitating wool. It reminded me of an old machine for breaking up raw bales of cotton I'd seen at the historic Masson Mill in Derbyshire which had similar teeth. It was nicknamed the Devil - apparently it had a bit of a habit of swallowing unfortunate workers who came too close. And at least in one case the relatives were billed by the mill for the cost of cleaning the remains of their poor kid off the machine! Nowadays health & safety regulations should prevent such accidents, but still ... the scary looks of this machine remind us that these regulations are there for a reason.
Above and below: preparatory sketches in charcoal and watercolour showing impressions in the processing plants.
2) The beautiful coils of wool in the combing plant. It was mesmerising to see how the soft, white bands of combed wool formed geometric patterns when collected in big barrels. They were quite a dreamy thing, these strands of wool - reminding me both of candy floss and of threads of life.
3) The high-ceilinged wool packing hall, which looked liked a big gothic church where the traditional columns, pillars and arches had been replaced with pipes. The horizontal pipes had bits of wool hanging off them like Spanish moss. In the midst of it all one worker was packing wool - a tiny figure in an industrial cathedral.
The next question was what media to use. The concept for the exhibition is that each work will incorporate some fabric that relates to the story being told. So I investigated if I could find fabric - preferably made in Yorkshire - that used wool scoured and combed at Haworth Scouring. I found Camira, a large producer of fabrics for commercial upholstery in transport, offices, education etc, with production facilities in Huddersfield and, conveniently for me, a showroom in London. I took loads of samples of their wool-rich fabrics and started experimenting.
Testing out different fabrics in the studio
I would have loved to paint on one of their jazzy transport fabrics - the ones where the pattern instantly screams "bus" or "train" - but they are pile fabrics and I couldn't see me painting on them without experimenting for a much longer time than I had available. So I went for two "canvas-style" woven fabrics for office upholstery - a wool/flax mix and a wool/silk mix, kindly donated by Camira. Painting on them was still tricky - I didn't want to prime them much as one would normally a canvas because that would have meant losing some of the fabrics' lovely colours and characteristics. But without primer, painting on sturdy woollen fabric is ....interesting - a bit like watercolour on sandpaper!
I also wanted the fabrics to remain partly visible as an integral part of the paintings. The results came out looking a bit like pastel or watercolour, which I liked.
Details of finished works. Above: The Devil, oil on wool/flax upholstery fabric. Below: Hall of Pipes, oil on wool/silk upholstery fabric