Passionate about wool: Exploring the history of Bradford through textiles that are ALIVE WITH CHANGE

The next Artspace exhibition is called ‘Alive with Change’ and has been created by artist collective Common Threads who met whilst studying textiles in Bradford and came to know its buildings, culture and history. The consecration of the Cathedral a century ago cemented its place at the heart of Bradford’s society. The exhibition looks at this textile city through its own medium, reflecting growth and change, wealth and poverty, exclusion and diversity.

Nicola Rudd is a member of Common Threads and we spoke to her ahead of the exhibition about what to expect when their work is revealed at the end of October.

Could you give an introduction to yourself as an artist?

I am a hand-weaver, amongst other things. Originally I worked just in British wools but I’m moving towards other subjects. I particularly enjoy producing double weave, where you weave two layers of fabric together at the same time. You get some really interesting effects if you use a mixture of different yarns, such as a wool that shrinks with one like bamboo or tencel that doesn’t. They can give some very interesting textures. If you use the same yarns then you can get some really isolated blocks of colour. It’s a really interesting, but time-consuming, technique! I just really enjoy it, and it all stems from when I discovered double weave when studying Contemporary Constructive Textiles in Bradford.

You all met at the Bradford School of Art?

We were studying part-time and met at the beginning of 2015.

What brought you together as Common Threads?

We all really enjoyed the collaborative nature of the course. There would be an aspect of each project called a ‘group crit’ where we had to explain the philosophy behind it and our design choices, and then the group would critique it with an aim of providing constructive criticism. We all started off absolutely petrified about the process as it felt quite personal to be talking about how you came about it and made the decisions that you did, but it proved to be something really helpful as people would challenge you to think about things in a different way.

Everyone has their own style. Even though four of the five of us are weavers, we all have our own different styles, so the other members of the group would come up with suggestions that would really challenge your thinking and your practice, and as we were getting towards the end of the course we realised that we didn’t want to lose that aspect, so a group of us decided that we would like to stay in touch but with a more formal structure than just meeting up socially, so that we would have an aim to exhibit somewhere once a year and come up with projects that would have a common thread that would link through them.

Our first exhibition was last year, a year after we finished the course, where we had a small exhibition in the Bradford College Summer Show. Our thread there was from one of our fellow course members who had given us some of the yarn from her own sheep, and we produced something using this Icelandic yarn. Now, every time we come together, it’s to work on something that has a common link that runs through it. Our work may be very individual but there is something that links the whole theme of the project or collection together.

And working with Icelandic yarn; does that have different qualities in the final piece than, say, working with a more traditional British wool?

Yes. These sheep graze out on the High Peak in Derbyshire and they’re quite suited to the rugged landscape out there. They have quite a coarse, scratchy wool, so it’s not particularly something you’d want to wear close to your skin. A number of us, when we were working with that, were looking at how we could use that for interiors, or outer wear, or even art pieces. It’s a very robust, sheep-y yarn, so when you’re used to working with fine Merino or Bluefaced Leicester, which have a nice lustre to them and a fine weave, it can be quite different and have its own challenges!

Wool depends on so many things, like how it’s prepared, or how finely it’s spun, but it does differ a lot with the breed, like how long each individual hair is, or whether it’s got kemp, or guard hairs. It’s really vast, and it’s one of the reason why I love working with wool as it’s so distinctive and individual for each breed. I also like knowing, where I can, which breeds have been put in to the yarn. Sometimes I don’t know that: a lot of British yarn spun for weaving is just listed as lamb’s wool, or is some kind of blend. You might be able to have a good stab at what’s in there – it’s going to be the finer wools, like the Leicester – but it’s nice to get hold of something that’s breed specific.

Though, having said that, we like to work with other fibres as well, and that’s what’s really interesting about the research that we’ve been doing for this exhibition, where we’ve discovered that Bradford wasn’t just about wool. We all associate the city with wool production but actually at the height of the industrial revolution they were spinning and weaving a whole range of fibres, not just wool, which really kind of opened it up.

You are exhibiting ‘Alive with Change’ at the cathedral. What’s the concept behind that?

It came from a quote in a book called ‘Bradford Through Time’ by Mark Davis, a book of old photographs. The quote is in there, alongside a photo of the cathedral, and it ends with ‘Today the cathedral represents a space of calming retreat in a city alive with change’.

This quote really captured our imagination. None of us come from Bradford. We live all over the country but we are all very fond of it and grew to love it as a city, due to our shared experiences. I view it, still, as a vibrant city, even though people outside of the area think it’s quite run down or depressed, but that’s not Bradford at all. It started off with the idea that the exhibition had to be something about wool as that’s what Bradford is about, and as we did more research we found out that alpaca fibre was being spun, even vicuña, which is the most expensive fibre in the world. It’s sad to say we weren’t able to afford any vicuña, as it sells for a ridiculous amount per 100g! It’s similar to an alpaca but has a very fine fleece.

We found that there were all these different elements that fed into Bradford’s textile legacy and heritage, and we discussed what we’d use as our starting point. Personally, I tend to be rather literal and looked at the fabric of the building itself. All my pieces of work in the exhibition have been inspired by the stained glass windows, or the fabulous Saxon cross. That’s been a motif that I’ve used in a number of different pieces, some of which will be on display.

Others have been thinking about the fabric of the cathedral but also Bradford Cathedral in worship and tradition, and how Bradford has changed over time: how the building will have been a central point for worship when it was just a parish church, but how over time, because of the way the city’s population has changed, the traditions have changed. One of our members actually went on the faith trail, which was absolutely fascinating. What she found was how many commonalities there were with these traditions, and how many motifs you could see threaded through. She’s produced a piece that weaves these ideas of how the people are part of the tradition and how everyone is human, and how that has a part to play within a city’s vibrancy. It’s absolutely fascinating.

Our work is vast. Although we work together as a group we are individuals who bring different techniques and starting points to the exhibition. It has been fascinating seeing how it all works as a collection together.

The pieces within ‘Alive with Change’ – are they all individual or did you collaborate on any?

They’re all individually produced. There are no pieces where more than one artist has worked on it. What we have found is that we have lots of commonalities across our approaches. Both Lin and myself have used techniques that, when we have finished the product – washed and got it the way we want it – sees the fabric change. What we’re putting up there with the bigger pieces are some samples, so that anyone who visits the exhibition can have a feel of the fabric but also look at how they change: so what they look like off the loom, and then what they look like when we’ve finished them, as they are alive with change themselves.

So it’s an exhibition you can get up close and personal with?

Absolutely! We’ve got a mixture of woven and machine-knitted products but also art pieces. Each artist has produced two main pieces and they will have feely pieces by them. It can be very difficult to go to a textile exhibition and not touch! We thought ‘we’re not going to do that’ so we’ve given people pieces to touch to see what they feel like.

You work independently; does that mean you only see the final finished pieces rather than them as works in progress?

We came together about a year ago with the first samples and pieces we were doing for this, then we have come back together four times in the last year. We keep bringing pieces back to see if they fit, as we were looking for an overall colour palette, so we’d bring them back together. We shared photographs a lot across our WhatsApp group and our bulletin board, but we were also coming together every two months or so to actually look and see how they fit in, do pieces work, do they not work. Some of us have re-made pieces and woven or knitted a second piece because the initial idea was great but the colour or the composition didn’t quite work.

Why do you think it’s so important to celebrate Bradford’s history of textiles?

People don’t realise in these days of fast-fashion how things are made and what goes into them. The heritage of a city like Bradford is built on that, just like Manchester is built on cotton. That production is the basis of the growth of a city, but if you take wool in particular and look further back it was the basis of the growth for the entire country. If you go to the Houses of Parliament you can see the Woolsack, which is the seat of the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords and is the symbol of the wool trade and its importance to the economy of the country in the Middle Ages . I am, and others in the group, are nutty about wool in particular so we’ll all bang on about it at any point, given the chance! People don’t understand where textiles and industrial heritage come from. They don’t really understand how cities develop and how they change over time. In terms of now, with the fast-fashion we have, they don’t appreciate the impact that it has, not in our country anymore, but where people are working in poor conditions for very low pay. They don’t understand the heritage and where our clothes come from.

Do you think it’s similar with the food industry, that there’s a disconnect between the food we have on our plates but where it actually originates?

Yes, I think it is. That’s an interesting parallel to draw. There is a push now in some areas for so-called slow fashion, very much in the way that 10-20 years ago there was a call for a slow-food movement in countries like Italy: stopping and slowing down whilst eating, and thinking about the food’s provenance and how it has moved through the system, plus its impact on communities both local and international.

There’s also been a much stronger focus recently on the environmental impact on fast-fashion; could this exhibition inform people and change their behaviour when it comes to clothing?

The fashion pieces we’re producing for this exhibition will be accessories, but some of us have worked on larger items of clothing in the past. But it’s also the idea that there is an element of waste when we produce yardage that is cut into garment pieces, or even when I weave a sample, to see how the threads and pattern work, does it have the drape I want it to, I end up with a piece of fabric that looks like waste. But what I’ll quite often do is use some of those samples to produce art pieces and there will be some in the exhibition too. I don’t want to throw them out but they’re not big enough to make something out of, but I can use them within canvases.

There will also be a chance to meet your collective at Bradford Cathedral. What can people expect from that?

We will be there, and we will be bringing our sketch books along so people can have a look and ask us questions about the design and making process, for example how we’ve taken themes from the stained glass windows, or developed pieces from our reflections on Bradford and its wider community.

Finally, as a group, it’s the common threads of your art that brought you together, but do you have any other threads that you’ve discovered from working together?

.320We found that a number of things that we all have in common, including the fact that we don’t actually take ourselves too seriously! We might be serious about our work, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

‘Alive with Change’ will be exhibited from Wednesday 23rd October through to Wednesday 27th November 2019.

There will be a chance to meet the artists on that first Wednesday at 7pm, with refreshments available from 6:30pm. You can reserve your free place by visiting common-threads.eventbrite.co.uk.

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