A construction hoarding on a town centre street pasted with two images from Hutchison's project, showing his zombie sculpture outfit made of black clothes, on the left in front of huge backs presumably full of second hand textiles and on the right in central London.

British Textile Biennial 2023

Dead White Man (2023), Jeremy Hutchison. Photo by Matthew Savage, courtesy British Textile Biennial.

The most breathtaking exhibit in the 2023 British Textile Biennial isn’t a piece of art, but a tiny, ragged swatch of cotton. Unearthed from a box of forgotten legal documents, this frayed little rectangle was spun from the fleece of hardy mountain sheep by Penistone textile weavers back in 1783 and sent to a buyer for inspection. A note pinned to its underside cites the fabric’s ‘substance, strength and unchangeable colour’, omitting to mention how itchy it must have felt on the skin. Its next destination was Barbados, where it would be used to make garments for 140 people enslaved on a sugar plantation.

This is the only known surviving example of Penistone cloth, because the clothes it made were usually worn to the point of disintegration. Such fabric was never intended to last 200 plus years, and certainly not to be guarded under thick glass at the Blackburn Museum, protected from the fingerprints of visitors. It’s the simple fact of its existence, the coarse needlework and the throwaway note, that stops you in your tracks – bringing home how the livelihood of local workers was inextricably tied to the suffering of untold numbers of people they would never meet.

Glimpses of history are everywhere in this Biennial. Programmed across eighteen venues in East Lancashire, it takes you along a discovery trail winding through remote hamlets and the kind of wafer-thin roads that draw sceptical glances from drivers. It encompasses cathedral crypts, faded ballrooms, reservoirs and working mills, and it spans more than twenty-five miles; the physical distance between exhibitions granting you space to really contemplate them. It’s not a biennial you can race through.

Take Christine Borland’s ‘Projection Cloth’ (2023), a film installation housed in the chilly reconstructed mediaeval Cruck Barn in Pendle. Her films document the process of making textiles from scratch, using the finished piece as the screen the films are projected onto. Setting up a traditional loom in the barn, she crafted fustian cloth – a thick, heavily-welted blend of cotton and linen traditionally produced in Lancashire – to embody the labour of the women who once lived here. Not only was she channelling the resourcefulness of centuries gone by, but by making and exhibiting the work in Pendle, where ten people (nine of whom were women) were hanged for witchcraft in 1612, she tacitly introduces themes of persecution into the work, questioning why female knowledge, labour and autonomy have throughout history been depicted as wild forces in need of restraint.

In an old stone barn with wooden rafters and beams is a wooden frame with threads hung vertically, onto which is projected a pattern of white lines and dots.
‘Projection Cloth’ (2023), Christine Borland. Image courtesy of British Textile Biennial.

While abstract, her films drive home the sheer mental and physical strength required to produce textiles. We see her pixelated form harvesting, spinning and weaving raw fibres into one integrated whole, honouring centuries of craftsmanship through a modern lens. A voiceover utters short, lyrical asides about the techniques being explored – the artist spinning a yarn in every sense. Watching Borland carry out this backbreaking labour adds an unexpectedly mystical air to the process: you experience a sense of awe at the mystery and magic of the skills required, even as they’re mapped out in front of you. But ‘magic’ isn’t the point here. Folklore has often cast women possessing such powers as sinister hags bent double with age, their gnarled hands gathering herbs or spinning at looms while they mutter incantations. Borland’s films reframe these skills in a more pragmatic light, showing just how important the contribution of female labour has always been. As the Industrial Revolution took shape, these same skills would be harnessed to generate wealth for the region, as women shifted from their villages into crowded factory floors.

Themes of displacement, reform and upheaval are examined in Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright’s beautiful and elegiac film installation, ‘Larksong’ (2023), which you’ll find in the astonishing setting of Goodshaw Chapel, a tiny non-Conformist church tucked among the secluded hills of Rossendale. Working with English Heritage alongside local musicians and poets, their approach had less to do with faithfully reconstructing the past than collaging it: using salvaged artefacts and anecdotes to better imagine the people who lived and worked here. Apparently, this magpie approach goes back a long way – it’s said the first parishioners (many of them textile workers) built this chapel themselves in 1760, carrying materials and pews they’d sourced from other churches. Emily Oldfield’s accompanying narrative poem is voiced from the perspective of one such pew. Her words soundtrack the film’s rich symbolic detail, as the camera’s gaze comes to rest on raw wool tufts, cobwebs, cherry blossoms against cold grey skies. A musical score brings melodies from eighteenth century choir books together with audio samples of spindles and hand looms, recreating the kind of sonic environment these workers might once have known.

Shuffling through box pews where the community once gathered is a moving experience, driving home how close-knit parishioners must have been in this tiny space. At the pulpit the artists have arranged mossy engravings imprinted from headstones, the people they commemorate now long forgotten. Upstairs is a series of botanical illustrations printed onto calico with woad, the same rich shade of indigo used to clothe enslaved people on plantations – a subtle reminder of the ways in which local practices become entangled with global systems. The chapel is rife with contradictions. It’s testament to local populations taking steps to assert themselves and seek renewal, cultivating the landscape to better serve their community. But as populations scattered across the region, following paid work, they were still subject to the shifting fortunes of the landscape, which would ultimately dictate their survival.

A low-lit chapel room with wooden pews and two pillars supporting the ceiling covered in large shadows resembling plant leaves.
‘Larksong’ (2023), Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright, photo by the artists courtesy of British Textile Biennial.

One point made painfully clear by this Biennial is that hundreds of years later, Lancashire’s communities remain in thrall to external market forces. Travelling between Rossendale and Nelson, where Eva Sajovic and Nicola Privato’s ‘#end_of_empire’ (2023) is based, you pass the Boohoo warehouse in Burnley, an enormous, impenetrable-looking grey cube on the horizon and the world’s second largest clothing distribution centre after Shein. With the business providing mass local employment, its parallels with the cotton industry are hard to ignore, particularly with the building’s intimidating exterior making its presence so felt. When obelisks like this dominate the landscape, how does any local community preserve its sense of self?

There are no easy answers, but at the Nelson Technology Centre, ‘#end_of_empire’ projects a quiet optimism about a collectivised future by making us look differently at the visible apparatuses of power. Like Borland, Sajovic updates traditional craftsmanship with digital techniques: she hacked a 1970s knitting machine to produce pixelated-style stitching, and her Doric columns invite the visitor’s touch and respond to motion in unpredictable and unpremeditated ways. Fitted with sound-emitting AI Sensors by Nicola Privato, they contain distorted voice recordings from people in the community, activated when you wander through the space. In creating these pillars from such flimsy fabric, Sajovic subverts the idea that power structures are indestructible, suggesting that even the most tyrannical structures can be unpicked and stitched into new patterns. A more sustainable future could be possible.

And yet, when you’re not faced directly with the spoils of the fashion industry, it can be all too easy to turn a blind eye to the disaster unfolding in someone else’s backyard. This sense of Western complacency is spot lit in Jeremy Hutchison’s multimedia piece ‘Dead White Man’ (2023), a satire about Senegal’s enormous second-hand clothing industry which grew from countries like the UK trying to outsource their waste. The work consists of five ‘zombie’ sculptures, all gloomy and imposing against the peeling walls and battered floorboards of Tony’s Empress Ballroom, Blackburn. They’re loosely grouped by garment and colour; one consists entirely of neckties, another of striped shirts, another is a terrifying apparition in beige. In the attempt to return these unwanted goods, Hutchison takes his zombies back along the supply chain towards the epicentre of London’s wealth, and it’s this journey which unfolds in the accompanying film. 

We first watch as Hutchison, in full zombie apparel, rises out of unsifted mountains of fabric to roam the streets of Dakar. Though Hutchison says he assembled the sculptures fairly haphazardly, stitching garments over wire frames until they were just about wearable, they somehow look ancient and ritualistic. The story they tell is, after all, an old one, with colonialism’s contemporary legacies persisting along the same shipping routes that enabled the transatlantic slave trade in the first place. Finally, the zombies turn up in central London where they attract the perturbed and irritated stares of city workers, their pristine office wear contrasting sharply with the zombies’ chaotic attire. Though Hutchison has staged the work as a comedy, an absurd interruption of people’s daily working lives dyed every colour of the rainbow, its implications are devastating. We can try to bury our excess, but it will come back to haunt us.

A huge black column made of black fabrics tied and knotted together which spills out over the floor at its base, in front of bright windows below a vaulted ceiling.
‘Ofong Ufok’ (2019-22), Victoria Udondian. Photo by Matthew Savage, courtesy of British Textile Biennial.

The catastrophic impact of fast fashion is also addressed in Victoria Udondian’s sculpture ‘Ofong Ufok’ (2019-22), its sheer size demanding a double take from the viewer. An enormous wall-hanging constructed from second-hand clothing, the work is part of a long-term collaboration between Udondian and immigrant organisations in Buffalo, NY, and took inspiration from the unsustainability of Nigeria’s second-hand clothing trade. As in Dakar, much of the imported clothing arrives so tattered and threadbare it cannot be sold and is instead, tossed straight into landfill where it is left to contaminate the atmosphere. Likewise, Udondian’s sculpture spills out across every surface, refusing to be contained. For all their contrasting textures, the clothes stitched together are dyed a uniform black, creating the effect of a long shadow being cast across the space. It lays bare the naïvety many of us in the UK may be guilty of when ‘recycling’ old clothes, blithely ignorant of the garments’ journeys and the environmental hazards they will pose to strangers across the globe.

As well as highlighting the scale of waste being generated, Udondian’s practice scrutinises the impact on the workers hired to make these clothes. How much value is accorded to the producers of the garments, only for them to be unceremoniously discarded? In commissioning people to help craft ‘Ofong Ufok’, Udondian thought deeply about systems of compensation and fair exchange, and how to ensure that contributions were rewarded appropriately. She calculates that this sculpture was the result of around 3000 labour hours, belying the supposed convenience of ‘fast fashion’. Visually, the work raises questions about the dehumanising effect of mass-manufacture, echoed by its spectacle of empty garments whose owners’ stories go untold. There’s also a certain irony in placing this work in the Blackburn Cotton Exchange building, whose architectural grandeur is a nod to the overarching confidence which fuelled colonial capitalism. Despite a climate of declining industry and the instability caused by the American Civil War, construction of this building went ahead in 1863, as if to assure the townspeople their jobs were safe. In fact, the building operated as a cotton exchange for less than two decades before being repurposed as a theatre. Now, this failed centre of commerce has been turned into a viewing deck for the colossal failures of industrialisation.

What comes across most from this biennial is a feeling of interconnectedness. We are all constantly retreading one other’s steps, and each of our actions has a measurable impact. This is captured in the works discussed above, but also by Rebecca Chesney’s flag-like windsocks in ‘Conditions at Present’ (2023), which echo the pomp of global summits; the arresting sight of Thierry Oussou’s ‘Equilibrium Wind’ (2022) with its mounds of raw plantation cotton; and the Indian contemporary artists whose works are so shrewdly curated in dialogue with the permanent collection at the Whitaker.

Before I knew anything about the British Textile Biennial, I lazily pictured something more surface-level – a celebration of ornate fabrics, tapestries, maybe some embroidery. I didn’t expect that so many of the textiles I saw would be stained, mangled, distressed or torn beyond recognition, or that even the recycled garments would have racked up enough transit miles to shame a CEO. I didn’t expect to learn about witch trials, or reports of Bengali weavers having their thumbs broken by the British, or to see with my own eyes a blueprint for systematic oppression reduced to one tiny piece of cloth. There is no hiding from the fact that the colonialism that powered Lancashire in the eighteenth century continues to make itself felt, and that as consumers of material goods, we all play our part in this. The portrait painted is at times bleak, but by arming people with knowledge, maybe there’s still time for a reality check. We can learn the lessons staring us in the face and ask ourselves exactly what kind of souvenirs we want to leave behind.

British Textile Biennial, various venues, 29 September – 29 October 2023.

Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.

This review is supported by BTB23.

Published 08.10.2023 by Jazmine Linklater

2,160 words