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Raw Materials: Textiles – exploring East London’s industrial heritage

The Nunnery Gallery at Bow Arts is shining a light on the industrial heritage of London’s East End.

Ask anyone what river dominates London and they will think of the Thames, but in the East, a small stream called Lea had a huge influence on trade and industry, shaping the life and work of East London’s communities. A heritage project called Raw Materials is investigating the industrial history of the river Lea through the materials of the past, and this year, the focus is on textiles: silk, cotton and jute.

For many East Londoners, the textile industry is very much part of their family history, and Bow Arts worked closely with local communities who were involved in researching personal objects, photographs and testimonies in local archives, museums and personal possessions, uncovering forgotten treasures and stories.
Two resident artists, Sarah Desmarais and Freya Gabie have created new artworks that investigate the history of the textile industry. Freya Gabie created a 100-metre-long coiled rope, which incorporates a single gold thread, representing jute which was also called the ‘golden fibre’, not just for its colour but the wealth it could bring the trader. An old photograph of two factory workers on their tea break was donated by Daisy Woodward, who is depicted in the photo with her friend and colleague Dolly. They are smiling, but work on the rope spinning machines for long hours was arduous and dangerous:  a sharp knife seen attached to Daisy’s waist was used to cut the rope quickly if it got tangled or something went wrong with the machine, before fingers and thumbs could be lost. Daisy worked for £3 a week.

Four ribbons of colour on the wall represent dyes for the textile printing industry. Indigo blue and madder, made from a root and ranging from pink to orange, are some of the oldest natural colours used in the world. TNT was used as a synthetic yellow dye, before its explosive properties were even discovered. The same ladies who were previously dying fabrics went on to stuff bombs in the First World War. Needless to say that handling TNT was dangerous, extremely toxic and corrosive on the worker’s bare hands. Highly toxic waste was then simply poured into the grounds around the industrial area that is now the Olympic Park. Gabie’s second artwork is inspired by this, a silk threat suspended over a dish of yellow dye, slowly absorbing the colour climbing up from the ground.
The fourth colour, mauveine, was the first ever, synthetic colour and was invented in East London by William Perkin. Perkin had been working on a cure for malaria in his lab when he accidentally created an intense purple dye, mauveine. Purple had hitherto been a colour reserved for the rich and royal, expensively extracted from snails. Perkins invention opened up the colour to the masses and mass industry.

Further on, original printing blocks of R. E. Littler are displayed, whose family printing factory on Abbey Road, West Ham, produced all the fabric for Liberty’s.

Local artist William Morris, who was born in Walthamstow and lived close to the Lea and Epping Forrest, was greatly influenced by the wildlife around him and based a series of textiles on the rivers of England. The piece of original fabric on show, in indigo blue, is his River Lea design. In pride of place is a priceless piece of Georgian print, on loan from the V&A, that was produced in the Robert Jones Factory, which was a large estate presumably located around Old Fort.

The second artist, Sarah Desmarais, created three dresses of silk organza, entirely made by hand with fabric produced, dyed and printed in the traditional historical methods.  You can also watch video footage of Sarah explaining her handiwork, and if you listen closely, the entire exhibition is underpinned by a soundscape of machinery sounds and yiddish tailoring songs. Eastern European immigrants fleeing pogroms brought skills with them that were useful to East London’s textile industry, working in sweatshops and factories. Some of these family run workshops (such as Mos Brothers or Lee Jeans) are still staples of the English high street.

One surprising story that can be discovered in the exhibition is Ghandi’s three-month stay in Kingsley Hall during a visit to England in 1931. A fierce opponent of any kind of exploitation, Ghandi would spin his own cotton for his clothes, and Bow Arts is exhibiting his spinning wheel, on loan from Kingsley Hall, along with images and audio testimonies from East End children, now in their 80s, of their meeting with the freedom and civil rights activist. 

Unlike the Thames, the River Lea’s location was outside the boundaries of law protection and by 1855 the river was declared too poisonous to use. Today, smart new developments are being built in the place of former slum housing and sweatshops. Raw Materials: Textiles inspires you to go for a walk along the Lea and discover little known tales of a fascinating part of local history. Last year, Raw Materials put a focus on wood and next year will investigate an altogether more controversial substance – plastic.
Raw Materials: Textiles is at the Nunnery gallery, Bow Arts, 181 Bow Road, E3 2SJ until 24 June and is free to visit.