Cloth & Memory {2} at Saltaire

I realise that it’s not much use blogging about an exhibition just before it closes. But to be fair, I did flag this exhibition up before, after attending a talk at the Japan Foundation – I just haven’t had the time since then to return to Yorkshire to see the exhibition – until this weekend.

Salts Mill is an extraordinary building in an extraordinary village, built by Sir Titus Salt to provide his mill workers with fresh air and more space next to the River Aire, away from the overcrowded pollution of Bradford. The mill opened in 1853; the houses, school, adult education centre and church were added later. Sir Titus is buried in the church, where a goat and an alpaca nuzzle at the foot of his bust (Salt is famous for being the first to weave with alpaca wool).

Titus Salt and woolly friends
Titus Salt and woolly friends

The Cloth & Memory {2} exhibition is on the top floor of Salts Mill, where the raw alpaca fleece was spun into yarn before being woven into cloth on the floors below. The unrestored room is 168 metres long – it was described as the largest room in the world when it was built. So it was a challenging space to work in for textile artists.

general gallery

Curator Lesley Millar says that when the artists visited the space, most of them hung around the walls – they didn’t even venture into the centre of the room. (Though it has to be said that the peeling paint on the walls provides some beautiful colours and textures – and one of the artists, Jeanette Appleton, mounted items on the wall that she found when installing her work in the cavities originally used by workers to store bobbins.)

wall texture wall texture2 wall texture3

And as the space is not usually used for exhibitions, it’s dusty and grimy – so the artists had to accept that their work would get dirty (some found this easier to swallow than others, apparently).

So it’s interesting to see how the artists reacted to the space and history in different ways. There are 23 artists in the show, but here I just include my highlights.

Caroline Bartlett installed several embroidery hoops in a bay, representing the domestic life of the women who worked at the mill. She partially dyed the woollen cloth in the hoops, echoing the surrounding dirt and seepage, and in the centre of each hoop she placed a porcelain roundel imprinted with fabric from her collection that meant something to her. The embroidery around the roundel continued the pattern, while the hoops were inscribed with the types of cloth produced in the mill.

caroline bartlett

Peta Jacobs used an amazing devoré technique that dissolved the warp and left the weft of the fabric intact to produce an incredibly complex image of a group of wool merchants from 1953/54. It’s one of those pieces where the back is as interesting as the front…

peta jacobs peta jacobs2

Diana Harrison is best known as a quilt maker, but for this exhibition she produced a perfectly flat piece made of handkerchiefs that she had dyed black to remove individuality, then discharged and printed on to restore character. Her inspiration came from the paving stones, and she insisted that her work was just laid on the floor without a barrier, so that it became part of the space. (Occasionally this worked too well – we spotted at least one footprint where someone had walked over it!)

diana harrison

There were several Japanese artists in the exhibition. Yoriko Murayama is an ikat weaver. For the exhibition she printed images of the landscape around Salts Mill onto washi paper, cut them into strips and wove them into 2-metre-high spiral cones. Apparently when they were first hung they were perfectly conical; over the past couple of months, due to the dampness and humidity of the mill, the forms have relaxed and become looser.

yoriko murayama

Koji  Takaki‘s grid of white cotton originally hung outside the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester as part of another exhibition in 2001.  To this he has added a series of polypropylene cubes, which look as if they have escaped from the grid and are floating away.


When silk from a cocoon is reeled onto a spindle, the first section becomes compressed and gummed together, so it can’t be used for spinning. These “carrier rods” are often used by felters and other textile artists for texture and sculptural effects. Emerging artist Katsura Takasuka painstakingly peeled apart the layers of silk and pressed them together in blocks to represent the wasted lives of silkworms. A cocoon weighs 0.5g and each cube weighs 1kg, representing 2,000 cocoons.

katsura takasuka

Masae Bamba‘s work held a strong attraction for me, because she uses indigo and shibori. Influenced by the tsunami, she created a “sea” using strips of cloth dyed with indigo, some of which were stencilled with her daughter’s first attempts at writing Japanese characters (she also wrote characters on the floor in what looked like rice paste).

masae bamba

Yoriko Yoneyama‘s piece was one of those I had to admire because of the effort it took to create but in the end I wasn’t sure what to make of it. She (and several helpers) attched several thousand individual grains of cooked rice onto silk thread, to make the point that both rice and fibre were once highly valued but are now regarded as mere commodities. In sunlight the effect is apparently one of glinting raindrops – another reminder of the importance of water in the milling process, but on the day we visited it was overcast and dull.


Finally, Kari Steihaug from Norway bought a load of sweaters from flea markets, unravelled them and knitted another sweater from the wool. She then partially unravelled this new sweater – the kinks in the yarn symbolise the memories of previous garments.

kari steihaug

Cloth & Memory {2} runs at Salts Mill, Saltaire, until 3 November.

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Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

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