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At the heart of English folk
Bobbin, Creel and Banjo Levers

Caitlin Hinshelwood discusses her current exhibition Kissing the Shuttle (part 1)

Interview by Julia Calver

In part one of our interview, Caitlin Hinshelwood explains the background to the exhibition, her research and the inspiration behind some of the individual pieces.

Could I start by asking about the exhibition title—where does this come from?

Kissing the Shuttle is a term that was used by weavers to describe a process of drawing thread through the eye of the shuttle using your mouth. It was seen as a possible contributing factor to the spread of tuberculosis and causing lung diseases—the use of mouth shuttles was eventually outlawed in the 1950’s. I liked the dichotomy of the term, at once sounding romantic, affectionate, but also indicating a potential cause of strife for the workers. I found this a reoccurring contrast in my research—women often described feeling great affection for their tools and machinery—seeing them as an extension of themselves—but at the same time the factories presented harsh working environments. Many women also described their time in factory work as some of the best years of their lives despite the hardships. I felt using the term as the title somehow encapsulated these contradictions.

Where did your interest in textiles factories start?

I’d already begun some initial research into banners at the People’s History Museum, Manchester so when I started working on the exhibition I knew I wanted to look into the The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s (VWML) collection of working and industrial song. I quickly realised the textiles and mining industries gave the greatest source of material and began by researching both as well as looking into industrial folklore and folk traditions. I suppose folk is often most associated with rural life and industrialisation is seen as at odds with folk traditions so I was interested to see how practices were absorbed or developed in spite of, or because of, industrial life. I am often drawn to things to do with work and making. My desire to focus on textile factories specifically is linked to the fact I make textiles and therefore to some sense of lineage and to honoring that in some way.

Which materials particularly attracted you in the VWML?

I have a long-standing interest in folk traditions and folk arts and I often reference this in my work already so it was really exciting for me to work with the archives. I knew that I could have found any number of avenues to pursue within the collections. I didn’t really know what I’d find and I began by researching quite widely—reading, listening to music, and watching videos. I loved looking through the photographic archives. I took a lot of inspiration from folk costume and seeing these decorative costumes against the industrial landscape of the towns where performances happened.

Your work Creeling the Bride, refers specifically to a folk custom that marks the day on which a women leaves the factory to marry. What attracted to you to working with this custom?

Laura Smyth (Library and Archives Director at EFDSS) was the first to introduce this custom to me whilst I was researching at the VWML. However, it subsequently came up in more of my reading and I was fascinated by how wide spread the custom was, with versions existing across the UK in many industries, ranging across the 20th century. During my research for the exhibition I realised I was drawn to displays of community, of friendship. I enjoyed the stories of the firm female camaraderie that developed during factory life—I felt this custom represented some of that. I was interested in how the custom was modified dependent on the industry, how it became connected to your trade. For example, in mills women might be pushed around in a cart full of bobbins or have bobbins sewn into their coat, whereas in other factories it might have been spark plugs. I wonder if the custom was a forerunner to modern day hen dos; it’s interesting seeing that development. I also appreciate this DIY approach to decoration making, to more spontaneous acts of creativity that were then passed on.

Creeling the Bride
Creeling the Bride

Bobbin, Creel and Banjo Levers and Mee Maw both refer to the special language of signs and gestures that emerged from the specific conditions of the factory. Can you tell us more about some of the gestures and signals that made their way into these works?

In Bobbin, Creel and Banjo Levers some of the motifs refer to nicknames that were developed for machine parts such as fingers, banjo levers, shark’s mouth, horse’s head, named so because they visually resembled these things. Interestingly, in a book I found on cotton manufacturing, which had diagrams of looms, there were names like swan’s neck, duckbill and greyhound tail in the list of machine parts, implying these names made their way into technical vocabulary. I appreciated these creative ways of referring to mechanical objects, somehow making their alien nature more familiar.

Both works reference how the placement of tools was used to communicate within the factories. Rove bobbins were placed either upright or sideways on machinery to indicate a next stage in the process, or that another worker needed to replace something. These signs were considered ‘tricks of the trade’ something that developed organically and were passed on from one worker to another. 

Mee Maw specifically refers to how lip reading and exaggerated movements were developed as a way to communicate in the noisy working environment. Gestures like a hand on the head or specific high-pitched whistles would let others know the foreman was coming. Fingers against the palm or certain arm movements were used to indicate time. But lip-reading was also used just to be able to continue talking to one another. I found all these ways of humanising the working experience, of finding ways to connect, really fascinating.

 Bobbin Creel and Banjo Levers
Bobbin, Creel and Banjo Levers

Find out more about the exhibition