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At the heart of English folk
Weave Truth with Trust

Caitlin Hinshelwood discusses her current exhibition Kissing the Shuttle (part 2)

Interview by Julia Calver

In part two of our interview, Caitlin Hinshelwood explains the influence of song in her exhibition, her creative process and the role of women in folk song and practices.

Song has an important place in your exhibition; through your research into textiles production you have highlighted singing as a process of resistance to factory regulations. Can you tell us more about the songs themselves?

I realised through my research critical or protest songs were rarely sung at work. The songs sung at work might have been more concerned with gossip and romance or may have been popular songs. Songs sung to keep time, for rhythmic continuity, to relieve boredom, keep spirits up. I was really fascinated with examples of song being used as part of the labour process – this is evident in the pre-industrialised textile process of waulking or lace making. But I appreciate this rhythmic nature of song and work, how the two can go hand-in-hand, much like the foot tapping of clogs at work becoming dance.

Some songs sung at work were specific to the textile trades, such as the ‘Doffers Song’ and these could be personalised and adapted to be about specific workers, to show loyalty or disdain. Betty Messenger describes this in fascinating detail in ‘Picking Up the Linen Threads’ with her descriptions of spinners and their rich song creation.

I was interested in the use of song to create and express a sense of community and the use of collective song as being somehow subversive in the workplace when singing is banned. The more critical, protest songs were sung outside of work and were important for voicing grievances, bringing people together and promoting identification. I found they communicated in similar ways to the trade union banners.

Making the pieces was a long process, each taking many hours to complete. Can you describe how you work from the initial design to preparing the finished piece?

Most of the screen artwork for these pieces is made from paper stencils that are arranged, stuck down and then exposed onto screen. When I have an idea for a piece I’ll drawn out the individual elements or motifs I want to be included and then hand cut them with either scissors or scalpel depending on intricacy. I then arrange the layouts quite organically, making additions, taking things away – this process is especially true of pieces like Mee Maw, Bobbin, Creel and Banjo Levers and Rhythms of the Factory Floor. However, Weave Truth with Trust’s layout and imagery was more fully conceived from the beginning and the artwork has many more hand drawn elements.

In getting the artwork onto the fabric, firstly the base fabric is hand-dyed. A lot of the colour research for this came from banners at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. I use a screen-printing process called colour discharge printing, which allows you to achieve pure colours on a coloured ground. Within the dye paste there is a chemical, which effectively bleaches the base colour and replaces it with the dye colour in the paste. I achieve many different colours by taping out sections of the screen artwork or using multiple screens. After printing, the fabrics are steamed to make the chemicals react and fix the colours. The washing out process further fixes the colours.

The embellishments are made from silk ribbon – I have used literally hundreds and hundreds of metres producing these pieces, all of it hand-dyed and on some pieces screen-printed too. All the ruffles, rosettes and additions have been hand-made and hand stitched onto the pieces. These elements were conceived in some way from the outset but develop naturally as I work through the pieces as often I can’t decide on colours or envisage the final placement until I have the finished print in front of me. Needless to say, there are days of work in each piece.

Caitlin Hinshelwood

You’ve said that you find it particularly important to highlight the work of women and the involvement of women in folk song and folk practices. Why is this? Can you tell us more about how you have emphasised this in your works?

Because women’s roles are often left out of history or aren’t made as visible as they should be in the narratives around work or folk. Despite women making up the majority of the textile industry workforce they were generally excluded from unions and underrepresented on banners, rarely being depicted as workers and most often appearing in the guise of muses. As I researched I read a lot of oral history, I’m interested in these ‘small’, untold histories – the lives of these women, their creative role in making banners, singing songs, creating community and folklore – it felt like a narrative that needed highlighting. I have dedicated some pieces specifically to this – as mentioned Creeling the Bride draws attention to the wedding customs in industry and women’s role in these practices. In others, such as Band Up Above or These Silken Wonders, I have used a traditional visual language of trade union banners but made female workers the central figures. Not all of the practices I explore are specific to women, and men took part too, but I wanted to readdress the balance, make women workers visible.

These Silken Wonders
These Silken Wonders (photos by Owen Richards)

Lastly, does your interest in women working in textiles reflect on your own practice? Can you see links between the women workers whose lives you became interested in, and your own situation as a textiles artist?

Yes, how can it not. Some of the links aren’t even so specific as to my situation as working in the field of textiles. I recognise a need to create community, to build bonds, to find ways to communicate, to find humanity in alien and harsh environments. These are basic human needs. And some of it feels pertinent because the experiences of women are still often silenced. But on a more specific note, there was lots in my research I could relate to – the descriptions of the affection women felt for their machinery, and seeing their tools as an extension of themselves. The physicality of the labour is something I enjoy in my own work, having a sense of mastery over your tools. And I always talk to the steamer when I use it – I suspect it won’t behave for me if I don’t ask it nicely.

 Find out more about the exhibition