“Textile is an ambiguous concept. It is material; it is a concept; it is language; it is a metaphor.To conceive of a philosophy of textiles is to conceive of this ambiguity as a guiding principle for talking and thinking about textiles.” - Catherine Dormor, A Philosophy of Textile: Between Practice and Theory
Text by Caroline Stevenson
The making of textiles is rarely an individual effort. Its material production most often relies on many geographically specific and collective processes. To trace the origins of a piece of cloth is to open up a world of interconnected lives and places, from local and small domestic production to mass industrial manufacture. Conceptually, textile is also an active producer of history. It is a socially enacted material that weaves through our everyday lives: the interface between our bodies and the world. Textile is also deeply entwined with language. It speaks through familiar metaphors such as binding together, spinning yarns and stitching up, and, according to Tim Ingold (2007), it is the genesis of text itself – the first human attempt to create a surface from a series of lines and the first method of recording human process in a linear notation. Therefore, a textile philosophy is more than a process of making. It is a connection between material threads and immaterial memories.
Image: Cruck barn interior. Photo courtesy of Jack Bolton. Image above: Projection Cloth, cotton being processed at Helmshore Mill. Photo courtesy of Jack Bolton.
Projection Cloth, Christine Borland’s new installation for the 2023 British Textile Biennale, offers a way of thinking that traverses textile’s materiality, concept and language. It brings together several charged elements housed within a medieval barn in East Lancashire, a geographic area of Northern England whose identity and landscape were shaped by textile production during the Industrial Revolution. The installation centres around the production of fustian – a strong cloth woven from a linen warp and cotton weft. Recognised for its strength and versatility, fustian has traditionally lent itself to the construction of clothing - particularly workwear - and domestic furnishings. Its name most likely comes from its geographical origins in Al-Fustāt, now part of Cairo, and was probably first produced around 200 AD. In the 13 th Century, it spread to Spain and Italy, where its weavers established guilds. Through the cotton trade, it found its way to England, where its strict regulation by Parliament was soon challenged through imitation cloths – wool versions of the linen and cotton mix – produced in Norwich in the 15 th Century. This led to a change in the meaning of fustian to encompass a type of sturdy surface textile, regardless of the composition of its threads. By the 1600s, however, the fibre content of fustian was legally attributed to the traditional linen warp and cotton weft, and, in the UK, it was almost exclusively produced in Lancashire.
Image courtesy of Christine Borland.
The transitory years of the Industrial Revolution saw the weaving and cutting of fustian gradually move from domestic production into factories, where it could be stretched and cut by specialist cutters to create its signature texture or nap. By the early 20th century, however, the number of fustian factories declined dramatically due to importing cheap and more diverse forms of cloth. New mechanised processes were developed where required, eradicating the need for fustian weavers and cutters and relegating their specialist skills and labour to distant memory.
Image courtesy of Christine Borland.
With this history in mind, Borland’s installation incarnates the complex and almost forgotten histories of the fustian trade in England, tracing it back to its ancient origins and bringing to life the complex traces of people and places involved in its making. Woven in situ, the fustian in Borland’s installation is created during the exhibition using a purpose- built warp-weighted loom. It comprises the traditional linen warp spun from flax grown in 34 locations across the UK from flax seeds collected from Borland’s gardens. The cotton used for the weft is spun from a bale imported from Malawi, Africa, to the north of Scotland; its transport was facilitated through Borland’s connection with Malawian cotton growers during a 2017 research trip. The cloth – in its varying states of completion - acts as a screening device for a series of films depicting an avatar whose repetitive movement mimics spinning, weaving and sewing practices. Shown intermittently throughout the exhibition, the woven projection screen distorts the film through its making process. The image becomes part of the cloth, illuminating its threads and drawing attention to the linear movements across its warp and weft.
Borland brings her artistic process into the space through a spoken dialogue with her daughter, Grace Borland Sinclair, titled the Distaff Dialogues. Here Distaff, refers to a tool used in spinning, designed to hold the unspun fibres, keeping them untangled and thus easing the spinning process, but also to the female side of a family, the opposite of the spear, attributed to males. Through the dialogue, Borland describes her experience of the ancient practices of spinning flax into linen. Her daughter responds to Borland’s accounts as an embodied alienated voice from a far future, quoting from mythology, folklore, religion, philosophy, and natural history, including bloody conflict, to literary fiction.
Image: Image courtesy of Christine Borland.
Through these dialogues, Borland weaves conceptual threads from her identity as an artist and a mother through the distant past to generations of women – mothers and daughters – whose lives were shaped and dictated through the labour of textile production. It is here that the individual elements of Borland’s installation collide. The fustian cloth becomes a textile, inscribed with forgotten histories of female labour and animated through the movement of bodies engaged in silent repetitive action.
Returning to the philosophy of textiles, Catherine Dormor writes, ‘“For the practitioner, then, textile could be said to be about knowing cloth through handling it, through making it, through making with it.” A Philosophy of Textiles: Between Practice and Theory. Borland’s Projection Cloth invites us to do just that: to know cloth through its making and to connect viscerally and imaginatively with its histories and memories, to experience it in the origins of its production and to connect through time with its makers and their labour.
Find out more about Christine Borland's work:
The British Textile Biennial will take place on 29 September - 29 October 2023. To find out more visit: britishtextilebiennial.co.uk
Read more about the legacy of the textile industry in Lancashire and its roots that spread across the globe in Selvedge issue 114: Regeneration.