Raw Materials: Textiles

Raw Materials traces the forgotten industrial history of east London along the River Lea, supported by The National Lottery with funds awarded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. This year followed the textiles trail, uncovering the stories of silk-weaving, calico printing, jute spinning and the invention of dye colours.

The exhibition is currently at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts. The SDC was delighted to be able to contribute to the exhibition by lending a number of objects from our archive.

The exhibition includes the first ever synthetic dye – mauveine, invented on Cable Street – William Morris’s original River Lea design and incredibly Mahatma Gandhi’s spinning wheel, which he donated to east London’s Kingsley Hall after staying there in the 1930s. The show is also a chance to listen to east Londoners’ memories of the Jewish tailoring industry, with several émigré decedents sharing their stories of family businesses.

The exhibition – with its accompanying map and walking / boating trails – aims to bring the industries that once filled Hackney Wick, Stratford, West Ham and Walthamstow alive for visitors, remembering the innovation and creativity of a trade that was once at the heart of east London.

 We asked Sophie Hill, Gallery Co-Director, to tell us more about the exhibition and the links with the SDC.

The exhibition idea came from a desire to highlight the innovation and success of local industry along the River Lea – a history that is quickly becoming forgotten under redevelopment of the area and a very fast changing population in Tower Hamlets. The River Lea had a huge impact on the development of east London – both in terms of trade and population. Raw materials would come up the Lea from the River Thames and it was through these materials of wood (our material last year) and textiles that industries sprung up along the riverbanks. As many industries were pioneered here, there was a huge level of invention and innovation that deserves celebrating – such as patenting calico printing techniques and the invention of synthetic dye colours.

Our connection with the SDC came when we were researching Perkin and his connection with the east end and the lower lea valley.

One of the most exciting stories visitors enjoy from the exhibition is William Perkin’s invention of mauveine – the first synthetic dye. SDC has lent us objects that illustrate this – including some very early samples of fabric dyed with mauveine, which illustrate the strength and depth of this colour and how exciting it must have been to invent it ‘by accident’. SDC also lent us some dye in pigment form in glass jars, giving our audiences a sense of colour ‘in the lab’, something which really adds to the atmosphere of our display.

People have really enjoyed the display case about dye colour – having original samples of dyed fabric really gives a sense of this colour that is now over 150 years old. Visitors also love learning about mauveine as it really changed the status of purple, which up until then had been a papal colour or saved only for royalty due to its expense. Opening up purple ‘to the masses’ really chimes with the East End’s history, an area that had experienced much discrimination and exploitation of workers / the poor across its past. It’s appropriate that synthetic or ‘accessible’ purple was invented here.

Raw Materials: Textiles will tour to Valence House later in the summer and we hope that the SDC items will accompany the show on tour. For the Raw Materials series, this is just the beginning. We hope to cover more materials in the future and are working towards ‘plastics’ next year. Raw Materials also aims to create a legacy – all our research is recorded and easily accessible on our website, where you can view the heritage points on a map”.

Raw Materials is at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, until 24 June 2018. From 14 July until 22 September it will then tour to Valence House, which is the only surviving manor house in Dagenham, dating back to Medieval times.

Bow Arts Trust was established as an educational arts charity in 1995 and supports a community of over 500 artists with affordable, secure and creative workspaces across east and south east London. Bow Arts also runs the Nunnery Gallery from its headquarters in Bow, a free not-for-profit art space that presents a diverse range of exhibitions and events, often focusing on local heritage.

Images: with thanks to Rob Harris 2018, courtesy of the Nunnery Gallery

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