In the course of the research I did for my book, Cycling and Cinema, one of the most interesting sources I came across was the 1895 volume A Wheel within a Wheel, by American academic, teacher and campaigner, Frances A Willard. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, inspired by artist Tom Phillips’ expansive bookwork, A Humument, I’ve been drawing and painting over pages from Willard’s book, using as source material some of the film stills, photographs, paintings, magazines I gathered while writing Cycling and Cinema.

Earlier this year my friend and cycling partner James Fox, who was commissioned to produce an exhibition for the British Textile Biennial, invited me to exhibit some of the treated pages alongside his work. The Biennial opened on Friday scattered across different sites in East Lancashire mill-towns, and so yesterday I travelled over to see some of the exhibits. James’s brilliant, colourful show, ‘Rights, Riots and Routes’, consists primarily of textile work dealing with cycling, history and social justice.

I write about the relationship between bicycles and industrial machinery in my book, and this connection is underlined nicely by the location of the exhibition in Helmshore cotton mill. For example, a sculptural piece made from bicycle wheels woven with fabric is echoed by the drive wheels that operated the looms and which are still hanging from the factory ceiling.

His short film, Rights, explores other historical echoes, featuring Maxine Peake reading a letter written by Mary Hindle, a textile worker accused of encouraging a riot in 1826 in which power looms were smashed by home weavers who were furious about losing their jobs. She was transported to Australia and this moving film interweaves passages from her letter home with fragments of letters from present-day prisoners, recounting the experience of isolation during the pandemic lockdown.

My work, consisting of 20 small paintings, is on one wall of the exhibition space (below) and works very well as a complement to his larger-scale work since, like James’ work, mine is based around the interplay of text and image. 

Other shows around the area also made good use of the extraordinary exhibition spaces. Work by Raisa Kabir and Brigid McLeer shown amid the still-functioning steam-powered looms of Queen Street Mill in Harle Syke (below) (and dominated by the smell of engine oil), explores the way that the British cotton industry was embedded within a network of colonial trade and exploitation that continues into the present in different configurations.

Resistances, Raisa Kabir

Also on display in Queen Street Mill, Sharon Brown’s series of intricate embroideries, ‘Stiched Histoires’, incorporate fragments of delicate handwritten letters, receipts and invoices. The poignant work makes a point about dynamic historical change, emphasising that this industry that dominated the area and extended across the globe, is now reduced to fragile, fugitive traces.

Lubaina Himid’s enormous installation of West African-style printed fabric, Lost Threads, is housed in an outbuilding of the Elizabethan mansion Gawthorpe Hall, which was repurposed in the 20th century as a textile museum.

Inside the hall itself, which is a mish-mash of original Elizabethan elements and Gothic revival fantasies of the past, quilts made by groups across the country to protest against the privatisation of the NHS and to mourn the devastation wrought by Covid make a strong argument for the vitality of textile art as a form of activist expression.