The British Textile Biennial 2021 completely inhabits East Lancashire for the entire month of October, weaving stories of the global nature of textiles and re-evaluating histories while continuing to recognise the wealth of continuing relationships.

It features 20 exhibitions and myriad workshops and events. As always, BTB invites you into several historic buildings, which could tell their own textile chronicles.

In the Great Barn at Gawthorpe Hall, Turner Prize-winner Lubaina Himid’s Lost Threads fills the space with swathes of Dutch Wax fabrics scrupulously chosen to highlight and question relationships between the continents of Europe and Africa, carefully hung so as not to disturb the barn’s bats.  

Next, it was on to Haworth Art Gallery to see Cloth Cultures where fashion historian Amber Butchard uses objects selected from the extensive Gawthorpe Textile Collection to tell the story of imperialism through wool, linen, cotton and silk. This is a fascinating show in a glorious location, and Butchard has made a series of podcasts to accompany the show which further illuminate the exhibits.

Brigid McLeer COLLATERAL (detail). Photo Northern Soul.At Queen Street Mill, Brigid McLeer’s work Collateral was inspired by the Battle of Britain panel, which is also from the Gawthorpe Textile Collection. Working with local embroiderers, McLeer uses the same dimensions and layout of the Battle of Britain panel to commemorate workers across the world who have lost their lives in factory fires. All in white, it is edged with more than 100 embroidered shrouds individually made by local stitchers who answered an open call-out. It sits in the imposing weaving shed among the 308 paused looms. In a short extract from Andrew Morgan’s film The True Cost, which is situated at the entrance to the work, a survivor of a garment factory fire implores us not to buy fast fashion. Hugely eloquent.

Rossendale’s Whitaker Museum, a late Victorian museum which has been lovingly brought bang into the 21st century, houses Connected Cloth. Here, 62 Group of Textile artists has responded from a wide range of viewpoints and divergent textile media to the BTB theme of the global context of textiles. This exhibition has been stunningly displayed in a museum that demands a much longer visit.

Jasleen Kaur, Masimba Hwati and Jamie Holman - The British Invasion at Blackburn's Cotton Exchange photo Lydia McCaigMeanwhile, James Fox has taken over Helmshore Mills Textile Museum with his exhibition Rights, Riots and Routes. Through embroideries and prints, Fox looks at the history of working class protest and punishment starting with the Lancashire Loom breakers of 1826 and, in particular, the story of Mary Hindle and Helmshore Mill. An impassioned film featuring Maxine Peake reflects on Mary Hindle’s tragic story.

Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery is overflowing with work. Azraa Motola’s Unapologetic is a series of portraits derived from a call-out for young British South Asian women based in Lancashire.  The beautifully executed portraits are interspersed among the museum’s Victorian portrait collection. Large scale reproductions are also displayed on major buildings in Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley and Nelson.

On the floor above is Khadi where Bharti Parmar casts her keen eye over the 90th anniversary of Ghandi’s visit to Darwen. The Khadi, a homespun cloth, was advocated by Ghandi and represents Indian independence from British rule. Khadi is also the name given to the coarse paper made from recycled cotton which Parmar uses. An exceptionally rich and layered show.

Warp and Weft Punched drawing on Khadi paper 76 x 56 2021 ©Bharti Parmar (1)On the ground floor of the gallery, you’ll find the ever-evolving, groundbreaking project Homegrown/Homespun. Patrick Grant’s Community Clothing together with North West England Fibreshed and a healthy bunch of volunteers have cultivated a crop of flax in Blackburn to create a yarn and, eventually, a fabric to make jeans. There will be various workshops around this project throughout the Biennial. Get involved.

Blackburn’s Grade II listed Cotton Exchange was at the heart of Blackburn’s cotton industry. Here, the building serves as the heart of this Biennial and is filled with The British Invasion. This exhibition was born out of the online conversations (don’t forget how difficult the pandemic has made collaborations) between three artists, Jasleen Kaur, Jamie Holman and Masimba Hwati, about the complexities of cultural identities across three continents. Absolutely fascinating juxtapositions have emerged, and new conversations have begun.

By Susan Ferguson

Main image: Brigid McLeer COLLATERAL (detail)


Lubaina Himid Lost Threads British Textile Biennial runs until October 31, 2021 and takes place in various locations between Blackburn and Nelson along the route of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (or the M65 for the less romantic). For more information, visit the website.