Cloth and memory

At the weekend, having dashed across the country to deposit child no. 3 at Durham University, we stopped off at Salts Mill, Saltaire (near Bradford) to go to and to see Cloth and Memory 2, a textile exhibition curated by Lesley Miller …..

….. this post is not going to be about the exhibition (I’m still ruminating on that)! Instead, prompted by reading the ‘cloth memories’ of each participating artist in the exhibition catalogue and by my physically being in this  remembered place I have been  thinking about my own touch and cloth memories.

The area around Saltaire is very familiar to me – I lived in Idle (which is just along the road and famed for its ‘Idle Youth Club’) for 4 years between the age of 5 and 9. My father was the minister at Upper Chapel Congregational Church and we lived in the Manse next door; a square Victorian house whose brick is still blackened by countless coal fires that fuelled the local wool industry.

debbie and sarah idle

My sister and I in the garden (I’m the taller of the two)

The church was, and is, an unpromising 1950’s building on the outside, but inside, has wonderful wooden pews and furniture built by the ‘mouseman’ Robert Thompson. Carved mice chase each other up and down the pews and into the organ loft – I remember reaching out, touching and stroking them, little raised spots on the shiny oak pews.


My own Robert Thompson mouse

The whole place is imbued with my early memories – memories that nearly always seem to be about touching and feeling texture – wood, wool, cloth, grass, sand …..

All our holidays were spent with my grandparents by the sea in Selsey, Sussex and we used to travel down the M1 from Idle in a pale blue Ford Prefect (582 NEV) to go and see them. Sometimes I was left there alone (my choice) as the others went off elsewhere.  My granddad kept me occupied with toys he had made  – a tent, a dolls cradle …..

debbie sarah grandma selsey

(excuse the quality … it’s rather old!)

…. and he used to take me down to the beach. The routine was dig a big hole, line it with an old tarpaulin and then sit in it. He would drink coffee out of a tartan flask and I would eat an apple that he peeled with his penknife.

This memory is so important to me – it is the foundation of all my work as an artist. The tarpaulin that lined the hole was old, worn and holed. It was a faded green, the colour of old-fashioned scout tents, and had small hand sewn eyelets around the edge so it could be fixed or hung up. My granddad had sewn it  – he used to be in the Navy and could turn his hand to most things (a bit like me really) – and it had many uses: hung under the roof in the ‘glass place’ on the back of the house (see above) in the summer to protect the tomatoes from the heat of the sun, laid on the grass so that we didn’t get wet, as well as lining holes – it was a cloth that protected. Sitting in my hole I remember being enclosed by it, feeling its roughness and sticking my fingers in the holes made by the eyelets.

I can’t be sure that I’ve remembered things as they were but as Richard Kee noted:

The way things looked before

later events made them look different.

And this is as much a part of history

as the way things actually were.

These small works were made in response to the tarpaulin ….

tarpaulin 002

tarpaulin 004

tarpaulin 021

tarpaulin 030

tarpaulin 041

tarpaulin 047

…. and I think almost everything I have made since stems from the memory of its protective texture and touch.


2 thoughts on “Cloth and memory


    We’ve both seen this and “ah”ed over the pictures – where did you dig them up?! Pa.


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