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Review: Exploring the Industrial Heritage of Lancashire with About Time Dance’s 'Cotton'

Claire Frampton | Oxford GLAM


In 2017 I was present at two performances of Cotton, a dance theatre piece produced by About Time Dance Company. The performances were set both in a room at Quarry Bank Mill, a conserved working mill, an accredited museum at a National Trust property in Cheshire. Cotton was a contemporary, immersive live performance, focusing on ‘on the floor’ perspectives of the cotton industry in England. It was part of the launch of a season ‘Arts and Wonder’ at the venue, more specifically, of ‘creative responses to the themes of work, leisure and the legacy of industrialization’. The show blurred the line between technical and human experiences of the mills, with dancers evoking the machinery of the mills through unique choreography. Cotton, as an artistic response to the topic, didn’t integrate factual information itself- development of observers’ knowledge and understanding was experiential.

An impetus for the project was that the last generation of people who worked in the mills when they were operational have almost all passed away. Cotton aimed to develop understanding in younger generations about the cultural history of cotton in Lancashire, to tell the story, and preserve memories about the industry which had been so integral to the area. Throughout the twentieth century the closing of the mills accelerated, resulting in little surviving culture of what was one example a fundamental part of Lancastrian identity. For example, Queen Street Mill closed in the 1980s, the last steam powered weaving mill in Lancashire to stop operating in its commercial purpose.

Textile production was a major industry in the development of the British economy during the industrial revolution, and the mills of Lancashire were key contributors. The Industrial Revolution, from the mid- eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, transformed local domestic industry, with small scale production of goods, into a factory system of production, facilitating the efficient mass production of goods. Methods of textile production, most prominently relating to cotton progressed dramatically, and innovative and adaptive technologies developed throughout the period. Cotton processed in Britain was dominant in terms of global production. The decline of the cotton industry in England in the twentieth century was because of changes in the world markets, for instance the development of cotton production in other countries, notably India and Japan.

In April 2021, I interviewed artistic director Jenny Reeves to develop insights into the research, development and reception of the project. As well as being present at a performance, to develop my research I worked with online resources such as the About Time website, which hosts a documentary film about the development of Cotton - ‘The Story of Cotton’ (2017). In the Cotton documentary, Jenny speaks about her local family connections with the history of the mills. In my interview she stated that her mother often spoke about how the cotton industry related to her genealogy, that her family ‘were all cotton mill workers’. She developed an interest in industrial heritage as a child visiting museums, when her mother would explain the working roles of both her Grandma and her Nana: ‘Grandma was a weaver and Nana was a spinner…’.

She explained that she originally wanted to develop work in Lancashire, her home area and a region she feels passionate about, after spending time in London. Her first performance in Lancashire was about cotton. Jenny said: ‘it was in my blood - it felt really important to my story and my heritage’.

Jenny noted that, through Cotton performers and participants developed their interest in the industry, and found out about family links that they may not have thought about before their involvement in the show. Most people discovered they had deceased family members who had worked in the mills and factories of the region since the descendant families remained in the area.. On this topic, Jenny said that ‘I feel its something that’s not talked about much, but the performance of Cotton brought it to life for people and started reflection on their own families’. The performance at Quarry Bank Mill in 2017 was part of a tour of Cotton which itself recognized geographical aspects of the history of cotton and industry in Lancashire and the nearby area, integrating multiple locations and types of venue. Explaining community involvement in the project in relationship to local geographies, Jenny said that each part of the tour involved people from each area, to really represent the specific localities.

The nature of each location facilitated unique aspects of the performance and highlighted its relationship to existing interpretations of heritage. Jenny spoke about the first pilot performance at the Harris Museum in Preston, on a floor with a mosaic with a circular design. A trailer with filmed footage of this performance is available to watch on the Imagination Museum website. In this performance an aspect of the venue’s architecture, a balcony above the action, made possible a section of the choreography, where small pieces of cotton dropped into the performance space. This evoked the industrial atmosphere where cotton fluff would have been in the air. In a later section the dancers collected the cotton off the floor, re-enacting the process of cotton picking. The circular design on the floor complemented the choreography, which involved movements directly inspired by machinery, such as spinning around. Jenny described a section at the end of the show:


…there was a cotton bobbin which one dancer holds and the other dancer gets engulfed in this cotton as it gets spun around her. This demonstrates how the dancers’ lives were sort of interwoven with the cotton and how all the people of Lancashire, their whole lives were entangled in the cotton industry, and how it engulfed them…

The performance at Quarry Bank Mill was on the top floor, which meant that to reach it people had to walk up the stairs of the mill, getting a sense of the industrial history of the whole building. The sound of the working cotton processing machinery can be experienced throughout the building, and visitors can feel the vibrations through the floorboards. The machinery can be witnessed in rooms such as the weaving shed which showcases working power looms.

I remember looking down into a huge, restored iron working water wheel, the view made possible through a viewing platform in the Brain Power Gallery, a gallery which explores the history of sources of power at the mill. The wheel currently provides power to the cotton processing machinery. I asked Jenny about the experience of performing in this atmosphere:

‘I think this was the perfect set up for a performance because you’ve got the artistic response and then you’re able to see the machinery live in action, so you got the full immersive experience which is very rare but a brilliant opportunity. I think that was one of our best performances… quite a lot of people would then go to the mill and then come back to see the show again. They could then embed what they’d learnt on the mill floor’.

In the interview, I asked about the types of historical evidence considered in the research phase for Cotton. Jenny described three visits to ‘three operational working mills”, which are currently museums. These were: Helmshore Spinning Mill, and Queen Street Mill a weaving mill, both in Lancashire, and Quarry Bank Mill, which is in nearby Cheshire. Surviving buildings related to the cotton industry which are currently museums and conserved working mills operate in various locations across Lancashire and are examples of extant architectural evidence of the domination of the area by textile production in the period of the Industrial Revolution. Describing her experience, Jenny said the museums gave access to archives with a range of relevant materials; ‘…all kinds of old bits of machinery and objects and books…’. The research also involved filming people operating machinery, and research into the soundscapes of the mills; ‘our musician came with us on the site visits and he would record all the machinery’. These recordings were then used to create a soundtrack. Inspiration also came from photographs: considering workers relationship to machinery; faces, physical energy, and presence, and body language. The research undertaken for Cotton integrated contemporary digital technologies, and demonstrated innovative engagement with a broad variety of resources, opening up archives and exploring the human history of the industrial revolution.

Cotton was developed from an embedded sense of connection to the history of an area. The performances created new memories and developed understanding for participants and attendees. As a form of intangible heritage, this project has successfully drawn on history to create a contemporary interpretation of the region’s past, facilitating engagement with Lancashire’s industrial heritage.


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Further Reading:

Claire Frampton is enrolled on the professional development certificate Associateship of the Museums Association. As part of this she has developed a research portfolio into theatre in heritage education. In 2013, she gained an MA in Arts Policy and Management from Birkbeck College, University of London, taking modules specializing in cultural heritage management. In 2007, she graduated from MA Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, and in 2006, she completed a complementary module with UAL/ London Business School: New Creative Ventures. Her BA is in Art History/History from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Twitter handle: @CUFrampton