In December I spent a couple of days in Manchester on the way to visit my husband's family in Liverpool. For those who don't know much about the history of the place, it was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution in the UK at the beginning of the 19th century. It was probably the world's first industrialised city, and its growth was driven by the textile industry - at its height, around two thirds of the world's cotton was processed in the city.
The day we were there it was freezing cold, so instead of looking round the city, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry, and I'm very glad we did as they have a big gallery dedicated to their cotton processing heritage. As well as artefacts relating to the business side of the cotton trade, they also have a huge set up of the machines used for processing from cotton bale to cloth, which they have demonstrations of twice daily (I think around 11am and 3pm).
Seeing these machines running is amazing. They are huge and noisy, and then you realise that the machines in the mill were six times as large, with hundreds all together. It was a pretty dangerous and difficult life to work in such a place. Many workers ended up with byssinosis (chronic lung disease from inhalation of the cotton dust), and there was grave risk of injury or death from the drive belts and the machinery itself. It also made me wonder about the conditions in modern mills - whilst I'm sure there is some more mechanisation nowadays, the principle of how the cotton is sorted, spun and woven is the same, so has life improved for those who work doing this?
On a slightly lighter note, there were also exhibits of modern Mancunian textile artists, two of which were especially fascinating. Jennifer Collier, who creates art by incorporating found materials into textiles, and Trish Belford, who created printing techniques for designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes in the 1980s and 1990s, and since 2005 has worked on amazing composite materials, with fabric embedded in concrete. Seriously, these things are beautiful.
The rest of the museum is also super interesting, but if you are interested in the history of textile manufacture and find yourself in Manchester, I would highly recommend a visit. And look: I have a piece of cotton woven on a loom over 100 years old!