In April 2023, a small scrap of blue fabric was discovered in a public records office and luckily it was passed to textile experts for review. A story of slavery and a 200-year-old Yorkshire cottage industry unfolded.
Public record offices, in the UK, hold numerous types of information. Much of the older information is stored in boxes with reams of documents and related materials. Slowly, our history is being digitalised into computer data that takes up much less space.
Lustalux helps Blackburn Museum unravel the mysteries of an age-old piece of cloth.
Lustalux were tasked to create 17 panel signs that would communicate a complicated story of cottage industries in Yorkshire and the brutal slave trade in the West Indies.
Each of the seventeen panels contains motifs from the animation projected on the ceiling above the display. They were arranged in date order, evoking the way in which these interwoven global narratives are joined to the cloth and to each other in tangled and complex ways. Each panel was joined by a series of overlapping woollen threads.
The cloth was a very specific type of material produced by hand in rural communities in Yorkshire. It was named as Penistone Cloth after the town where it was distributed. The characteristic Indigo Blue colour and hard-wearing properties made the product particularly suitable for those engaged in hard manual labour. In 1783, this sample was prepared and stitched to a card which was destined to be delivered to a slave master in Barbados. The card described the material as having strength and unchangeable colour which made it very suitable for “nergro clothing”. It was never sent and remained in the office papers of a wealthy Derbyshire family who owned plantations in Barbados and Jamaica. Eventually, the cloth sample and many other papers were donated to the Derbyshire Public Record Office in the 1960s.
Penistone cloth went into decline in the 1830s after King George III signed into law the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, banning trading in enslaved people. The cloth had gained a stigma related to its historical use and demand dwindled.
Chris Evans, professor of history at the University of South Wales and a historian of slavery, said this was cloth for fieldworkers in Barbados and Jamaica, doing the “very brutal work” of cultivating cotton: “The survival of something that was intended for the use of enslaved people is unheard of, in my view. To have it labelled on the reverse is unique.”
He added: “These were fabrics that, by their very nature, weren’t expected to last … Unlike high-value costumes, no one ever thought of preserving them. They were ignoble materials.”
The project was researched by Global Threads research team.
Image credits to Matthew Savage.