Emily Laurens has spent her Located Residency visiting and responding to the mills of Drefach Felindre, Carmarthenshire, as part of a longer-term project exploring textile production past, present & future.
I am interested in the shape of things, structure, how things work. The forces at play. Power. I like to imagine containers, form, content and the visual and metaphorical representations of these things. How we can use visual storytelling and metaphor to better understand the world and how we got to this moment in time and how we can forge new and better paths into the future.
Before my located residency began, I saw this story of Welsh wool, slavery and the modern garment industry as a tangle, a tangle of threads that needed un-tangling. I called it Datod, meaning unravel. I saw the tangle as negative and the untangling as positive, bringing order. Order out of chaos, a very western, white hegemonic way of viewing the world. But it’s interesting that I chose the words Datod and Unravel rather than untangle. Unravel has a different feel, a feeling of some neat piece of knitting or weaving being taken apart purposefully and then maybe its constituent parts being available for re-purposing.
On the located residency I went through three distinct phases:
Firstly, heavily influenced by the work of Donna Haraway, I saw the tangle as something to embrace, something to get tangled up in, maybe even joyously. At any rate to accept, explore and welcome the tangle.
“First, promiscuously plucking out fibers in clotted and dense events and practices, I try to follow the threads where they lead in order to track them and find their tangles and patterns crucial for staying with the trouble in real and particular places and times.”
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble
The second stage was a realisation that this was about my personal untangling. Accepting and acknowledging my white fragility, the clumsy and mortifying mistakes I had made even within this project regarding race. Asking for unpaid help and advice from black friends, thinking I needed a black collaborator to legitimise the work, not understanding the value (and rarity) of doing this work, as a white person, with other white people. That race is not about blackness, that this is my history too and I need to recognise it and reckon with it. To see the value of looking at white supremacy and systemic racism from a white perspective.
“White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, or the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed the value of diversity, or you have traveled abroad, or you have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how–rather than if–our racism is manifest. When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others.”
Robin Diangelo, White Fragility
The third stage was to reject the notion of the tangle altogether. There is nothing tangled and mysterious about slavery, colonialism, capitalism, industry. It’s clear and ordered and structural. And perhaps it is made to appear like a complex, indecipherable tangle as a way of disengaging us from the structures that we are part of, that do harm to us and others (human and non human, water, soil, air) every day.
The residency was embodied and intuitive, carried out mostly during lockdown. I followed streams, clambered along paths clinging to branches, fell into rivers, clawed my way through brambles and nettles and Himalayan balsam, peeked through poisonous hemlock water dropwort at the many mills of Drefach Felindre. The old crumbling derelict mills, the mills that are houses and furniture warehouses, the shut up and deserted museum, the empty and idling holiday homes.
While traversing the rivers and footpaths around my village, I ruminated on the confluence between the Welsh woollen industry, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary ready-made garment industry. What started as a huge tangled sprawling inquiry, a story full of exploitation, damage, hidden and erased histories, became a story waiting and wanting to be discovered, like neat intersecting threads, the warp and the weft.
This story is a three dimensional object in space. There are vertical, horizontal and diagonal layers. Every part is connected to every other part. It is like a body, it breathes and moves. It is a body, it is my body and your body and you and I are wearing it.
The structure of the story is colonialism and capitalism. Or more accurately the Plantationocene, a term coined by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing
“The plantation as a system of multispecies forced labor. The plantation system speeds up generation time. The plantation disrupts the generation times of all the players. It radically simplifies the number of players and sets up situations for the vast proliferation of some and the removal of others. It’s an epidemic friendly way of rearranging species life in the world. It is a system that depends on forced human labor of some kind because if labor can escape, it will escape the plantation. The plantation system requires either genocide or removal or some mode of captivity and replacement of a local labor force by coerced labor from outside, either through various forms of indenture, unequal contract, or out-and-out slavery. The plantation really depends on very intense forms of labor slavery, including also machine labor slavery, a building of machines for exploitation and extraction of earthlings. I think it is also important to include the forced labor of nonhumans—plants, animals, and microbes—in our thinking.”
Donna Haraway edgeeffects.net
So this is the structure we live in and with. The factory or sweatshop replaces the sugar plantation (although the sugar plantation still exists) and the west African slaves and Bangladeshi sweatshop workers are in the same positions within that structure. And just as white Europeans delighted in the availability of white sugar (they/we still do), they/we now delight in the cheap clothes that arrive in the high street shops and through the post, not worrying too much about how they got there.
So how does the Welsh wool industry fit within this structure?
The industry began to become mechanised in the 18th century in response to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the need to clothe slaves on the plantations in something cheap and hard wearing. “Welsh plains”, as the cloth was called, was bought by the mile by slave traders and plantation owners. The wool-producing mills of Drefach Felindre in the Teifi valley where I live came into production well after this trade had ended. Their heyday was the turn of the last century from roughly 1880 to 1920. Their role is more subtle and complex and involves the erasure of this history and the creation, or even invention, of Welsh identity.
Welsh identity is complex and nuanced like any national identity, and different for everybody who considers themselves, or part of themselves, Welsh. Woven Welsh woollen products are an important part of that identity. If Welsh identity has been created, some of the important creators have been Iorwerth Peate, who founded St Fagans museum of Welsh life in 1946, and Lady Llanover. Peate created a new kind of museum, he was forward thinking and revolutionary in many ways. He collected buildings from all over Wales, including a tiny chapel from Drefach Felindre, and had them rebuilt at St Fagans. The Wales he showcased was focused on rural life, craft and the Welsh language; it said nothing of industry, of the fact that Wales had been centred on trade and production with a history steeped in colonialism, capitalism and extractavism. Lady Llanover, a Welsh heiress from Monmouthshire had also played her part 100 years or so earlier inventing Welsh national costume, reviving Welsh weaving and helping to create an image of Welsh wool as wholesome and honourable. Despite the fact that Peate and Lady Llanover both came from Monmouthshire, the epicentre of Welsh wool production for the clothing of slaves, neither highlighted Wales’ entanglement with slavery. It did not fit with the image of Welshness that they were trying to promote so it was omitted, forgotten, erased.
Others who come after have a chance, an opportunity to put this right. But the Welsh woollen mills still in operation have no mention of this history on their websites. Geraint J. Jenkins who wrote the seminal text on Welsh wool also fails to mention slavery. In Slave Wales, historian Chris Evans writes how in just one year, 1716, the Royal Africa Company bought 8,600 yards of Welsh Plains – more than five and a half miles of fabric – and yet there is not a single mention of this trade at the National Wool Museum. Now at the museum there feels like a hunger to tell these stories, and an acceptance and acknowledgement of the significance and linkages to climate change and modern structures of exploitation.
The last mill I visited was Glad Bargod. It opened in 1880, burned down in 1953, was rebuilt and closed in 1970 after another fire. Owner Gustav Brdlik (a Czech refugee) died in the 1970 fire (this death is omitted from the account of fires in mills in Drefach Felindre on the National Wool Museum website). It is totally derelict now, machinery clogged with ivy and moss. I feel the spirits close by, as I have at other mills amid the birdsong and babble of the stream.
I sit with this mill, this structure. I think of the forces at play rearranging stones, the river, the men who built the mill, tree roots, and now time and gravity who slowly, slowly tear it down, changing its shape, rearranging stones. The difference is pace. All these gentle things, water, air, roots, all these slow-moving things have such unstoppable agency. Such power. The humans in this place seem to have had this little whirr of activity, then catastrophic fire, then nothing.
Back to the burbling stream
Explore Emily’s Located Residency further on her dedicated Instagram account at instagram.com/datod_unravel