It’s a common thread crossing oceans and continents and weaving its way through centuries of human history.
Now the fascinating story of cotton and its remarkable impact on different cultures and communities in India and Europe is being explored in a new exhibition at Lotherton.
Cotton Connections: From India to the High Street opens at the estate this weekend and looks at 300 years of cotton’s role in fashion and textiles through a beautiful series of examples from India and Europe.
Inviting visitors to think about cotton’s unique influence on the evolution of fashion, identity, trade, and the environment, the exhibition in Lotherton’s fashion gallery features a series of stunning wall hangings, historic dresses and contemporary uniforms.
Objects on display include a muslin dress fashioned in the early 1800s. Made of Indian muslin, the dress features a European trademark, illustrating how cotton harvested in India was exported and used by European dressmakers and tailors.
Also on display is a collection of garments worn by Indian farmers and factory workers who worked in the cotton fields and factories where the material was produced, along with contemporary cotton outfits which show the extensive trade routes from across South Asia to Europe.
Vanessa Jones, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ assistant curator of costume and textiles, said: “Cotton has played a central role in diverse cultures and communities around the world for thousands of years, shaping everything from economies and international relations to fashion trends and identities across generations.
“Exactly what cotton has meant to people living in those different cultures has also varied quite spectacularly and profoundly. Those involved in its harvest and production have seen first-hand the massive and intensive industry which has grown around it, whilst those at the other end of the thread have seen the beautiful and delicate creations for sale on high streets all over the world.
“We hope the objects and stories in this exhibition will encourage visitors to think about what cotton means to them, who has made the product they are buying and how their own perception of cotton might differ from those who produce it.
“The exhibition will also consider where certain design elements or textile techniques may come from, the story of the worker behind the cloth and questions about the sustainability of cotton.”
Cotton Connections has been co-curated with The Cotton Detectives, a group of 14-24-year-old volunteers based at Leeds Art Gallery, with support and research from the University of Leeds through their Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project Cotton’s Hidden Voices.
Dr Mark Sumner, lead researcher for the Cotton Hidden Voices project said: “The Cotton Connections exhibition explores the different stories about cotton and how this simple fibre connects us with a global industry and with a history that goes back over 300 years.
“Working with Leeds Museums and Galleries and supporting the youth group and the exhibition has been a great opportunity to bring to the wider public some the complex and distant stories that exist around cotton and the clothes we wear. We hope the exhibition provides a new but realistic telling of the stories of our clothes and the people who make them.”
The export of cotton from India became a huge industry for Britain. But the industry also fuelled the Transatlantic slave trade, with Indian cotton goods exchanged for enslaved people from West Africa.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Leeds has a long, rich and fascinating history as an important centre for textile trade and production.
“Through research and exhibitions like this one, we have the opportunity to add more depth and context to that story and to explore how the city’s journey links to that of other cities, cultures and communities around the world.”
Cotton Connections: From India to the High Street will be at Lotherton from March 31 until October 15, 2023. A range of events and talks will also accompany the exhibition.