Textiles for Social Change

Susan Mc Ateer

If I was to play a word association game and textile came up, I would say tactile. The words feel like close cousins, their sounds mimic each other, their meanings nicely intertwine. While textiles often perform practical or aesthetic functions, something that might not spring to mind in the word association-game frenzy is social change. Social enterprises are a hard thing to define, but the ethos remains pretty consistent; that of wanting to positively contribute or change a particular social issue following a more business minded model. The ideology is great, and one of the most exciting things is the innovative ways in which organisations work to achieve this. One such way is through textiles.

You wouldn’t necessarily suspect that a Lady, as in a titled Lady, I’m not just being polite about an older woman, would be the founder and driver of an organisation working with prisoners to provide new skills, opportunities and boost self-esteem. Except Lady Anne Tree did just that. Daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, Lady Anne’s upbringing would probably bring the likes of Downton Abbey to mind, and I don’t think it would be too far off. Despite her exceptionally privileged background, she challenged formal education and developed an interest in the prison system and inmates. For 25 years Lady Anne visited prisoners in north London, and from there developed the idea for Fine Cell Work. It took decades of lobbying the home office, but in 1997 she succeeded in creating an organisation that trains prisoners in needlework to a professional standard to create fine textiles and objects for which they get paid. Fine Cell Work has expanded and now has 60 volunteers teaching needlework to over 400 prisoners in England, Scotland and Wales with a view to expand.

What is striking about Fine Cell Work is the objective to build up the self-esteem of inmates and to give value to the isolated time spent in their cells. Needlepoint is quite a time consuming process which requires discipline, focus, and attention to detail. Inmates have the opportunity to not only refine a skill, but to engage in what is often considered a very therapeutic activity. It also allows a sense of pride in one's own work, and it fosters creativity; qualities often denied to those in prison. The inmates get paid for their work, normally receiving up to 37% of profits, which they can save for their release or send to their family, giving an opportunity to provide for dependents. Another really important aspect of the programme is that it opens up a dialogue about the prison system. Customers in shops or online are automatically participating in the conversation, and attention is drawn to these people who are hidden from everyday society. For the inmates and customers, this tangible object, this textile, acts as a medium for social change. And it looks damn good on a couch.

The thing about textiles as a vehicle for social change is that it comes in so many different forms. Taxi Fabric (not sorry about the vehicle reference above) is an organisation based in Mumbai that commission artists and designers to create upholstery for taxi interiors. Design is a developing industry in India and there are not a whole host of creative outlets. Taxi Fabric looked to the most common form of transport in India, particularly Mumbai - the taxi - and decided to use this as a means of pioneering design and communication in India.

The idea is simple and effective, rather than encouraging people to go and actively engage with art, bring art to them. By confronting people with design and creativity on something as ordinary as a taxi ride, Taxi Fabric is encouraging the collective social conscious to think of design as a relevant, necessary part of life, not just a function based sector. Some designs explore social issues or histories including sign language, Indian independence and the role of women in Indian society. The latter was created by Roshnee Desai and is titled ‘Only for Men’ which references an ‘Only for Women’ sign illustrated on train compartments. Inverting this idea, Deais presents men with the challenges that Indian women face and the often invisible societal divides that exist. By creating this environment for even a brief period of time, an idea or question is raised which the passenger might actively engage with, or more passively register. This means of sparking a dialogue is so elegant and simple, but so necessary.

While Desai explores a significant social issue outright, other Taxi Fabric commissions are focused on pure aesthetic design, which are just as powerful. ‘Bombay Deco’ for instance, created by design collective Safomasi, is a beautiful interior which references Bombay in the 1930s when it was rich with art deco architecture and design. Celebrating history and putting it in a contemporary context is a way to engage people with their city and surroundings.

Social change is often convoluted with abstract ideas and solutions, and if you look to how it is communicated politically it can feel impenetrable. Initiatives and organisations which allow us to engage with a simple idea, a tangible object and clear outcome are really effective in understanding the capabilities of organisations to develop and support wider social issues. Textiles are one area in which significant creative and considerable change is happening. Ethical fashion is an obvious driver of textiles for social change, but organisations such as Fine Cell Work and Taxi Fabric are reminders of the broader potential of an apparently simple medium.

*It took great restraint not to use phrases such as ‘the fabric of society’, ‘weaving a history’, ‘creating a rich tapestry’, ‘follow the thread’. You’re welcome.