Creativity, Craft and Community

Subverting power and building solidarity through textiles

by Megan Bridgeland

“In Ancoats stand the largest mills of Manchester, lining the canals, colossal six and seven-storied buildings towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers.”

Friedrich Engels, 1844. 

By the mid-19th century, Ancoats, just east of Manchester’s centre, had become a sprawling hub of the global cotton industry. With 90 percent of Britain’s cotton manufacture located in Lancashire, and 108 mills in Manchester alone, workers flocked to Cottonopolis.

Illustration showing mule spinning at a cotton mill, about 1834.
Science Museum Group Collection.

Ancoats was the thumping heart of the world’s first industrial city. Threaded throughout the suburb’s landscape of canals and converted mills is a story of wealth and power, but also one of oppression, resistance and solidarity. 

Brunswick Mill, which still stands on Bradford Road, is a significant site. Built in 1839, the mill was once one of the largest in the country. In 1856, the factory boasted 276 carding engines, 81 roving frames, 20 drawing frames, 50 slubbing frames, 129 cop reels, and nearly 77,000 mule spindles. To operate this raft of machinery, major mills could employ over 1,000 men, women and children, each toiling up to 12 hours a day. 

“The strength fails, all the capacities of physical enjoyment are destroyed […] till they lead to gloomy apprehension, to the deepest depression, and almost to despair.”  

J. Kay-Shuttleworth, on the mental state of Manchester’s cotton workers, 1832. 

Employment in Manchester’s cotton industry was often a wretched affair. Workers were packed into crowded and stifling conditions, with illness and injury rife. The industry itself was booming, however. By the end of the 19th century, Lancashire mills were producing nearly one third of the world’s cotton textiles.

Engravings of different stages in producing cotton fabric from the series Progress of Cotton, showing the presence of child labourers. Science Museum Group Collection.

Until the end of the British slave trade in 1807, large shipments of Manchester textiles were dispatched to Africa where they would be exchanged, alongside other goods, for enslaved people. These people were then shipped to the Americas, where they were forced to provide backbreaking labour on plantations.  

By 1860, nearly 90 percent of the raw cotton imported to Britain was produced by enslaved labourers. This exploitation, on a local and global scale, allowed Manchester’s mill owners to turn over enormous profits and enjoy lives of great prosperity, excess, and influence. 

A picture entitled Carrying cotton to the gin, made in Louisiana, showing cotton being carried by enslaved labourers, and a cabin by the side of the path. From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1853-54.
Slavery Images.

“[Manchester’s] opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines.”

Herman Merivale, British colonial bureaucrat, 1841.

Within this global industrial system, human beings and their time and labour became commodities and the finished Manchester textiles became a store of capital and profit created from exploitative labour. In defiance and subversion of this system, however, excluded and exploited people across the Atlantic reclaimed textiles through non-industrial handicrafts and expertise as tools for self-expression, resistance, and preserving cultural heritage. 

Pride and control 

“The women take a pride in the number of their coats, and are not contented with any but what are made from the best materials.”  

William Beckford, plantation owner, 1790.

Despite being forcibly removed from their homelands, families and communities, enslaved Africans resisted enslavers’ attempts to strip them of all personal agency and social identity. In the Caribbean, enslaved people were usually provided with cheap, imported cloth to sew their own garments. However, where possible, women traded or sold what they were given, to acquire finer materials more suited to their own tastes.

A busy antiguan market place, 1808.

Sunday markets were a location of rare freedom in a highly oppressive system, allowing access to small amounts of money, household items and food through the sale of surplus grown produce. At market, the purchase of fabrics allowed enslaved women some choice over their personal appearance and expression- a way to reclaim some control. 

Natural fabrics and heritage 

“The ladies of the island are extremely dexterous in making caps, ruffles, and complete suits of lace with [bark]; in order to bleach it, after being drawn out as much as it will bear, they expose it stretched to the sunshine, and sprinkle it frequently with water … It bears washing extremely well … and [is] equal to the best artificial lace.”

Edward Long, plantation owner, 1774.

Cotton spinning and textile manufacture had been a significant industry across West Africa for centuries. However, there is little evidence of enslaved people weaving their own clothes in the Caribbean. This was probably due to imported material being readily available in the busy trading hub, and because sugar, rather than cotton, dominated the area. 

Weaving of Kente cloth, a traditional West African fabric worn by the Asante and Ewe people.
Flickr, Lee D. Baker, CC BY-NC-NC.

Certain African textiles did, however, find their way across the Atlantic. Poor provisions and intense labour meant that enslaved people were often in need of extra clothing. This was a particular issue for women who, despite working similar manual jobs as men, were often left with fewer fabric rations and a desperate need to source new garments. Sometimes these clothes were crafted using ingenious techniques. 

Lace bark slippers made in Jamaica, about 1872. These shoes are made from the bark of the laghetto tree, which enslaved people discovered was a good substitute for kyenkyen bark.
Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Bark cloth and bark lace were traditional West African fabrics, made from beaten strips of bark from the kyenkyen tree. Though this tree was not found in the Caribbean, enslaved communities were versatile and creative. They experimented to discover which native trees could be substituted for the traditional African bark, and developed these technologies and skills over generations. As these slippers show, tree bark could be made into elegant, but also very durable, natural fabrics. 

Practicality and culture 

“They are fond of covering [their heads] at all times, twisting one or two handkerchiefs round it, in the turban form which they say keeps them cool in the hottest sunshine.”

Edward Long, 1744.

Head wraps were another West African dress tradition that enslaved women cherished and cultivated. They were worn for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Wraps were one way that women could style themselves in various fashions, with access to small pieces of bright and colourful fabric. They allowed women to dress up and express their creativity and individuality. Wraps could also be used to protect recently-styled hair, keep the sun off their heads, and help balance items they were carrying. 

Illustration of women carrying milk pots balanced on their head wraps, Suriname, 1839.
Slavery Images.

Planters failed at their attempts to strip enslaved people of African culture and heritage. Enslaved women adapted traditional techniques to novel environments and retained aspects of African culture and dress as a means of survival and expression. Essential connections to their homeland were passed onto their descendants, and new cultures and ways of dress were shaped. 

Dyes and weaving  

“I’ll tell you how to dye. A little beech bark dyes slate colour; set with copperas. Hickory bark and bay leaves dye yellow, set with chamber lye; bamboo dyes turkey red, set colour with copperas. Pine straw dyes purple, set colour with chamber lye. To dye cloth brown we would take the cloth and put it in the water where leather had been tanned and let it soak, then set the colour with apple vinegar. And we dyed blue with indigo and set the colour with alum.”

Millie Evans, a formerly enslaved woman, about 1930.

Illustration of Anil, or Indigofera suffruticosa, an indigo plant native to the Americas and used for dying.
Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In the southern United States, where cotton plantations were widespread, women usually made their own clothes from raw cotton. Enslaved women would often be made to perform domestic work, being taught how to card, spin, weave, dye and sew garments. As a result, many women became proficient seamstresses and used their skills, as well as access, given or taken, to textile materials, for their own practical use and personal expression. 

Enslaved people brought expert knowledge of natural dyes and resources from Africa to the Americas, as well as learning of native plants and techniques to colour and style their clothes with. African people’s extensive knowledge of dyes also had a significant influence on European fabric manufacturing. 

Quilting and folk-craft 

“I used to wait on the girl who did the weavin’. When she took the cloth off the loom she done give me the thrums [ends of thread]. I tied ’em all together with teensy little knots an’ got me some scraps from the sewin’ room and I made me some quilt tops. Some of ’em was real pretty too!”

Betty, a formerly enslaved woman, about 1930. 

Enslaved women were not only affected by the racist exploitation of the plantation system, but also patriarchal attitudes, such as the expectation to manage domestic work and childcare. On plantations, women were often responsible for night-time needlework chores, despite having worked a full day in the field. While men socialised or slept, women bonded throughout these exhausting shifts. 

Quilting has a rich history and tradition for many African American women, with roots stretching into the time of enslavement. Any usable small, loose pieces of cloth would be saved for use, swap or trade. To ensure that the quilts kept their families warm throughout chilly nights, they were filled with scraps, such as fragments of thread and wool. 

Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt, 1898, held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Powers was an African American folk artist born into slavery. The quilt shows local and astronomical events and biblical scenes. The storytelling and applique techniques she uses are similar to West African fabrics.
Wikimedia Commons.

Despite limited resources, these quilts were often expertly decorated. Patterns of individual, cultural and religious significance were threaded into them, often using traditional African embroidery techniques. Quilting was both utilitarian and a way for enslaved women to preserve and express their culture and heritage. 

“Frolics”, or the groups in which women gathered to quilt, were an opportunity for them to socialise and foster communities. African-born women had been taken from their ancestral homelands, while enslavers continued to rip people from their families and communities through the internal slave trade, so these frolics were essential for survival, respite and bonding. As very few enslaved people could read or write, gatherings also functioned as a way for individuals to tell stories and pass on information and skills. Quilts could even aid survival in more dramatic ways: 

“There wuz an ol’ lady patching a quilt an’ de paddyrollers [Slave patrollers] wuz looking fo’ a slave named John. John wuz dar funnin’ an’ carrying on. All at once we herd a rap on de door. John took an’ runned between Mamy Lou’s legs. She hid him by spreading a quilt across her lap and kept on sewing an’, do you kno’, dem pattyrollers never found him?”

Fannie Berry, a formerly enslaved woman, about 1930.  


Extract from a poem written for a Sheffield Ladies’ anti-slavery bazaar, 1839.
University of Manchester John Rylands Library.

Quilts and clothes were also among the items that women donated to anti-slavery bazaars in both the US and UK. These fairs were an opportunity to raise funds and support for the abolition movement through selling items, distributing publications and recruiting new members. Denied entry to many political meetings and movements by male-only rules and customs, the anti-slavery movement welcomed women, and they were able to play a significant role, as both activists and consumers.  

From the early 19th century onwards, all-female abolitionist campaign groups sprung up across the UK, represented in our city by collectives like the Manchester Ladies’ Free-Grown Cotton Movement. These groups produced literature, often aimed directly at women, urging them to consider the consequences of their purchases and boycott slave-grown cotton. 

Extract from a Manchester Ladies’ Free Grown Cotton Movement leaflet.
University of Manchester John Rylands Library.

This was part of a wider free-produce movement, which aimed to attack slavery by depleting demand for slave-grown cotton. Leaflets produced by these groups advised readers where they could buy free-grown cotton, that is, cotton not reliant on slavery. Denied both the vote and many personal legal rights, and confined to the domestic sphere, women harnessed the significant power they did have as consumers through their control over the purchase of household goods. It should be noted, however, that though there was considerable support for the abolition movement amongst Manchester’s working classes, the greater price of free-grown textiles meant that they were often unaffordable for poorer women. 

Sewing played a key role in these campaign groups. There are certain similarities between anti-slavery sewing groups, such as “Olive Leaf Circles”, and quilting frolics. These circles provided a way for women to socialise, organise and bond, while supposedly conforming to the expected behaviour of women. At sewing circles, women would decorate accessories, such as this pincushion, with anti-slavery slogans. These items were donated to bazaars, or worn, in order to promote the message to the public.

Pincushion decorated with an anti-slavery message. This was a variation of the more popular “Am I Not a Man and Brother?” slogan, made by women to appeal to other women and address the plight of enslaved women in particular.
Manchester Art Gallery.

The slogan stitched in the object above was intended to shame merchants and manufacturers as well as consumers of slave-produced goods. The image of a shackled, enslaved figure was employed to demonstrate the inhumanity of the system. However, the kneeling image also perpetuated racist stereotypes by representing enslaved Africans as passive and uniform. 

Of course, enslaved people were neither of these things. Despite hugely oppressive conditions, enslaved women used available opportunities for self-expression and agency. In great symbolic defiance, they utilised the very textiles produced through exploitative labour to express African and African American heritage and individual identities. Meanwhile, groups of Manchester women carved out a political and activist niche to raise vital awareness and funds for the anti-slavery cause. 

Traditional crafts continue to be employed by women today, often to spark vital dialogues about oppression and resistance. Two noteworthy examples are Bisa Butler, who creates intricate quilted portraits exploring African-American people and communities, and Cut Cloth, a Manchester-based project examining contemporary textiles and feminism. 

Find out more 


Library of Congress American Memory Collections, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.  

Revealing Histories, Pincushion: Am I not your Sister?  

Revealing Histories, The Economic Basis of the Slave Trade.  

Sequitur, Soft Politics: The Frictions of Women’s Abolitionist Needlework.  

Historic England, The Textile Mills of Lancashire: The Legacy.  

Historic England, Ancoats: Cradle of Industrialisation.  


Gladys-Marie Fry, Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South, 2002. 

Deborah Grey White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, 1999. 

This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.