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Studying the textiles industry collection

Associate Curator, Iona Farrell, and Collections Review Registrar, Laura Gibson, take us behind the scenes to explore their work studying and reviewing some of the incredible items we care for.

Over the past two years, the Collections Review team, based at the National Collections Centre (NCC) in Wiltshire, has been working on a number of projects to review specific parts of the Science Museum Group Collection. These projects are aimed at both increasing knowledge and understanding about the items we care for in the collection.

In October 2019 we began a review of around 250 objects from the Science and Industry Museum’s Textile Industry collection, which are stored at the NCC.

This collection is an important part of the Science and Industry Museum’s history, as it is one of the museum’s original collections, dating back to 1965. Containing almost 2,500 objects, it showcases Manchester and Lancashire’s role as the foremost textile manufacturing and trading centre of the 19th and 20th centuries, and covers the manufacture of textiles through to marketing and trading, incorporating the design, testing and development of textiles as well as the manufacture of textile machinery.

A particular highlight of the collection is the historic working textile machinery, which operates in the Textiles Gallery at the Science and Industry Museum. Dating from around 1880 to 1950, the machinery showcases the manufacture of cotton cloth, from raw cotton to woven material.

This Textiles Industry collection was identified for review because we wanted to understand more about some of the stored textiles machinery which the Science and Industry Museum has been collecting for over half a century. Our aim was to examine the significance of the material that has been collected over the last 50 years.

Collections Review process

The Collections Review process is formed of two parts: an inventory of the object to gather information about its physical condition, and the review – a more detailed look into the object’s history, provenance and significance.

Inventory phase

The first stage of the project was a physical inventory of each object in the review using our collections management system. We followed a clear process to record specific information about each object we examined. This information would be essential for reviewing the objects during the second stage of the project.

For every object, we began by undertaking a hazard assessment, followed by an evaluation of the object’s condition. We also recorded the object’s measurements and considered any specific storage or movement requirements. Finally, the object was then photographed, labelled, and assigned an individual barcode to help keep track of the object’s location.

We then wrote an object description. This involved describing both the physical attributes of the object, for example its colour and size, and more technical information where possible, such as the type of machine or manufacturer. It was important for us to record as much detail as possible at this stage to support the research we carried out later.

Review phase

After physically examining each object, and recording all the relevant information, we were able to begin the review phase, where each object was examined and researched.

The object assessment followed a series of questions covering a variety of topics, relating both to the physical condition of the object, for example its completeness or if any conservation work was required, as well as more curatorial questions, such as the significance of the object and its relevance to our collection.

Working alongside the curator of the Textiles Industry collection, we used the information we recorded during the inventory phase and through our research to complete the reviews.

This enabled us to highlight some key objects from the collection and uncover new information and stories – some of which are highlighted later this in this blog post – as well as identifying a small number of objects that were no longer suitable for the collection and could be transferred to other museums.

External consultation

During the review, we identified several objects which required more in-depth research and specialist knowledge, and so we worked closely with a textiles industry consultant.

This was an invaluable opportunity to gain a greater insight into these objects and enabled us to make more informed decisions about their future, as well as helping us to gain new insight into a number of rare and unusual objects.

Highlights of the review

1. Barrel shedding mechanism for weaving

This is a unique object and is believed to be the only one of its kind in a UK collection. It was previously thought to be a type of printing mechanism. However, after being assessed by the expert eye of our textiles industry consultant, it was identified as a shedding mechanism for a loom.

Shedding mechanisms simplified the weaving of complicated patterns and this engraved barrel would have been mounted above a hand loom. As the barrel spun, the engraved pattern would have been woven into the fabric. This example was also used at the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

2. Cotton and rayon display stand

This display stand provides an insight into how textile mills promoted their wares. Spun packages of yarn could be slotted onto the wooden tubes. It was most likely used by the Cotton and Rayon Spinners Company to showcase the range of cotton and rayon yarns that were spun at Rugby Mill. This mill was situated in Chadderton, Oldham and was taken over by the Cotton and Rayon Spinners in 1949.

Cotton was central to the textiles manufacturing trade of Lancashire and Manchester. From the 1850s, Manchester became known as ‘Cottonopolis’. Rayon was one of the first semi-synthetic fibres to be developed, and was first produced commercially in the late 19th century, although it was not until the 1920s that it became a popular and cheaper alternative to silk in Britain.

3. Calico printing demonstration model

This unique, small-scale three roller textile printing machine was used by students of the Polymer and Fibre Science Department at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. The machine is significantly smaller than a typical, commercial printing machine and was designed by the Manchester firm, Mather & Platt, likely specifically for educational purposes. Mather & Platt was one of most important engineering firms in Manchester.

The machine was hand operated by a crank that turned the engraved copper rollers and wooden inking rollers. The engraved rollers carried the dye paste which was pressed over the fabric, transferring the dye and the pattern. This process was first developed in 1785 by Joseph Bell of Preston and revolutionised the printing industry.

This object is one of a number of objects in the collection that provide insight into the practical teaching methods of textiles colleges and universities which prepared students for future careers in the industry.

4. Flat braiding machine

This braiding machine dates from the early to mid-19th century. Mechanical braiding machines like this were first developed in Manchester, with the first patent issued in 1748.

Braiding machines worked by intertwining three or more strands together. This machine is of the ‘horn gear’ type, where bobbins mounted onto carriers are rotated by a system of gears. As the bobbins pass one another, their yarns become intertwined to form a braid.

This machine was made by a London manufacturer, G. Harris, and originally used by a South London company, Benton and Johnson Ltd, who were specialists in making metallic braids, like those used on military uniforms. It was later acquired by J. B. Hyde & Co, a small family-run manufacturer of braiding machines in Altrincham, Cheshire, who displayed it in their showroom as an example of early braiding technology. The wooden frame of the machine is typical of early textile machines.

These objects as well as others from the Science and Industry Museum’s Textiles Industry collection which were researched as part of the review, will soon be published digitally, making this new information accessible for everyone to explore online.