Spinning Circle at the Mill

Connecting Craft, Graffiti, and Woollen Mill Heritage

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2936

How to Cite

Hanley, J. (2023). Spinning Circle at the Mill: Connecting Craft, Graffiti, and Woollen Mill Heritage. M/C Journal, 26(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2936
Vol. 26 No. 6 (2023): thread
Published 2023-11-26
Articles

An artful Facebook post after a research event, a spinning circle held at a state heritage listed former mill, is used to explore the intersection of craftivism and the politics around the future of this site. This article takes a new materialism approach to explore the dynamic interactions (intra-actions) and shifting power relations around place (territorialisations). Both the spinning circle and the post were a gentle activism, or as Greer (12) describes it, craftivism, whose essence lies in ‘creating something that gets people to ask questions’.

In 2018, I conducted the research event, the Spinning Circle at the Mill, inviting the Spinners, Weavers, and Fibre Artisans of Ipswich group to hold a spinning circle at the former Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Company, now an empty factory space on the state’s heritage list. The event was part of a larger piece of research considering the generative nature of heritage. As the fibre artists worked, we yarned about their connections with the mill-site, its largely female workforce, and imagined what the future might hold for this heritage place.

Before the day’s events started, I was busy arranging a table for the morning tea and setting out some artefacts and books that participants had brought. I noticed a few of the fibre artists wandering around the factory with a spinning wheel. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing, and called them back a couple of times, worried everyone would wander off into the cavernous mill space. They returned, eventually, and we got on with the session.

After the event, one artist, Mieke den Otter, shared a post Facebook (see fig. 1). When I saw the post, I laughed out loud – and it has haunted me. Her curation of the text and carefully placed wheel in the post’s photograph negotiated time, space and political boundaries with warmth and humour. Here in the realm of Facebook was a piece of data that “glowed”, exerting “a kind of fascination”, that animates further thought (MacLure 228). Social media posts are performative – they affect. Images created and shared extend what heritage sites can do – provoking, expressing new perspectives, and challenging narratives playfully though art. Posts shift conversations.

Fig. 1: Facebook post from the Spinning Circle at the Mill.

What does this Facebook post create? What does this assemblage, this intentional cutting-together of [spinning wheel-graffiti – woollen mill heritage – Facebook – photograph – post text] do?

Methods, Materialities, and Entanglements

This article uses a new materialism methodological framing to consider the dynamics of the events. It draws on Barad’s concepts of agential cuts – the intra-actions of elements cut ‘together-apart’, forming together and separating from others. Barad (Meeting 168) describes the dynamics of intra-actions as diffractions. Diffractions conjure up rippled waves crossing over, each disrupting the other, creating new patterns, the two waves changed and inseparable through the transition and never the same after. Barad’s term ‘intra-action’ considers the changes and inseparability occurring through interactions.

Deleuze and Guattari‘s consideration of the dynamism of assemblages is also useful for thinking through craftivism. Their work offers two key pairings here: the interplay of materiality with expression, and the way physical and political territories are inhabited, highlighting the dynamic relations of power (territorialisations) that constantly challenge the boundaries. These views into the data help us discern what craft and craftivism can do, physically and through its presence on social media. We’ll start with the crafters’ physical presence at the mill.

Ten members of the Spinners, Weavers, and Fibre Artists of Ipswich participated in the Spinning Circle, plus a Council Heritage officer. Two colleagues assisted me with sound recording and photographs. The event occurred 46 years after the mill closed its doors in 1971, having manufactured textiles for ninety-four years. The event was conducted under ethics approval (GU 2017/763), and I have permission from Mieke to write about her Facebook post.

The spinning event at the mill was inspired by the go-along method (Kusenbach), which recognises the potential of accessing lived experiences in situ. The circle could be called a go-along focus group. What I was tapping into was the spinners encountering the empty mill: not their ‘natural environment’ but a space they emotionally connected with through their craft. Some had worked at one of the city’s woollen mills, and all were aware of the mills as part of the heritage of Ipswich. I further drew on the work of Edensor in recognising affects produced by walking through industrial ruins, decentring everyday divisions between past and present. I wanted the spinners to be affected by this unfamiliar space, in helping them consider what the space could be. We started by walking the mill site, becoming absorbed in both its emptiness and the haunting presences as a Council heritage officer and I guided them through the spaces. The two participants who had worked at other Ipswich mills shared some of their stories as we walked. Then the spinners sat in a circle to spin, knit, craft, and yarn, and it became a focus group where we imagined possible mill futures.

Weavings and Intra-Actions of an Image

The interplay of materiality and expression is a co-functioning of things, relations, languages, words, and meanings (Anderson and McFarlane). The point is awareness of what is being produced and understanding the conditions and intra-actions enabling and embedded in its production. Delving into the materialities draws other “entanglements” (Barad) – influences operating at a distance, often in a different space or temporality. Through entanglements, a complex web of phenomena emerges as elements come together and are set apart. Entanglements may be sensed rather than seen, felt rather than thought. Assemblages and their entities are not static, but act at various intensities and rhythms, affecting each other. Considering these dynamics as intra-actions emphasises that actions affect all that are connected though an event, blurring boundaries: there is no separation. In the Facebook post’s image, the physical spinning wheel has become part of the graffiti and graffiti part of the wheel, intra-acting, changing both, expressing something new. The intra-action extends to those setting up the image, photographing, observing, then the larger audience on Facebook. Affects flow and ripple through intra-actions across time, all the way to writing this article and beyond.

The photo composition was purposeful; the position carefully sought out. The spinning wheel in its material expression is a modern tower wheel – compact for travel – and is used by many spinners. It expresses that the craft is alive and well, and its technologies are evolving. The wheel design, while modern, harks back to the seventeenth-century European adaption of this technology and to the cottage manufacture of textiles prior to the industrial revolution. No spinning wheels were present at the Ipswich mills. The industrial spinning mules and frames of the mill were about speed and volume. Hands worked the machines mainly to fix broken threads, not as a creative force as with a wheel, but rather to enable the machines to overcome their mechanical limitations. Bringing the wheels to the factory expresses a playful juxtaposition between manufacturing and crafting.

After ceasing operations as a woollen mill in 1971, the building was used as plywood factory (Boral-Hancock Plywood) from 1984 until 2011 – it has been left empty since. Shortly after, the street artists ‘invaded’ creating this extensive graffiti gallery, which includes some standout-art artworks (see fig. 2). The background graffiti in the Facebook post shows a comfy lounge room, with sofa and TV. The graffiti expresses a scene totally anomalous to a hyper-heated, humid, noisy woollen mill or plywood factory. It possibly reflected the artist’s longing for some home comforts. The image also merged the artist’s presence with the graffiti. An earlier Facebook post about the day mentioned the artists seeking shelter and squatting at the mill. Around the factory the occasional cat image appears, just as a cat might. I’m not sure if they are a house cat, or a factory cat to deal with rodents, but they express comfort, and are likely by the same artist (see fig. 3). 

Fig. 2: An example of the range of graffiti at the mill. Image by Joan Kelly 2018.

Fig. 3: An example of a cat drawn at the mill. Image by J. Hanley 2017.

The text of the spinning wheel post is also deeply resonant:

‘every home needs a wheel’
installation at the Old mill site

The post’s text conjures pictures of homes with a spinning wheel at the ready. For a time, in pre-industrial Europe, spinning wheels were a necessary household item for clothing one’s own family and to make a living. Especially in agricultural districts, many families needed a wheel, and spinners worked long hours for economic survival (Pinchbeck). Clearly, today, other than for textile crafters, a spinning wheel is not a general item needed for the home – it’s a poignant joke that is created. Terming the wheel placement “an installation” elevates the assemblage of wheel and graffiti both as serious artwork and a production. Beyond that, the post works as a subtle form of activism. At the time of the visit to the mill, the site was undergoing conservation work and was not available for public use. To be in the space was exceptional: the was asserting the artist’s presence and staking a claim to the territory on behalf of the artists of Ipswich.

Re/De-Territorialisations

Territorialisations are the dynamics of the shifting boundaries of belonging and exclusion, power and subversion. Every assemblage carves out territory from the milieux, in this case the physical mill space, its former use as a textile mill, the circle participants and its physicality: to understand the assemblage is to understand the territoriality it envelops (Deleuze and Guattari). The former mill site is a politically contentious place. The mill was acquired by Ipswich City Council in 2015 (Queensland Government). The large riverside lot is close to the CBD, and adjacent to a sports field. The site was designated as a youth recreation centre in Council’s Open Space Strategic Master Plan (Ipswich City Council). Previously, the former mayor had promised the space as an arts hub (Queensland Times). However, by the time of our spinning circle, the mayor was up on corruption charges (Snowdon and Walsh), the whole council was under administration (Johnson), and the site was in a state of stasis. Based on conversations and gatherings, to this day the arts community claims the mill space as theirs despite Council reallocations. They want an arts hub, and they want it at the mill.

Through the forces of re-territorialisation and de-territorialisation, assemblages change as elements, forms, and structures materialise and recede (Duff). The mill territory has suffered many disruptions. Re-territorialisation is the action by the owner, or holder of power in a space, to manage or reaffirm control. DeLanda uses the term ‘stabilisation’ but, depending on context, other terms can assist to understand re-territorialisation: take possession, colonisation, exert power over. The mill is currently Council territory by ownership, and Council’s activities of re-territorialisation – maintaining the territory, are planning, maintenance, and heritage conservation work. The added complexity in ownership at the time of the research event was that Council had itself been re-territorialised by the State Government administrators, however it still acts as the ‘Council’ entity.

De-territorialisation is the disruptive action by those dominated, marginalised, or excluded in their efforts to exert a different kind of power. DeLanda terms this ‘destabilisation’, and other words might be to agitate, unsettle, upset, reclaim. These acts are not necessarily done by a unified group, and the array of elements acting can change the nature of destabilisation. At the mill, different community groups were interested in this territory, including street artists, crafters, and performing artists.

The mill graffiti covering the walls are also de-territorialisations, attempting to take control of a space. The spectre of the street artists was a persistent backdrop to all activities on the day. Graves-Brown and Schofield discuss how the graffiti in a heritage site linked to the Sex Pistols punk band conjures a feeling of the band members’ presence as unruly ghosts, lounging on sofas, scribbling on walls. At the mill site, the street art at times overpowers. The emptiness of the factory floor accentuates both their art and the artists’ missing presence. There was even an alcove where spray cans were left on a ledge (see fig. 4). It gave a sense of having disturbed their workspace and that they had hastily run off. But who are the intruders here? Whose territory is this space? Considering the dynamics of territorialisations opens the politics of place, and contentions of ownership. It’s as if there is always some residue of past territorialisations, ready to be tapped, as the Facebook post has done.

Fig. 4: Spray cans in an alcove at the mill. Image by Joan Kelly 2018.

In the mill’s time of abandonment (2011–2015), the street artists had managed to not only disrupt and de-territorialise the factory, but had re-territorialised the space completely, in a sense owning it; their presence more pervasive than the former workers, and, for now, more enduring.

The creation of the image was an intra-action turning the lounge graffiti into a different piece of art, and through the Facebook post, it became an act of craftivism and poetry. The spinning wheel installation at the mill was a clear act of de-territorialisation, through expressing, ‘I was here’: I was here as a crafter, and member of the arts community, and I created an art installation. All this was expressed with a ‘soft voice’ through materiality, images, and words, in a clever, artful, ‘craftivistic’ way.

During the spinning circle (see fig. 6), conversations arose about others who shared the mill territory. That we were meeting on Aboriginal country of people of the Yagara/Yugara Language Group (the Jagera, Yuggera, and Ugarapul People), land re-territorialised by European colonisers was acknowledged. Given the long history of First Nations peoples in the area, little is known of the textiles that were created. However, we discussed the kinds of Indigenous textiles that might have been made locally, as well as the skills that the Pacific Islander migrants of recent times have brought to Ipswich. The spinners imagined creating a dyers’ garden outside the mill. They evoked the excitement of dyeing days, “whenever you are walking you are gathering”, “always looking down”, and using the incredible range of colours available from indigenous plants. Entanglements across time emerged: plants and dye making connect the here and now with makers in the past, and different places. Discussions also focussed on the workers, particularly the large female workforce, and ways to honour their stories through a combination of museum and textile arts of various forms, including manufacturing and hand crafts.

Fig. 5: The Spinning Circle focus group.

There are often competing urges to de-territorialise heritage. Many will claim a place as their heritage – to emphasise their story, or perhaps transport it into the present. In the case of the mill site, Council mostly dominates, although as a state heritage site, there are territory boundaries between Council and the Queensland government. The graffiti here will be tolerated as far as those who own the territory will allow it. Eventually wall territory will be reclaimed from the street artists in making room for the new. At the time of writing, it had started to happen already. Many of the internal walls from the plywood factory time have been removed, including the image of sofa, lamp, and TV. It is no more. The spray cans have been binned. It makes the Facebook post even more haunting. There is still an overwhelmingly large graffiti presence, but it is already starting to feel contained, edited down. The arts community, though, are committed to making the space their own. Those who worked there have little voice, possibly none in the mill's becoming, however there is a sense of deep community respect for the workers and these places of work.

Conclusion

The spinning wheel Facebook post embraced craft, heritage and art. Considering a social media post as an assemblage, emphasising intra-actions highlights the temporality of relations between bodies and things. Their forms, and what they express, accentuate the fragility through a moment captured in time. The re-territorialisations and de-territorialisations of the mill offer perspectives on what is being produced, recognising the forces at play. The mill site itself can be read in terms of the changes in territorialisations, and its dynamism over time:

woollen mill company – plywood company – street artist domain – Council site being conserved – spinning circle (for the day) – Facebook post in moments of sharing – community mill sentiments.

These are also entanglements of the site – influences at a distance and through different temporalities.

The street artists initially were de-territorialising, disrupting the narrative of the mill, and for a year or two made it their own. Their enduring artwork helped engage the local arts community in claiming the mill spaces as their territory also; for a time capturing the political will of the Council’s former mayor. As the mayor’s fortune faded, so too did the hold over the territory by the arts community, the mill now re-territorialised by budgets and other priorities. Yet members of the arts community are determined to push their claims for the space.

Coming together with the Ipswich spinners in situ as a research activity produced an embodied understanding through walking and yarning and feel for the space and its connections. The spinners owned the mill space for a few hours, bringing with them the sense of awe about the empty place and the richness it engendered. Their engagement with the space in situ and online served, for a time, to de-territorialise the space, plying threads from past and present with imaginings for the mill’s future. The Facebook form of craftivism, captured by the image and text of the post, seemed a natural progression from the day, a further disruption of the narrative.

In determining potential futures for this space that are invigorating and respectful, Council will need the engagement of the myriad communities – the Yagara people, the former mill workers and former plywood workers connected to the site through often significant periods of employment, and communities of interest in Ipswich, like the Spinners and Weavers, who can bring new energy to the space. The future of the mill requires drawing together a living community that can bring the space to life. This Facebook craftivism is one provocation of a complex reimagining of the mill’s heritage futures – it’s a wave, small but able to diffract and create new patterns of conversation.

References

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Author Biography

Janis Hanley, Griffith University

Dr Janis Hanley’s field is critical heritage, and her doctoral research explored New Materialisms and Queensland’s woollen textile industry. Janis’s work investigates the margins between heritage and history as well as the marginalise, the juxtapositions of past, present, and future found through experiencing places, and memories, direct and inherited that continue to haunt.  Janis’s other research interest is in early Chinese in Australia.