Coleg Menai art students have illustrated a book exploring the links between the global slave trade and the Welsh wool industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Woven Histories of Welsh Wool and Slavery features illustrations by learners on the BA (Hons) and foundation degree Art & Design courses based at Parc Menai in Bangor, and is part of a research project led by Dr Charlotte Hammond of Cardiff University.
Coleg Menai students Chloe Buckless, Anne Butler, Jessica Chun, Seren Haf Williams-Davies, Elin Roberts and Kimberley Sanchez researched the historical connections between the slave trade and Welsh wool production of the same period.
Their striking visual responses appear throughout the free bilingual book, bringing to life the story of how woollens known as ‘Welsh plains’ were used by British merchants to purchase and trade in African captives, and also by plantation owners to clothe enslaved labourers.
The book also sheds light on the harsh conditions endured by Welsh wool workers whose labour was exploited by landowners and merchants.
Anne said: “It was fascinating to find out the connection between these old forgotten mills, many of which are now being reclaimed by nature, and their part in the production of wool that was used to clothe enslaved people across the Atlantic. I think it is important to shed light on this history.
“The project brought up some strong feelings which could be channelled into our art.”
Wool was at the centre of the global textile industry of the 18th century, before it was eventually overtaken by cotton.
‘Welsh Plains’ was a durable woollen cloth woven in mid-Wales between 1650 and 1850, which was particularly sought-after by plantation owners. One South Carolina planter, Robert Maxwell, wrote in 1823 that local manufacturers had tried to imitate Welsh Plains but found their products’ qualities to be inferior. Maxwell preferred to buy cloth “made by the farmers of Wales”.
Woven Histories of Welsh Wool and Slavery is part of a research project led by Dr Charlotte Hammond of Cardiff University, in collaboration with community researchers Liz Millman (Learning Links International) and Marcia Dunkley (Black Heritage Walks Network).
Dr Hammond said: “With this project, we have sought to highlight an area of history that has received little recognition until now.
“The students explored traces of this historical narrative that links the exploitation of weavers in rural Wales with the racial injustices of Atlantic slavery, and its reliance on the circulation of Welsh-made textiles.
“Our work has taken us from the ruins of pandy-fulling mills in Dolgellau, Meirionnydd, via the packhorse trails that transported Welsh Plains cloth to England. There, it was dyed and finished in Shrewsbury, sent to London and Liverpool to be traded and then exported to the Americas.
“We have followed the cloth’s colonial connections to the Caribbean and southern states of the US, where Welsh Plains was used to clothe enslaved field workers who toiled on the plantations.
“The resulting artwork from the group of emerging artists and designers is their visual response to this history.”
Woven Histories of Welsh Wool and Slavery, published by Common Threads Press, is available online and will also be published in print later this year. It has been supported by Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) Research Innovation Funding.
Students’ artwork has also been on display at Cardiff University as part of the project.
For more information about the art and design courses available at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, click here.