World-renowned textile designer Michael Brennand-Wood comes home to Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 October 2016
His mill worker granny taught him to knit and sew. Now, Michael Brennand-Wood is a global name in textile art and he’s back working in Lancashire. Sue Riley reports.
IN the 1970s the world of textiles was dominated by women, but that didn’t stop Michael Brennand-Wood pursuing his passion - first at Bolton College of Art, then in Manchester. After all, he’d been taught to sew and knit by his grandmother who worked in one of the mills in Summerseat, near Bury.
Now, more than six decades later, Michael – one of the country’s top textile artists with work in collections across the globe – has his first public commission in his home county.
‘My grandmother was an industrial weaver in a mill, her parents and her sisters worked there too. As a child there was always lots of fabric around the house and me and my brother used to play with it,’ he says. ‘We spent a lot of time with our grandparents. My grandfather was an engineer and he had a shed, so as a young boy I vacillated between textiles, metal and wood. It’s in my DNA!’
He’s now back in Lancashire after arts organisation Mirador commissioned him to create a large scale textile installation at Standfast & Barracks, a fabric printing company in Lancaster. ‘When I was a little boy I remember the looms and the noise. When I came to Standfast it was like going back home, it was a Proustian thing,’ he says. ‘I got really excited, a historical site, with holes in the roof, stains on the wall and piles of printing cylinders, a really interesting sensory environment.’
Standfast’s 150-year history also fits in perfectly with Michael’s way of working – his exploration of contemporary and historical sources through traditional methods with a modern twist. ‘Since the mid-1980s I have been interested in historical textiles, looking at traditions and history. It hopefully inspires younger people to look at things which perhaps weren’t considered fashionable,’ he says, talking about the years when he was a senior lecturer at London’s prestigious Goldsmith’s College.
Born in 1952 it’s a long time since he lived in Lancashire, although he did have a solo exhibition, You are Here, at the Storey Gallery, Lancaster, in 2002. The Whitworth in Manchester has more of his works than any other in the UK and he’s been the subject of several A-Level textiles question, but he is still best known overseas where his colourful pieces grace galleries and private collections in Europe, Australia, USA and Japan.
He has never been afraid of a challenge – he spent three years as the only man in a department of over 30 women studying for his embroidery degree. ‘I thought it was like painting was in 1910, it was uncharted territory,’ he says. ‘Nobody knew what embroidery was, or could be in a contemporary sense, it gave me a lot of possibilities. As a schoolboy in Bury at a grammar school, wanting to be an artist was right up there with wanting to be a spaceman!’
He takes pride in the fact that he still makes things – his work has focused on embroidery, pattern, lace and floral textiles over the years – often at a time when they were deeply unfashionable. ‘I still have fabrics from when I was a student,’ he says. ‘There’s an expression from the US that “she who lives longest has the most fabric!”’
His new four-metre high installation for Standfast called Ghosts Within the Machines will be exhibited in the factory’s dye house. ‘There was a BBC ghost story many years ago, The Stone Tape, which was about how the walls of a building could act as a recording medium, experiences and energy could be retained in the fabric of the walls and replayed at a later date. Ghosts Within the Machines will access and evoke the energy and creativity inherent within the factory spaces.’
He is currently studying many of the hundreds of old pattern books – including some beautiful hand drawn illustrations from the 1930s - at the firm and will use them as inspiration to create his new piece, using a grid structure filled with individual squares with references to pixels and LED lights. He hopes to involve workers at the factory and maybe some schoolchildren to help with the construction of the piece, covering wooden blocks with material for example. But the piece is in the early stages and Michael doesn’t like to overly plan so he won’t know the details until he begins work in the studio.
One aspect that attracted him to textiles is that they’ve always been traded; so working in a commercial printers adds a new dimension. ‘Textiles have never lost their connection with people, you can take somebody who does not know much about contemporary art but they still feel they have an instinctive connection with textiles. This is particularly true in the north west. It’s a sensory and visual access to ideas, we experience through wear, touch, scent, feel and sight. Textiles have lots of really powerful emotive qualities. And it’s nice to be able to explore this here in Lancashire, to be back in my home county.’
Mirador’s Behind The Wall project culminates in a show at Lancaster City Museum from March 4-May 1 2017. For more details go to www.miradorarts.co.uk.
The wonderful fabrics from Standfast & Barracks featured in Lancashire Life last year. You can read about them here.