In Instruments of Industry Hannah Leighton-Boyce reactivates a collection of handtools that have lain dormant in Touchstones Rochdale’s archive since the earliest recorded accession in 1979. Housed in a former engineering works the archive contains a collection of historical and contemporary artworks, as well as artefacts and documents pertaining to the local history of the region. Alongside these a collection of tools that were once held in the hand to mould, shape, cut or measure material from leather to wood and copper, have been catalogued and shelved in the museum’s archival store. Separated from their intended use and the gestures of their practical application, these pliers, callipers, saws and plains are now handled with a softer touch – held as little as possible and with a level of protective care that was absent from their previous life. No longer used to pull, cut, measure or saw they are put to rest rather than to work in the archive. Removed from the world of work they have become objects to be preserved, exhibited, observed and historically considered.

Still, resting and sleeping objects fill the archive. Row upon row of artefacts and artworks are meticulously catalogued and carefully housed upon standardised metal shelving. Preserved within the climate-controlled environment, the objects, once full of life, find themselves suspended from their prior functionality. Nowhere perhaps is the contrast between active instrument and passive object, between living and sleeping, more palpably felt than with this collection of handtools. In his essay on the Valery Proust Museum of 1967, Adorno writes,

The German word Museal (museum like) has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present.[1]

For Adorno, the museum (and by extension the archive) is a place devoid of life – objects exhibited within its confines have lost their active role within the social sphere and are now appreciated for their aesthetic and historical value instead. They are effectively laid to ‘rest’ behind the thick glass of the museum’s vitrines or high upon the shelves of the archive.

Working with the archived collection of tools, Leighton-Boyce has woken them from their slumber and re-introduced an element of life to the resting objects. Yet instead of simply reusing them, reactivating their original functions between hand and material, Leighton-Boyce animates the tools by extracting the unique quality of sound produced when struck by another object. Gently tapping each tool with a musical beater, the mute surfaces vibrate to click, ring, and chime different frequencies. From the recording of each tool’s resonant sound, Leighton-Boyce has developed an audio installation within the museum’s public gallery. Occupying a small gallery room, two rows of metal shelves mirror the archive environment by inviting the viewer to walk along a corridor of exhibited objects. The handtools are placed upon the shelves in the original order of their archival assemblage. Here, however, the collection of tools resting upon its protective shelving is juxtaposed with the tapping, chiming, chirping and ringing noises of their musical reanimation. Exhibiting both the tools and their accompanying sounds, Leighton-Boyce transports the hidden archive store into public view, representing the resting objects as a quietly chattering choral group.

Resonant bursts of sound echo along the archival corridor. Each tap, chime and click suggests something of a tool’s capacity for life independent of its human destination, a secret acoustic life uncovered by its ostensible miss-use. The ringing notes give each tool a ‘voice’ that is suggestive of an existence away from the schemata of human organisations of the social. Coining the term Object Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman proposes that the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world but between objects and relations. For Harman, objects exist independently of human perception. As such, all object relations, human and nonhuman, exist on equal ontological footing with one another. The object interacts, reacts and has a conscious existence independent from the hand or mind of the individual activating it. The object ‘speaks’ independently. With Harman’s philosophy in mind Leighton-Boyce’s ringing of the handtools serve as an audio marker of their individual ontological existence, bringing them outside of the archive into the gallery setting to further interact with and inform the exhibition environment. However, produced through movement, a wave of pressure and displacement through air that activates particles to vibrate, the production of sound introduces a suggestion of touch that returning the tools to their original association with the human hand. The tap of a beater evokes the stroke, touch or movement of an individual in a way that mirrors and therefore evokes the manner in which the tools would have been placed in relation to the body of a worker, the textual and auditory quality of the object as it is held and activated in the gestures of labour: instruments of industry.

Conceiving of the singular taps, chimes and clicks of each tool as a ‘voice’ might also introduce an anthropomorphic aspect to the life of the object. Aristotle writes in his essay on sound and hearing that a voice is a sound that issues from an animate being.[2] Making the tools ‘speak’ or ‘sing’ with unique frequencies Leighton-Boyce presents the tools as animated bodies. The tap of the musical beater reveals the tonal note and frequency of the tool’s physicality, activating its material particles to resonate with a unique frequency. A note or ‘voice’ issues forth from the ‘body’ of the tool. Here, a parallel can be drawn between the notion of a voice and the potential latent sound contained within other material forms. Activating the surface of an object or physical body results in the production of sound. The objects, bodies and environments within which we live our daily lives are submerged in and similarly contain differing frequencies of sound. Such frequencies can be perceived to unite and enliven the spaces and objects we are in constant relation to.

Considering such frequencies to emit an inherent musicality Leighton-Boyce has produced a series of blueprint drawings that detail the place of each tool within the archive and can be read to function akin to a musical score. Mapped out upon the gallery wall are eight rows of drawings mirroring the shelving system of the archive. Stretching along the wall the lines of blueprints become the latticework of musical notation with each singular tool read as a note upon the lines of a stave. Visualising the sound of the objects in this manner Leighton-Boyce invites us to reconsider the sleeping space of the archive as one of resonant sounds waiting to be played.

Walking along the narrow corridor of archival shelving we closely view each tool, listening to the sound of each item in the collection. The seemingly silent and resting space of the archive is animated into a quietly chattering soundscape. With each tool tapping, chiming or ringing, the acoustic rhythms suggest a form of communication between the displayed objects. The resting tools are enlivened through the sounds that emerge from their material bodies, whether suggestive of the touch and gestures of worker’s hands or indeed indicative of an independent life and relationality extending far beyond their historical function and use.

[1] Douglas Crimp. On the Museums Ruins. Cambridge Massachucettes: MIT Press, 1993. p.44.

[2] Aristotle. De Anima (On The Soul) translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred. London: Penguin Books 1986.


The Journal of Modern Craft. Volume 9 – Issue 2 July 2016 pp.259-261
Book Review: The Event of the Thread by Lynn Setterington.

The paradigmatic shift to a more collaborative, socially engaged arts agenda over the last twenty-five years continues to drive many of the large-scale biennials. Artists worldwide are, as a consequence, constantly inventing new and varied ways to engage the public, and the art establishment in particular. Practitioners from a craft background, one would imagine, are well placed in this field, where making, tacit knowledge, collaboration, and hands-on engagement can be key. However, the funding for and exposure of such craft initiatives remains limited, in Britain at least.

A new publication documenting The Event of the Thread, Hannah Leighton Boyce’s live sculpture, is a positive and welcome contribution to crafts-based engagement. This environmental textile project took place in Helmshore, Lancashire, England in September 2014, an area steeped in textile history, and this new work sheds light on this industrial past exploring the physical scars left by the manufacture of cloth. The Event of the Thread builds on Leighton Boyce’s work for Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in the north of England in August 2013, an international textile project conceived and curated by Professor Lesley Millar of UCA (University for the Creative Arts) (

In the earlier work, Leighton Boyce took as her starting point the experience of place, in particular the huge spinning floor of the old mill, the site of past textile production. The new work also developed from the artist’s response to environment, following time spent in the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, and local history archives. This limited edition book is a valuable and lasting record of the project and encompasses the initial exploratory research through to the event’s culmination on the day itself. It contains an interview with the artist and images of the work and is complimented by an overview of the project by Dani Abulhawa, Lecturer in Performance at Sheffield Hallam University.

The publication draws attention to Leighton Boyce’s sensory methods, her textile sensibilities, and, crucially, her empathetic understanding, each of which is nuanced thoughtfully throughout the work. The book traces Leighton Boyce’s steps to uncover textile history, a fact that is, in this project, literally carved into the local landscape—a discovery that emerged following the examination of an old aerial photo of the landscape loaned to Leighton Boyce by a local resident. This grainy photo captures a series of lines etched into the hillside of Higher Mill, the physical remains of a collective textile activity that involved huge folds of woolen cloth being carried up the hillside as part of the cloth’s finishing process. This involved the cloth being stretched and dried on outdoor wooden tenter frames close to the mills (from which the phrase “on tenterhooks” derives).

The book captures, too, how the artist embraced serendipity in the project and, as a result, took new directions and engaged with unexpected people and places. For example. as an integral part of the project Leighton Boyce spun over 3000 meters of yarn in a series of “pop up” events. The range of locations for these spinning sessions grew and expanded, well beyond the confines of the museum, to include a day spent spinning outside the Robin Hood public house in Helmshore. These creative interventions led to new avenues for engagement that included story sharing and telling with local people who had a part to play in the past and present of Helmshore, and in particular its textile history.

Leighton Boyce also uncovered remarkable archival material, notably the 1961 film Wheel of Fortune. This short film (part of the North West Film Archive: includes powerful moving images of the women mill workers carrying the river of fulled cloth, up onto the hillside, to be stretched on the wooden tenter frames. Like Jeremy Deller’s much-acclaimed re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave (2001), Leighton Boyce elicits support from local people to represent their history and in so doing asks them (and us) to consider their future. However, in contrast to Deller, Leighton Boyce, it could be argued, presents a non-confrontational, female way of seeing history that is poignant, gentle, and subtle. The book, like the intervention itself, is inclusive and insightful, ranging from images of the hand spinning as an embodied process, to the collaborative twining of thread through and between homes around Helmshore. This latter activity, literally the event of the thread, involved passing the hand spun yarn through windows and letterboxes of homes of thirty-five families following the historic lines of the tenter hooks. Sharing the event with the residents was not only vital to its success; it also led to new outcomes and interactions. One family, for example, following on from the event, renamed their home Tenterfield View in honor of the “new” shared history.

This shared history is also echoed in the book by the commissioners of the project, Louise Jacobson and Jennifer Ingram from Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, who acknowledge how Leighton Boyce’s physical presence had a great impact on the project. They also comment on the tangible and lasting outcomes of the work; how the event brought people together who had lived in the area for many years and never spoken to each other. Grant Kester suggests that a dialogical aesthetic is based on the generation of a local consensual knowledge that is grounded in levels of collective interaction[1]; such is the case for Leighton Boyce’s new work. In Women’s Ways of Knowing[2], Mary Field Belenky talks of “connected knowing,” which is based on a conversational mode of exchange where empathic identification is a vital component. The Event of the Thread clearly offers a contemporary rendition of this “connected knowing.” What greater and more fitting compliment can there be, when at the “Material Culture in Action” Conference at Glasgow School of Art in September 2015, Tim Ingold, author of the seminal publication Lines: A Brief History[3] in his keynote lecture spoke positively of The Event of the Thread.

nb. Since this review was written, it has been announced that both Helmshore Mills Textile Museum and its sister organization, Queen St Mill in Rossendale, are to be closed in the Spring of 2016. Both offer unique and much needed educational and social resources in this deprived area and are home to a wealth of expertise and knowledge about our textile manufacturing past. A petition is now underway so let us hope by the time this review is published, the campaign is successful, otherwise yet another facet of this country’s rich social, industrial, and textile history will be lost forever.


[1] Kester, G. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Google Scholar]
[2] Belenky, M.F. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books. [Google Scholar]
[3] Ingold, T. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge. [Google Scholar]


To be Helmshore: Navigating the Undercurrents of Landscape and History by Dani Abulhawa. 2014

At 1.30pm on Sunday 28th September, local families and visitors gather in small groups outside Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in anticipation of The Event of the Thread. People study maps of the route we will take and keep an eye on the metal bucket filled with spools of woollen thread – a thread symbolic of months of spinning, talking, and historical research, which will, in a short time, become part of a collective community activity, an art project, and the connecting of Helmshore’s history to the landscape of Helmshore today.

Helmshore is a village that feels saturated in a rich history. The whole Rossendale area is beautiful, mysterious, and visually absorbing in the quietest and of ways. Consisting of over 20 small and modestly sized settlements, its name, Rossendale, meaning moor valley, is rooted in the geographic features and climate of the area. The valley’s wet and marshy conditions have, in the past, provided water in copious amounts, for the powering of water mills, and the perfect damp conditions for the processing of cotton.

Helmshore flourished during the industrial revolution. The Rossendale Valley became known as ‘The Golden Valley’ during this time, on account of the wealth it brought to mill owners. During this period, housing was built to accommodate the mill workers and their families, who toiled in the many woollen and cotton mills that were situated along the river valleys. A prolonged period of drought in 1959 blighted local communities and, as a way to preserve water for the people of Rossendale during this time, supplies to industry were cut.

Sat together beside the River Ogden, Helmshore Mills Textile Museum was, in its former life, two textile production mills, one named Higher Mill and the other Whitaker’s Mill. Higher Mill was closed in 1967, and only two years later a team of local people – led by Derek Pilkington and Chris Aspen – managed to generate enough money to buy it and to begin restoring it.

A BBC film from 1969 highlights Pilkington’s desire to recreate the atmosphere of the mill and to ‘put over a way of life’ rather than for the museum to focus on the technical aspects of mill production. Pilkington also speaks of wanting to avoid the typical museum presentation of artefacts protected behind glass and out of reach. He wanted people to be able to touch things, and to have a direct connection with the building and its machinery.

This concern with preserving and celebrating not just the machines and the building, but also the feel and atmosphere, and to evoke the lives and livelihoods that occupied the mill, is the grounding for, and the thinking from which The Event of the Thread developed.

In the early stages of developing the project, artist Hannah Leighton-Boyce became fascinated by a particular part of the textile production process, the collective action of the fullers and other mill workers who hauled huge, heavy folds of woollen cloth onto tenter frames that were located outside in the fields surrounding the mill, for the cloth to be stretched out and dried.

A call comes from a man who is heading the walk from the mill to the former tenter fields, “are we ready?” he shouts, proudly carrying the bucket under one arm as we start moving. We pass under the Helmshore viaduct, past the mill master’s house and further up the hill through a small wooded area, loose stones beneath our feet. Some people have never travelled this route before. We emerge at the top of the former tenter fields, onto Anemone Drive. We begin at house number 8.

The site used by Higher Mill and Whitaker’s Mill to house the gigantic 70-feet wide tenter frames used during this production process, is now a housing estate that sits just beyond the viaduct at the yard of the mills. Drawing on historians’ accounts of the wet wool being carried and ‘snaking up hill like a Chinese dragon’, Hannah imagined the workers of the mill singing folk songs as they walked and stretched the woollen cloth onto tenter frames, as it hung like sails across the landscape. The Event of the Thread sought to bring this collective activity of mill workers and their connection to landscape to life in collaboration with the current community of people whose homes sit directly above, and entwine with, this history.

A man raises a spool above his head as he crosses the road and ties the thread to a tree before entering the garden of number 3 and passing the first spool through the front window and into the eager hands of a little girl. There is something fascinating and wonderful about being able to glimpse inside other people’s homes. “I’m going into someone else’s back garden”, proclaims one young boy with glee. There is a ceremonial and dignified feel about the carrying and delivering of thread. “Hold it like you’re holding the Olympic Torch’, one woman says.

Due to the confiscation of aerial photographs, deemed a security risk during the two world wars, very few images remain from before the housing estate was built, providing little information about how the tenter frames occupied the landscape. But on one grainy map of the area, which Hannah borrowed from a local resident kind enough to help with her research, the tenter frames have been clearly documented in several lines across the fields below Helmshore Cottage. Adopting a simple format, The Event of the Thread involved weaving a thick, strong and durable strand of woollen thread through people’s homes and gardens, to trace these lines of the former tenter frames.

Red ribbons mark the entry and exit points of the thread on people’s houses, trees and windows. As one spool runs out, a new one is tied on and the thread continues to wind between homes and gardens, disappearing at times into the hidden world of people’s back gardens. “I wonder where it is now?” one boy asks his mum.

Hannah and a couple of the local people involved in the project go on ahead of the thread, knocking on doors of the homes that the thread will occupy to make sure everything is ready. Hannah says this reminds her of knocking on to friends’ doors as a child, to see if they want to play. The Event of the Thread has this quality of playfulness and a certain child-like freedom to roam around your neighborhood, something rarely experienced as an adult.

The production of the thread took several months of meticulous planning and skilled spinning by Hannah, mostly on a small and easily moveable wheel that she would use in the museum foyer, but would also take outside into the car park and around to the local pub, so as to produce enough thread, and to meet people and tell them about the project. Hannah also used the Great Wheel housed within the Museum. The wool used for spinning was from Helmshore sheep, kindly donated by a local farmer.

The thread is inspected and tugged to test its strength. People admire the smell of lanolin as they take spools from the bucket, un-winding and re-winding as they reflect upon the previous months of preparation that have led to this day.

People congregate on one of the several streets involved in the event, holding vigil outside houses and waiting for the thread to make an appearance. The thread appears suddenly, being poked out through a letterbox, or passed through a window, and then it disappears again, continuing its journey behind closed doors. Once the thread is passed through people’s houses, we imagine them having to step over and under it. We wonder what it looks like hitting tables and chairs, sliding between doorways, skimming the leaves of houseplants.

Talking and making connections with local people was key. Hannah described the project as one that engages with the art of meeting people, or the art of conversation. It is fitting that to spin a yarn can also mean to tell a tale, to talk or chat.

For many people involved, this is the first time they have met an extended group of neighbours. People introduce their relatives, discuss their holiday plans and talk about what they’ve made for the Jacob’s Join at the end (a Jacob’s Join is a Lancashire term for a buffet in which everyone brings a different dish). People talk about how different owners have modified their houses, and how the roads have changed. We tend to do that very British thing of talking about the weather because we want to make a connection, like the thread.

Local cats and dogs greet us, or look on in puzzlement at this group of people strangely wandering between the houses and streets. A huge Alsation inside one of the houses peers over the window frame at all the people gathering outside. A man peeks through his blinds. A woman comes outside to see how it’s going.

Highlighting the importance of oral tradition, many people came along to the museum or met Hannah in the pub while she was spinning to tell her about the history of the mill. They brought objects and told stories from their own experience, or passed down stories they had been told. These fragments of experience and history formed strands that were spun together as part of Hannah’s contextual engagement with Helmshore and its mill industry. The talk became another version of the spinning.

Because of the distance the thread has travelled across several streets, it’s impossible to get a view of the whole installation. We are present for parts of it, experiencing fragments and filling the gaps with our imaginations. In this way, the event of the thread mirrors just how communities are formed and how they work. We see things from our own vantage point, but work together with others to weave a community identity. The event of the thread yokes the modern community of Helmshore with its landscape. As the thread reaches its final destination and is tied onto the lamp post at the bottom of Hyacinth Close, people gather around the marquee for food and drinks, chatting with old and newly made friends and acquaintances.

The event of the thread was symbolic of a local community taking the helm and steering their way through the watery imagery of their landscapes history, towards a renewed understanding of the seams that bind them to the mill industry, its people and to each other’s own unique lands.