Making? Whoopee!

Work in progress. Blocked felt crowns drying in the sun. Crown and brim workshop, Stockport Hat Works, May 2016.

Practice, practice, practice. Blocked felt hats drying in the sun. Work-in-progress at the ‘crown and brim’ workshop, Stockport Hat Works, May 2016.

As the academic year – with its teaching, timetables and general bustle – rolls to a close, I have found myself with time to turn to creative pursuits.  I have to tread carefully here in order not to be contrary.  I firmly, very firmly, believe that (academic) writing is itself creative practice.  For me, filling a blank page or computer screen with text is very much a making process.   But all too often and too frustratingly (and here I begin my manifesto), writing, especially of the academic variety is overlooked, or even misunderstood, as ever being a creatively-led production or as requiring deliberate practice.  Publishable, peer review-ready, words and sentences do not just fall from the sky (nor this professor’s fingertips).  Not at all.  Practice makes perfect.  And even then it still hurts.  (I’ll go ahead here, albeit reluctantly, and cite Gladwell’s spurious-seeming claim that it requires 10,000 hours* of practice to achieve mastery in any given field).

At school, we’re often encouraged to be scientific in our reporting and to attempt objectivity.  The academic world is  viewed by some as  being about the production of facts, of figures and – heaven forfend – the pursuit of truth.  The Age of Reason (back in the long eighteenth century) had a lot to answer for in this regard, since it gave rise to a scientific method that priveleged reality over myth (if you’ll pardon the philosophy-lite explanation).  The point I’m getting around to making is that theory and practice sometimes, too often, seem to inhabit different worlds and are pursued by different people as different concerns.  (Yes, that, too, is a vast simplification).  In many ways, I’m referring to myself  and my own situation here.  I’m acutely aware of the dilemma whereby I tend – or have tended – to write and to theorise about the (products of) creative process without being, well, very creative about it.  My thinking has been (somewhat) divorced from any making or the materiality of that which is made.  I’ve been busy producing words about things rather than producing things or engaging with them as things.  At least, not until fairly recently.

This dilemma between my positioning as a theorist and practitioner isn’t easily reconciled or quickly resolved.  The dilemma has, however, opened up a welcome and fertile avenue to explore further and I am inching along it little by little using a variety of means, as follows.

Firstly, I’ve been trying to become more familiar with some of the literature on practice-led research, creative knowledge production and materiality.  There’s any number of authors to go at in that regard from Heiddegger to Sennett.  Tim Ingold’s work, emerging out of anthropology, has been useful.  In his celebrated article, Materials Against Materiality (2007), he makes a compelling case for the study of things through a practical engagement with them.  He gives the examples of sawing logs, building a wall, knapping a stone and rowing a boat (and, invoking a similar thesis, Martin Heidegger, famously, writes of the hammer).  Discovery and knowledge about the material world is, for Ingold, about processes rather than finished products.  He asks (2007, p. 3):

might we not learn more about the material composition of the inhabited world by engaging quite directly with the stuff we want to understand…could not such engagement – working practically with materials – offer a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?

Interesting?  I’ve charted some of this terrain in a bit more detail in my latest essay (published THIS WEEK as part of my bigger The Dress Issue project).

Secondly, and to return full circle to the point at which I began this blog entry, I’ve dedicated much of the summer (so far) to making things (and particularly, but not exclusively, to developing my millinery practice).  I’ve been under the expert tutelage of Sue Carter and Marie Thornton, taking their excellent hatting workshops at both the Stockport Hat Works and, now that I’ve relocated to the hills near Huddersfield, The Millinery Studio, which, as chance would have it, is right on my doorstep.  I spent last weekend, for example, working with (read: ‘wrestling with’) a material called buckram in order to make foundation shapes for covered headpieces.  Success comes in small triumphs as a novice hat maker and I was delighted to win the close-fought battle of stretching, shaping and pinning the wetted, absurdly sticky, buckram into a form that was wrinkle-free yet suitably head-shaped.  Whilst Ingold may endorse working practically with materials, he says nothing of those materials intent on working against you.

*10,000 hours?  Apparently, that’s 90minutes every day for twenty years.  So, let’s get cracking.

The Vanity of Human Attainments

Memorial (front, left) to "commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson's factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818."

Memorial (front, right) to “commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson’s factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818.”

Having relocated (to West Yorkshire) and switching job (to the University of Huddersfield) in the last month or so, I am beginning to settle in to my new pastures.  And mine are literal pastures.  The windows in my new study look out onto the sweeping rural landscape of the Colne Valley and I have six ponies as my direct neighbours (including two adorable young foals).  I’m slowly exploring my new environs and the recent summer warmth has allowed me to make the most of the local bridalways and footpaths.  This morning, I was delighted to discover a new laneway, which took me across fields (the home of two more horses) and deposited me at the lychgate of the local village church.  From my reading of the gravestones, a surprising number of which dated from the 1700s, the local bigwigs appear to have been the Beaumont family.  The most imposing tombstone in the churchyard (pictured here) has a textile industry-related – and utterly tragic – story related to it: Huddersfield and its surrounds being one of the engines of the Industrial Revolution and famed for its cloth manufacturing and wool worsted.  I have moved to what once was mill country.

The memorial commemorates the “dreadful fate” of 17 girls, who were killed in a raging fire at “Mr Atkinson’s factory”, a cotton mill, on 14th February 1818.  Controversially, and presumably for productivity purposes, the mill machinery was operated on a constant basis throughout the day and night.  The night shift included child labour and, in the early hours of the morning in question, a ten year-old boy, James Thornton: “had been sent down for rovings from the card room with a naked candle, instead of the glass lamp provided expressly for the purpose.”  The cotton provided a perfect tinder box, with the fire instantly taking hold and ravaging the building in what was reported as just half an hour.  Nine workers escaped, 17 children aged between 9 and 18 years died, and the mill was razed to the ground.  A facsimile of the burial register may be viewed here.

The incident was a national tragedy and was cited in parliament by Sir Robert Peel in order to lend weight to his Bill for the reformation of factory working.  The fire was descibed in the contemporary press as a “holocaust” and a transcript of the original news report from the Leeds Mercury, 21st February 1818 gives further, chilling, details of the event here.  The overarching suggestion is that the fire was a dreadful accident.  What the Mercury account fails to mention is that is was common practice at the time to lock workers in to a factory for the duration of a shift and, further, that some suggested the overlooker in charge on that particular, fateful, night at Atkinson’s factory had locked up the girls and left them to go for “his evening meal or home to bed”.  An official inquest concluded that no individual was culpable.

The legend on the gravestone memorial reads thus:

Near this place lie what remained of the bodies of seventeen children.  A striking and awful instance of the uncertainty of life and the vanity of human attainments


The Dress Issue

My opening editorial essay in ‘The Dress Issue’ makes a dual claim that there is: dress FOR leisure and dress AS leisure. The latter includes the leisurely pastimes of knitting, sewing and the hobbyist craft production of clothing.

Hear ye!  Hear ye!  I’m delighted to announce that my latest publication has, finally, hit the bookshelves.  I’ve edited a double special issue of Annals of Leisure Research (published by Taylor and Francis) titled ‘The Dress Issue: Part One’ (out now) and (out in July 2016) ‘The Dress Issue: Part Two’.

Together, the two issues (vol. 19, no. 2 and 3) present ten scholarly articles (and one Critical Commentary from the sociologist and leading expert on consumption, Professor Steve Miles) written by academics from around the world (New Zealand, Australia, the USA and UK) and from a range of disciplines: geography, leisure studies, fashion and sport history to name but a few.  There is also an extended editorial essay, authored by yours truly, that offers a sort of manifesto for research on the connections between leisure and dress.  My proposition in the essay is that ‘leisuring dress’ and ‘dressing leisure’ are processes worthy of more sustained attention by academics (I take a further nine thousand words to elaborate the point in my piece!).  To read more, please head to the journal’s website and download a FREE copy of my introductory essay (and give my altmetrics a boost, too).

Articles in The Dress Issue, Part One are:

Dave Day, ‘Natational Dress: Functionality, Fashion and the Fracturing of Separate Spheres in Victorian Britain’

Kathleen Horton, Tiziana Ferrero Regis and Alice Payne , ‘The Hard Work of Leisure: Healthy Life, Active Wear and Lorna Jane’

Hamish Crocket, ‘Tie Dye Shirts and Compression Leggings: An Examination of Cultural Tensions Within Ultimate Frisbee Via Dress’

Jon Anderson, ‘On Trend and On The Wave: Carving Cultural Identity Through Active Surf Dress’

Katherine Dashper and Michael St. John, ‘Clothes Make The Rider? Equestrian Competition Dress and Sporting Identity’

The line up of forthcoming articles in The Dress Issue, Part Two (number 3, July) is:

Amy Twigger Holroyd, ‘Perceptions and Practices of Dress-Related Leisure: Shopping, Sorting, Making and Mending’

Sian Hindle, Rachael Colley and Anne Boultwood, ‘On Performing Art Jewellery: Identity Play As Leisure Activity’

Emma Spence, ‘Eye-Spy Wealth: Cultural Capital and “Knowing Luxury” in the Identification of and Engagement with the Superrich’

Michael O’Regan, ‘A Backpacker Habitus: The Body and Dress, Embodiment and the Self’

Dina Smith and Jose Blanco, ‘”I Just Don’t Think I Look Right In A Lot of Modern Clothes…”: Historically Inspired Dress As Leisure Dress’

As with so many artefacts (if a journal publication may be considered such a thing, which I believe it can and that writing can be posited as a form of making and a creative practice), the final product belies the behind-the-scene processes involved in its making. This has been a two-year long project (Windows Explorer reminds me that I circulated the original Call For Papers way back in February 2014) involving many collaborators, many words, many decisions and many hours of carving and crafting (not just on my part but on those of my contributors, peer reviewers and editor-in-chief.  Together, that numbers well over fifty experts). I hope you enjoy the combined fruits of my labours and those of my collaborators. Freshly squeezed and ready to imbibe.


Round Up


Lobby at the Museum of Art, BYU, with Gabriel Dawes’ ‘Plexus’ installation.  An inspiring setting for my presentation at the Branding the American West symposium, March 2016.

I fly back to Manchester tomorrow after a very productive and adventuresome trip to Utah.  I’ve learned all sorts of lessons and met some interesting people.  I have had my faith restored through the friendliness I’ve encountered along the way as well as the loveliness of the natural landscape that has been the backdrop to my travels.

The main purpose of my trip has been academic.  The Branding the American West conference at the Museum of Art (MoA), BYU, has more than outstripped my expectations.  Every paper I attended was well delivered, well constructed, well researched.  I once heard that the secret to a good presentation – and the secret to a good reception – was simply to show an audience that their time and attendance was valued.  Being prepared and evidencing effort, constructing an argument, showing care and thought in what is argued, then, serves the idea that an audience wishes to be – and is – appreciated by the speaker (and, no doubt, vice versa). This sentiment was played out at the MoA conference in spades (or should that be copper miners’ shovels, I wonder?)

Janalee Emmer, Director of Education at the Museum, and conference organiser had put together a carefully curated programme of speakers.  My two panel mates, Sonya Abrego and Caroline Jean Fernald, formed the perfect complement to my own presentation on dude ranch clothing in the Thirties.  Sonya, with a recently-earned doctorate from my old stamping ground in NYC, the Bard Graduate Center, switched the focus to the 40s and 50s with a detailed discussion of Western clothing brands (think Wranglers and Levi’s) and their use of cattle brand hieroglyphics.  Her argument was illustrated with some super examples, including a  denim line for children by Lee, which sold pint-sized jeans with a blank leather patch on the back left pocket ready to be scorched in-store with a personalised name (how I’d like some of those!).   Caroline, Director of the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, New Mexico, focused on Native American objects as tourist artefacts and showed us photographs of holiday-maker Albert Einstein (no less) during visits to the West on the Santa Fe railroad.

It’s both difficult and a little unfair to pick out highlights from the symposium.  I enjoyed Phil Deloria’s (University of Michigan) keynote speech on Western branding, in which he proposed the mythologizing process to be as much about ‘Westing’ the brand (as branding the West).  His talk took me back to my doctoral thesis and my own past work on Britishness and branding and the commodification of national identity (refer to my book, The National Fabric).  Leo Mazow from the Universiy of Arkansas rounded off the first day’s programme with a tour de force, ending his presentation on Thomas Benton and Edward Hopper with a 10-song guitar and vocal performance. Surely every conference should include a singing professor?  The conference banquet was held in the University’s ‘Skyroom’, a viewing gallery set on the top floor of the Student’s Union building, with awesome views of a setting sun over the Wasatch range.  We marvelled at the scenery whilst dining from enamel plates with bandana napkins, channelling the chuck wagon and chowing down (to use the vernacular).

Day two of the conference served up the opportunity to hear from the curators of the MoA’s latest exhibition, also titled ‘Branding the American West: Paintings and Films 1900-1950’, which is a collaboration between BYU and the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas.  We were treated to a panel discussion with the essayist contributors to the exhibition catalogue, too.  As a result, I am much more knowledgeable about the works of those Western painters such as Maynard Dixon, Frederic Remington and the Taos School (and was honoured to view the originals in the excellent exhibition curated by Marian Wardle and Sarah Boehme).  And I was introduced, too, to artists unknown to me such as the Mormon painter, Minerva Teichert, with her signature delicate and ethereal style.

There is more to attending a conference than simply turning up or to ‘scoring’ a presentation point to put on a CV.  Finding out about other academics and their work – and learning from them is an enriching process.  But, so too, are the enrichments from the unexpected or unscheduled experiences.  During my visit, a group of us went up into the mountains to dine at Sundance Ranch (of film festival and Robert Redford fame) and marvelled at the floodlit ski runs replete with their after-dark skiers swooshing dramatically into the night.  I was also invited by the director of the Redd Center for the American West (Brian Cannon) at BYU to go on a tour of Provo Canyon and was delighted to have the opportunity to see Bridal Veil Falls in snow.  And, after the conference concluded on Saturday afternoon, I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to catch a lift into Salt Lake City for the renowned live broadcast (the longest running continuous radio broadcast in history) of ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ at the Mormon Tabernacle.  My trip to Utah?  Stirring in both mind and spirit.


The Hills Are Alive



It’s ‘Y’ that marks the spot in Provo. The Wasatch mountains with Public Library building (left). March 2016.

Just like the Pioneers during the Gold Rush, I’ve struck it lucky on many counts during this trip out west.  The weather, for example, has been unseasonably warm (it’s a balmy 21c today) and the skies have been bright and blue from morning to night.  This is unusual for the beginning of March.  Needless to say, my thermals, down jacket and woolly hat are languishing at the bottom of my suitcase: I packed for snow rather than sunshine.

These opening words aren’t just ‘filler’ or small talk reflecting a British obsession with the weather.  My conference paper, which I’m delivering tomorrow at the ‘Branding the American West’ conference (at Brigham Young Museum of Art) is on the history of vacation dress and packing for the unfamiliar ranch climate.  Dude ranches around Yellowstone Park, Wyoming and Montana were warm by day and cool by night, so versatility was an essential wardrobe requirement.  I know how those dudes must have felt!  Of course, the very term ‘dude’ has a dress-related etymology.  Said to be of Germanic heritage, the term is derived from ‘duddenkopf’, meaning drowsy head.  The abbreviation, dude, was applied to incomers to the West who were often dressed inappropriately in garish, flashy or impractical outfits.  Dudes stood out as different and were seen as being inauthentic.  The term ‘dude’ was used in the late nineteenth century in a derisive way to ridicule those that didn’t understand the subtleties of Western lore. 

As with many colloquial terms, and with language in general, meanings and usage change over time.  By the 1920s and 1930s (my particular period of interest), dude ranching had begun to be organised into a formal industry.  Ranch owners faced a dilemma: if ‘dude’ was a provocative term applied to hapless holiday-makers, how would they sell ‘dude ranching’ to paying clients?  So began a re-branding project, which is writ large across the primary source material (particularly the dude ranch vacation brochures of the Twenties and Thirties).  Ranch owners were keen to dispel the idea of ‘dude’ as a negative term and made explicit statements to that end in the opening pages of their brochures.  For example, an original tourist pamphlet for ‘Montana: The Dude Ranch State’ dating from the 1930s, went to great lengths to explain its use of terminology.

“Rural Yankees refer to city visitors as summer boarders; swanky resorts elegantly dub them paying guests; the frank and unabashed West calls them dudes and b’jinks they like it, and why not? There is no approbrium attached to that word dude as so applied.”

If the weather has been kind to me, so have the people.  I spent an interesting morning talking to Gregory Smoak and Leighton Quarles (Director and Asst. Director respectively) at the American West Center, University of Utah.  They were generous in sharing their knowledge of Western history and also very enthusiastic about my dude ranch project.  It was fascinating to find out about the University itself (after all, if you want an historical overview, ask an historian).  The campus was spectacular, with wide open spaces, many beautiful old colonial buildings (it was formerly the military Fort Douglas encampment…as well as the athletes’ village during the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002), and encircled by those monumental Wasatch mountains. I couldn’t help but be charmed, too, by the white Shaker-style rocking chairs that sat invitingly on the porches of each of the Faculty buildings.  What a far cry from the inner city All Saints campus back at MMU.

After my meetings in Salt Lake City, I took the FrontRunner commuter train to Provo, where Brigham Young University – or, as those in the know call it, ‘The Y’ – is located.  I sat for the entire hour of the ride with my nose glued to the carriage window, ogling the scenery.  Those mountains!  I just can’t get over those mountains.  And, did you know, there’s even a ‘Y’ mountain standing guard over Provo town with the letter etched, in epic proportions, into the rock?  (Discover more about its provenance and the wranglings over its creation here).  This morning, I walked the mile or so from Downtown to The Y (well, I had to make the most of the sunshine).  The campus is big and immaculately maintained.  In Utah it seems that everything is done on an epic scale (and that, I know from first-hand experience, includes the cro-nuts).  I was at The Y for a seminar hosted by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.  The guest speaker was LeAnne Howe, Eidson Distinguished Professor from the University of Georgia, who spoke about story telling in indigenous cultures.  The land, she said, has been ‘written on’ for millennia in order to communicate meanings and beliefs between generations.  Howe’s interest is in ancient mounds in the North American landscape but I can’t help thinking that Y mountain  here in Provo is also a sign, if cast in more of a pop culture rendering.  For an erstwhile geographer such as me, the idea that the landscape is bursting with  meaning isn’t new.   But in my current locale this idea is so very pertinent: so live and real.  The landscape of the Wasatch range is speaking to me with a voice that is loud and clear.