Art In Manufacturing: Margo Selby And Standfast & Barracks

“It's all about using art as a celebration and a joyful thing to enrich people's lives
Colin Petch
July 4, 2024

The Guardian was entirely correct when it reported in 2011 that: ‘The United Kingdom has suffered the greatest de-industrialisation of any major nation.’ However while our industrial output and landscape has changed forever, the often-heard claim that ‘we don’t make anything anymore’ could not be further from the truth - as Mag North found out on our recent visit to one Lancashire factory that has been diligently working away for the last century on Lancaster’s Caton Road, to produce the finest printed textiles for both domestic and global markets.

And the Creative Industries Federation (the independent body that represents and supports the UK’s creators and creatives) sounded a similarly pessimistic tone when giving evidence to a parliamentary committee examining the impact of Covid on the sector in 2022, with their statement: ‘The creative industries are on a knife-edge - thousands of creative businesses and jobs have been lost, with more projected to follow, across all parts of the sector. The impact on the regions is particularly acute,’

To counter what might be viewed as a hopeless situation for UK makers, data confirms that in October–December 2023, the manufacturing sector accounted for 9.3% of total UK economic output (Manufacturing: Key Economic Indicators. House of Commons Library) - and for the same period, the UK Fashion and Textile industry directly supported a £62 billion contribution to UK GDP, 1.3 million jobs across the country and raised more than £23 billion in tax revenues, (UK Fashion and Textile Association).

Lancashire arguably remains the manufacturing and making crucible that it has always been. A few miles down the M6 from Lancaster - the backbone of NATO Air Defence - the Eurofighter Typhoon - moved from concept to reality at BAE Warton. Wareing’s of Wrea Green have been leaders in the construction of agricultural buildings for 110 years and originally Blackburn-based, Graham & Brown - Home Decor specialists since the 1940s, have recently moved to new high-tech premises in Padiham.

With 80,000 workers employed in manufacturing in the county and Lancashire’s creative economy worth £1.3 billion in GVA, employing 36,000 people, you might think that Lancashire should be celebrating this heritage with something like ‘A Festival of Making’? Well, we will get to that…

At a particularly auspicious moment for Standfast & Barracks, we joined a group of VIP’s and industry leaders, to celebrate the business’s centenary - and to see first-hand what this vital Lancastrian economic, social and community lynch-pin is getting so right:

The Iconic Standfast & Barracks Clock On Lancaster's Caton Road
The Iconic Standfast & Barracks Clock On Lancaster's Caton Road

In an introduction to the day, Lisa Montague who is the CEO of Sanderson Design Group (the high-end British fabric and wallpaper company whose brands include Morris & Co and Zoffany - of which Standfast is a part) is clear: “We continue to invest and champion British creativity and design and making, which is so important. But a company is only a collection of people and it's the people that give this company its history and its future and our job as custodians of the heritage is to give the company the future legacy.” 

And as I embark (a bit like a ‘Kid-in-a-Toy-Shop’) on a tour of the 9 acre site, Jo Walmsley, the Group People Director talks to me some more about the importance of people:

“We are looking at how we can preserve heritage skills in what is a changing population. Sometimes the knowledge in education of the capabilities that we require, particularly in printing and design, isn’t widely understood. We're doing a lot of work reaching out to our local communities, and then how we can use the relationships and friendships to really enthuse and harness those skills in the younger generation - so we can create the workforce of the future”

And apprenticeships are fundamental to that strategy. Jo continues:

“It's quite a hands-on way of working [in textile printing] - and with apprenticeships, young people learn on the job - and they are constantly learning from the people around them.

“At the same time, we’re investing hugely in digital technology too - so how we build those new skills in our existing workforce as well as our future workforce is another opportunity and challenge for us as an organisation.

“We're a Living Wage Employer. We choose to do that because we want to invest as much as we can in our people. Somewhere around 40% of our total population have been with the business for over 20 years. There's a lot of heritage and a lot of skill and knowledge and passion for the work that we're doing.

“UK manufacturing is so well respected, Perhaps as a country we're seen to be veering more towards the service sector, but actually having a real base of the skills required in manufacturing means that we can not only export across the world, but also retain the heritage expertise in those areas like Lancaster, where those skills have traditionally been - and this is really important for us as a business.” 

Emma Douglas, is the Standfast & Barracks Commercial and Creative Director, and she walks-and-talks our group around the site, much which is Grade 2 listed - and is a mixture of traditional buildings - and cutting-edge technology:

“In 1924 we printed our first fabric, so that’s why this year is significant. Built in 1863 and originally a railway wagon works -  the site became an Internment Camp during the First World War – and during the second war – we were producing blackout material.

“There are three types of printing process here: Flatbed - which is the most traditional and labour-intensive - Rotary - and Digital, which now accounts for 70% of the textiles produced at the site.”

Standfast & Barracks still draw about 80% of the water required as part of the printing process from the River Lune, which skirts the factory. 

In 2015 that same river that is vital to production, was almost the cause of the organisation’s demise. Storm Desmond had a devastating effect on Lancastrian and Cumbrian communities and when the Lune burst its banks and flooded the Caton Road site, the factory was left unable to produce anything for five months. 

Emma: “It was a turning point in this business, because we were a big-commission print factory at that point. It had to be completely rebuilt, so we decided to change our strategy significantly for it to grow in the future. At that point, the design team was really born and the archive was developed. We’ve focussed since then on becoming a creative front-led business.”

There is undoubtedly a special - and successful ‘team mentality’ here. Not only did everyone literally roll-up their sleeves and pull their wellies on almost a decade ago to save the business, but that sense of a common goal appears to remain at the heart of the operation. On a weekly basis, the entire workforce comes together and they discuss what’s happening with the business. Everyone has an opportunity to talk to the leadership team directly. Emma Douglas understands that the community group - the communication, is in-part what makes S&B inclusive and successful.

Standfast and Barrack’s heritage is clearly what matters to the staff and with one eye on the past - and another firmly focussed on the future - their business model is impressive.

Emma: “We produce between 500 and 600 prints a year in the studio, which is a significant amount. We draw our designs in exactly the same way we did 100 years ago. We have 9 separation artists who are redrawing designs by hand.”

And for a business that has felt first-hand the impact of climate change, there is also a robust and realistic environmental commitment embedded within the S & B playbook: Focused on a continuing move towards digital printing - not least because the process uses significantly less energy, water and ink to produce the finished item - the entire Sanderson group aims to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

 Standfast & Barracks Commercial and Creative Director Emma Douglas Receiving The Queens Award For Enterprise From Lancashire's Lord Lieutenant Amanda Parker JP
Standfast & Barracks Commercial and Creative Director Emma Douglas Receiving The Queens Award For Enterprise From Lancashire's Lord Lieutenant Amanda Parker JP

So how could it be possible to celebrate and highlight the heritage and innovation happening in a part of the world that may sometimes feel it can’t compete with its more ‘gregarious’ neighbours? The team behind The National Festival of Making which kicks off this weekend in Blackburn, have the answer.

The National Festival of Making is a unique celebration of UK making, from the kitchen table to the factory floor. With an innovative and engaging programme of work that combines Art, Manufacturing, Making and Communities. 

A Community Interest Company, the organisation is led by Directors and co-founders Lauren Zawadzki and Elena Jackson together with co-founder Wayne Hemingway. With the commission of international and national artists to create world class works, a year round programme and a participatory FREE FAMILY festival, the festival is an important component in the cultural landscape of Blackburn, Lancashire and the North of England and acts as a key advocate for meaningful cultural regeneration. 

Each season as part of the festival, ‘Art in Manufacturing’ sees artists paired with leading manufacturers, from artisan producers to industry giants. The residency programme creates collaborations with highly skilled workforces, facilitates access to cutting-edge technologies and unearths hidden heritages – all resulting in remarkable, contemporary artworks.

To date, the programme has commissioned 31 artists to work with 24 artisan and mass manufacturers. The residencies create a platform not just for the making of new work, but for sharing experiences and connecting across boundaries.‍

And so as I wander open-mouthed around Standfast & Barracks - I encounter their very own Artists in Residence - the Whitstable artist and designer renowned for her work in woven textiles, Margo Selby, who describes herself as a ‘weaver’, but in actual fact is not only an artist producing the most beautiful and joyous textiles, but is also the head of a studio that ultimately provides access for all our personal spaces - to the most luxurious of contemporary design.

As we head for lunch, Margo explains to me the process that will result in the most incredible piece of art taking centre stage in the North Transept of Blackburn Cathedral, as part of the Festival of Making:

“So I interviewed every single member of staff at Standfast [160] and I captured the colours to use in the piece from them - with them. They each chose a colour that had a personal memory attached to it.

“I then had these colours and I had to try and find a way to organise them. So I looked at the amazing archives [at S&B] and they had all these incredible archives organised in colour gradient.

“Because I'm a weaver, I built the pattern to show thread by thread and line by line – and I didn’t want it to be flat – I wanted it to have a sculptural feel – so that’s why I went for pleating.”

Margo Selby and the final paper model
Margo Selby And The Final Paper Model

The finished work directly relates to Margo’s weaving practice - reflecting the threads of the warp and weft.

Consisting of 100m of material, to mark the 100 years of Standfast & Barracks - and initially laying on the cathedral floor, the piece then reaches 9 metres into the vaulted ceiling, before returning to ground level. Margo explains that the work, called ‘Breathing Colour’ reflects a respiratory waveform - ‘a deep breath in and out again’.

“It’s called Breathing Colour, because that's what everyone here at Standfast & Barracks is doing: They're breathing colour.

“I've been thinking; ‘What is the future of colour?’ Everything here [in the factory] is about exact colour matching. Everything is perfect. But in the future, maybe colour will be more alive. Maybe colour will be constantly changing? Maybe it'll be more organic? Using biomimicry, I’ve been looking at how colours in nature change over time and so this work needs to change when you walk around it. When you walk around it in the cathedral you’ll have different colour perspectives.

“I’ve been so excited about this lovely project. I’ve had the most amazing people to work with. If there was anything I asked was possible - they [the Standfast team] made it happen. They've been incredible.

“For years I've never really allowed myself to do printed fabrics because I'm a weaver, so it's always felt authentic to stick with woven textiles. But now, having spent four months here and really got to understand it and thought about printing in this quite constructed way, I think I feel ready to move into print more authentically.”

Recording members of Morecambe Brass Band
Recording members of Morecambe Brass Band

The process and the finished piece of work is set to not only have a profound effect on us as viewers, but it sounds like it will change and inform Margo’s creative practice too.

“We've also worked with the sound artist Peter Coyte. I've recorded all the sounds that we can hear in the factory - and along with Morecambe Brass Band, we’ve created a sound installation. Standfast had a brass band, just like all the factories ‘Up North’  - and so Peter got me to record the musicians breathing in and out of their instruments. Again - It's that reference to ‘breathing colour’. 

“Headphones will be available in the cathedral, so you can really immerse yourself in the colour and the sound.”

Inspiration from the Standfast And Barracks Archive
Inspiration From The Standfast And Barracks Archive

To arrive at the finished piece, Margo and her team committed to a great deal of sampling and experimentation:

“I had a lot of time to play. I did a lot of fabric manipulation and experimentation of different materials to find something that would work.

“I did a lot of paper maquettes - and they were beautiful. The paper was really, really lovely, but when I first started making it in fabric, it was a bit like Widow Twankey's skirt!

“It was actually the fabric tubes that brought it to life…inserting fabric tubes into the pleats produced a bit more of a ‘crisp’ finish. It also reflects the fabric rolls throughout this whole factory. All of the machinery has rollers - and now [the pleats] they all look like little rolls of fabric, so it's actually worked out really well.

“You know for a long time, people have said: ‘Oh, you should just be one thing or the other. You should be a designer or you should be an artist.’ But I'm thinking they really support each other and feed each other. The resources from this project will feed into things which we will end up making and will end up in people's home.

“Art - and design - that is all me and I think the proof Is in the actual work. This piece will be amazing and I'm loving that large-scale work in terms of the dopamine that you get from the colour. That's what it's all about. It's about sort of sharing that immersive feeling I have when I'm sitting at my loom.

“It's all about using art as a celebration and a joyful thing to enrich people's lives - and also what I love about public art projects is that they're for everyone and it's not just for exclusive art collectors or the elites.”

‘Breathing Colour’ is part of the National Festival of Making Exhibition - and can be viewed in Blackburn Cathedral on 6 and 7 July 2024.

For more information on the Art In Manufacturing residency programme, please CLICK HERE

For more information on the National Festival of Making, please CLICK HERE

For more information on Margo’s work, please CLICK HERE