World Factory: fabricating a digital quilt

by Katy BondJess Hope and Anne Alexander

Cambridge historians were recently invited to contribute research to World Factory, an interdisciplinary performance project exploring the global textile industry through the lenses of nineteenth-century Manchester and present-day China. A collaboration between Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw of performing arts company Metis and Shanghai-based theatre director Zhao Chuan, it works by ‘stitching’ together research in a ‘Digital Quilt‘, placing nineteenth century sanitation reports and photographs of old Manchester cotton mills alongside twenty-first century labour laws and strike reports from industrial China. The stories that emerge from these unexpected juxtapositions will be used to provide a platform for other kinds of performance and collaboration.

The project aims to ‘do history in public’ by opening up the tools of its investigative process to public view, both through expert consultations held as café events and through the online Digital Quilt, where visitors can make their own journeys through ever-multiplying panels of research. Three participants share their experiences of adding to the Quilt below.

Katy Bond: The idea of getting Cambridge graduate historians on board was to combine our efforts and unearth new findings through a one-day ‘Data Expedition’. On reflection, it is fair to say my findings would be better measured in quality than quantity. Spending a full day’s work researching for the project, I had expected discoveries related to the textile industries to be plentiful. My own research investigates clothing in a 16th-century context, and so although the time period was different, I had assumed I was familiar with the wider subject. However, when we sat down to research, I suddenly didn’t know where to begin. All we had were our laptops, and it was a case of using digital archives and e-resources to find sources of interest. I had in mind what I was looking for—information about the patterns and design of shirts manufactured in our period—and this ultimately proved challenging. The biggest problem was that I did not know where to encounter relevant digital archives and databases. Feeling defeated, I decided to leave this question behind and open up my research to anything that came my way.

song of the shirt

I remembered a  painting I had seen in an art history class a number of years ago about an impoverished seamstress in Victorian England. It proved to be perfect, especially when I discovered the painting had been inspired by a popular poem featured in Punch magazine which told of the poverty-stricken existence of a nineteenth-century seamstress. I learned from the Data Expedition that researching an unfamiliar topic with little prior knowledge is a challenge which requires the researcher to be open minded. Targeting one specific question may require having read secondary material on the topic in advance. Searching for primary material right off the bat requires resourcefulness, openness and perseverance. The perseverance paid off. Uncovering new material for the project was exciting, and gave me a great sense of accomplishment.

Jess Hope: I loved the rummaging-through-the-attic character of this kind of research and found it really challenging. In one sense, it mirrored the sort of curious clicking around I do on the internet when I’m not specifically working on something, and with the freedom to follow interesting tangents and trails of hyperlinks I quickly found myself drawn to explore the less neatly regimented aspects of the garment industry – the overgrown factories, the discarded fabric, the chemical disasters and the people left to pick up the pieces. On the other hand, my historical training kept trying to kick in and force me to delve more deeply into context and meaning, to find patterns and to hold up sources for comparison with a depth of attention that required far more time and knowledge than I actually had.


My happy medium was to enjoy the aesthetic and descriptive elements of the things that I found—quotes from nineteenth century tourists in Manchester, an urban explorer’s photographs of an abandoned mill—while keeping a critical eye on my digital trail and remaining aware that these form part of a much bigger historical picture. This research was more about provoking curiosity and creativity than producing analyses, offering points of entrance to bigger stories for those who wish to uncover them, and I believe that this aim comes through in the format of the Quilt.

Anne Alexander:  For me, the Data Expedition was a chance to experiment with the specific format of the event (which I co-designed) and to explore whether the group we assembled on the day could collectively discover sources which were of value to the World Factory team, while at the same time exploring and discussing the challenges of making use of digital sources for research. Rather than run a training session, which would have highlighted the challenges of putting search results in context or establishing the provenance and authenticity of digital sources, I was hoping that the Data Expedition format would bring up these issues naturally during the course of the day.

We dealt with a very wide variety of sources, ranging from digitised 19th century newspapers and magazines (which threw up many examples of errors caused by failures in the scanning process), digitised photographs, 19th century social literature available on Google Books and transcripts of parliamentary debates in Hansard, to YouTube videos, blogs and activist websites covering labour unrest in contemporary China. Each of these sources came with their own specific sets of challenges, from navigating the search functions in unfamiliar databases to establishing the credibility of a blogger.

As Katy points out, navigating unfamiliar territory with little more than a search engine for guidance produced results which were in one dimension often richer than expected (our problem in relation to both 19th century and contemporary digital sources which might be relevant to the project was definitely one of abundance, not scarcity), but in other dimensions were often frustratingly shallow (without the contextual knowledge to help us sift out the wheat from the chaff it was difficult to select what to include and what to pass over).

Our contribution to the Digital Quilt is not the end of the story, however; the links contributed during the course of the expedition have now been shared with a wider public, and can be subject to scrutiny and questioning from new angles.

For more information about the processes of the World Factory project please visit Metis here.

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