Shoddy is a word with multiple definitions and uses, reflected in this disability arts project. Shoddy aims to link these historical and contemporary meanings, focusing on disabled people’s lives and concerns.
The starting point was the original meaning of shoddy: new cloth made from fibres reclaimed from woollen waste fabric . This early version of recycling was invented on the very border between Batley and Morley (now part of Leeds metropolitan borough), around 1813. The shoddy industry was subsequently widespread in these parts.
The use of textiles by all the artists in this exhibition makes a direct connection to the textile industries, past and present, in the UK, and particularly in Leeds and the surrounding area, where the exhibition takes place. Many of the artists have recycled fabric and other materials that might otherwise have been discarded, linking us back to the origins of shoddy, and finding value in what others have cast aside.
“Not a single thing belonging the Shoddy system is valueless or useless”- Samuel Jubb, The History of the Shoddy-Trade, 1860.
The original meaning of shoddy is now largely unknown, and the word has come to mean of inferior quality, shabby, broken-down. Rejecting this description is a strong statement for an exhibition by disabled artists. Shoddy challenges any assumptions that disabled artists, our work and our-selves are inferior, second rate or badly made.
The backpack by the Wednesday Textile Group at Specialist Autism Services instead reveals a collection of beautiful labels that reflects the group’s creativity, ideas, knowledge and feelings. The wallhanging created by students from HFT challenges stereotypes and the belief that disabled people are undeserving of respect, with portraits showing their personalities, skills and aspirations.
Shoddy takes place against the current background of cuts to welfare benefits and a raft of massive cuts to public services, including social care, that are disproportionately affecting disabled people. The exhibition opens shortly after the 2016 budget brought in further benefit cuts, estimated to leave 200,000 disabled people £3,000 a year worse off.
The ensuing outcry and anger over this latest episode in the sustained attack on disabled people’s rights has focused attention on the project’s assertion that “shoddy” is an appropriate description for government policy.
Vickie Orton compares the complexities of negotiating your way through the minefield of welfare and support systems as a frustrating maze. Her work is a timely reminder of the contribution that disabled people make, and the fact that everyone gives and receives support throughout life.
The drive to save money on welfare and support, to supposedly incentivise disabled people to get a job, despite a lack of suitable work and prejudices of employers, is a very clear echo of the 19th century workhouse principle of “less eligibility”. Conditions in the workhouse were designed to deter people from seeking help.
Lesley Illingworth’s Storytelling Coat tells of her experiences at the hands of powerful medical and political systems which seek to deny the very existence of disabled people through this demand for punishing work. Temporary housing takes the place of the workhouse in her narrative.
Mow takes a satirical look at the inefficient systems for claiming support while refusing to lose her sense of identity and individuality. There is certainly an air of a Dickensian tale in her dealings with the DWP.
The harsh times of the Victorian era, the workhouse and the industrial revolution can easily be brought to mind when we learn about the shoddy trade – or even when we consider the difficulties of many disabled people’s lives today.
Other artists are inspired by more recent history. Carrie Scott Huby’s carefully crafted nests reference the 1940’s utility aesthetic, when rationing led to making full use of all available materials while maintaining good design.
Katy White draws on her family history over a number of generations in work that brings together issues of mill work, industrial injury, ill health, women’s roles, disability and care. Katya Robin takes our memories of ordinary, unglamorous fabrics so that we appreciate them & look at them afresh. By doing this she celebrates everyday objects and materials and makes us do the same.
Becky Fawcett also aims to show the importance of humble materials which are often overlooked. Her embroidered poems give new life and purpose to discarded materials and emphasise that no one should be consigned to the scrap heap.
Sandy Holden aims to communicate a message of social responsibility through the use of recycled materials such as discarded paper, fabric and packaging scraps as a format for embroidery and sculpture.
Scraps and off-cuts have become striking large artworks, a sculptural synthetic “textile” and a colourful wallhanging in the hands of Pyramid of Arts’ High Rise and Sensory Groups. Every member of the group had made their mark and is represented in these vibrant pieces.
Un-dyed shoddy fabric contains the bright flashes of colours from the mixed scraps and rags it is made from. Andrew Towse and Anne-Marie Atkinson, working together as D4, have produced scanned images that resemble shoddy in their patterns of light and shade. Natalia Sauvignon mixes shoddy with other materials and objects to create colourful, organic felted sculptures. This re-using of materials evokes shoddy manufacturing, and many of the artists have used recycled or re-purposed textiles and other items.
In a synthesis of the themes of Shoddy, Faye Waple’s embroideries contrast the different meanings of the word. Other artists have expanded on the themes to show that shoddy treatment is not the preserve of the treasury or Department for Work & Pensions. Its effects can be felt, for example, in medical procedures may be used when the medical profession and wider society consider disabled people are second rate and need fixing, but Gemma Nash and Jennifer Bryant’s work challenges these assumptions. Meanwhile, Kirsty Hall addresses the contradictions and challenges of disability and illness with a very personal piece.
Aoife O’Rourke explores the idea of the hidden self, with a strong outer cage/self protecting the “fragile but beautifully strong and resistant” inner self.
Again and again throughout the exhibition we see the artists drawing on and being inspired by the strength of disabled people:
Complexity, confidence and vibrancy
Vitality and richness
Spectrum of light within every one of us
Hidden core of inner strength.
This exhibition is a timely celebration of that strength and of the value of disabled people’s contributions. This strength enables disabled people to challenge exclusion and fight for our rights.