The Artists Redefining The North Through Textiles
Despite economic, social and political divide forcing a rift within England, the Northern identity thrives. Perhaps it is the notion of being ignored, categorised and left behind that generates solid kinship between communities up North. If you’re lucky enough to have lived it, you’ll recognise the shared state-of-being and instant connection upon discovery of a familiar accent – especially when in the South.
Yet, the North is often overlooked, with London deemed the centre of fashion and creativity in the UK despite the rich arts and culture scene in the North that has remained consistent throughout history.
Today, young artists and designers redefine Northern identity through their craft, portraying their home through a kaleidoscope and depicting all the colours that run throughout. This is the modern era of activism through art – fighting against the age old myth that it’s grim up North, one stitch at a time.
For Robyn Nichol, the rich history of textiles in her native West Yorkshire triggered inspiration to pay homage to her upbringing through art. Existing as a time machine to a Yorkshire childhood, Robyn’s embroidery depicts nostalgic snacks (Seabrook Crisps and bubblegum from your local corner shop) alongside a selection of regional phrases (such as ‘put big light on’ stitched in pale pink).
Through embroidery, Robyn has the rare ability to elicit emotional response in those longing for their simple childhood days – something only heightened during our current climate. Her growing online audience relates deeply to the integral aspects of Northern culture she weaves into her practice, which she defines as: “Family, relationships, food, dialect and being able to take the piss out of yourself.” A romanticisation of the seemingly mundane, Robyn’s work is the epitome of patriotism for a local community, recalling memories of 13th birthday parties at working men's clubs, queues outside the chip shop and the contents of your Year 9 school bag.
“I think the main things from growing up Northern that are translated into my practice are a focus on food, Yorkshire dialect and the objects and brands that I grew up around. For example, the finished piece of embroidery for the pattern that I designed for DMC, which focuses on my chippy, is now in there for people to see when they nip in to get a bit of tea,” Robyn says.
Crucially, Robyn’s work is an appreciation and homage to the past, as well as an unapologetic representation of her identity – something she will develop in a future project on Keighley and Bradford: “I’m remaking the Keighley Trades Council banner that my Dad carried on a demo, a tea towel of my mum’s 18th birthday cake, an embroidered wrestling vest for my grandad, as well as some new pieces of embroidery.”
Though initially facing pressure to study in London, an experience shared by many Northern creatives, Robyn chose to remain in the North in order to feel she was “contributing to uplifting the Northern art scene” by making work about her experience in the area.
In contrast, Rosie Newton is one of many Northern creatives who relocated to London for education yet remained proud of her Lancashire roots.
Rosie’s 2017 graduate collection ‘Not That Grim’ depicts a crucial aspect of Northern identity: unapologetic politics, influenced by the snap-election called during the creation process. Combining blatant political messaging (most prominent in her 'fuck the tories' bag, a collision of politics and pastel fabric), Rosie was determined to channel activism through her designs: “My tutors weren't all that keen on the political aspect of my collection but I just refused to take that bag out, and made it as ‘fashion' as possible so they would let me have it.”
Counteracting the stereotypical image of greyness up North, Rosie infused the colour she associates with her Mum’s home in Morecambe into her collection: “I see lots of pastel beautiful colours that remind me of the seaside and also the art deco era which parts of Morecambe still have. It just brings me to those really pale but gorgeous colours.”
“I think too often The North is viewed as a grim grey place but it’s the opposite to me, especially when I think of the seaside towns of Morecambe or Blackpool in the summer. To me when I think of London I think of greyness, concrete and corporate life.”
The undeniable yet slightly faded glamour of seaside towns is only one part of the collective Northern experience, which Rosie lovingly describes as: “Hating Thatcher, feeling left out of the London creative scene, calling dinner ‘tea’, loving gravy on everything, talking to a stranger at the bus stop, actually knowing your neighbours... God, there is literally so much."
“The fashion industry is absolutely filled to the brim with elitism and rich upper and middle class people. They run the industry and they always will because that is how capitalism works,” Rosie says, reflecting on her experiences studying fashion down South. “I was always inspired by the underdog and working class designers who made it big but I was always hyper aware that making it ‘big’ was always going to be an uphill battle for someone from a poor family and especially one that is so far removed from London and the fashion scene which centres around London.”
These frustrations surrounding inequality within creative industries sparked inspiration to create a collection in which soft colours represent a strong sense of identity, as Rosie says: “I wanted to romanticise and glamourise the mundane nature of Northern towns that are ultimately kinda boring but have such a fab history and story.”
Poppy Sheppard’s clothing also utilises colour, in order to exist as a perpetual state of Northern summertime, depicted in the gingham prints in the dresses of her first collection. Her brand ‘Northern Picnic’ is inherently reminiscent of British seaside holidays and picnics in the countryside, with a hint of the primary school summer dresses we all miss. “It makes me think back to being a kid, the arcades, chip shops, the Sunday market, dinner ladies and their striped aprons, all of it! I love it!” Poppy says.
"I am from and grew up in Grimsby/Cleethorpes for most of my life. It’s a coastal seaport town in the North East. Cracking chips and not all that grim, like people claim. It can be seen as dirty and run down but to me it’s pretty special. I love the tackiness of all the bright lights and run down arcades.”
Poppy’s brand is a clear homage to her love of being Northern, though it’s worth noting that textiles is not the only creative industry in which the North thrives. Poppy also found inspiration within her Dad’s love of Northern Soul: “I got taken along to events and scooter weekends and my love for the music, aesthetics and outfits came from there, so it’s kind of a homage to that too.”
So, is there a need for northern artists to justify their identity more? Poppy thinks so: “We probably have to stick up for where we are from sometimes, because it gets a lot of stick, or certain areas can."
“Yes sometimes it may be grey and rainy and grim but honestly there are so many special things about it, and it’s definitely full of colour!”
On a ready-to-wear basis, fashion graduate Emily Davis infuses Northern dialect into garments she hand-makes and sells online. T-shirts adorning the words “be rate” and her signature Puffy Bags with “rate good” stitched on, allowing customers to embrace their dialect without even opening their mouth.
“One of the things I find most interesting is the slang and phrases used in different places,” Emily says. “I decided to add this into my work to make it more personal, this has followed into my designs for my brand.”
But for Liverpool-born Emily, the emergence of colourful Northern clothing is here to stay: “The North is a colourful and vibrant place, not just a trend. Liverpool is one of my favourite places in the world, I’m probably biased but there’s so much energy there. I think there’s a misconception that the North is always grey and rains a lot. This is partly true, but the people are full of passion and there is so much talent.”
Jenna Campbell and Jessica Howell of NRTH LASS, a zine that champions female creatives in the North, believe that this shift stems from a desire to celebrate the multitude of experiences across regions.
“I think people are starting to really own their own narratives and be proud of their accents and dialects,” Jenna says, adding: “There’s a perception that being from the North means you all share one homogenous accent, one culture and one experience, when in reality the North is a diverse, creative and flourishing region.”
Utilising their platform to debunk the myth that London is the be-all-and-end-all of creativity, NRTH LASS provides a hub in which creatives can share opportunity in areas previously disregarded. Jessica explains: “All you need to do is spend a day meeting creatives in a northern city, visiting their independent shops, seeing their shared workspaces and examining their networks to see that there’s so much more to success than the bright lights of London.”
“In the minds of a lot of people, we’re living and working in conditions similar to that of a wasteland with mines that have not long-since closed. We want to hit those people in the face with our greatness”
“In the minds of a lot of people, we’re living and working in conditions similar to that of a wasteland with mines that have not long-since closed. We want to hit those people in the face with our greatness; show our true northern landscape, the talented people that make up our communities and how we’re dispelling every grim narrative.” Jessica says, though can’t help but add: “We’d like to keep the chips and gravy stereotype.”
Debate surrounding the North/South divide will likely continue for decades, but young artists are increasingly forging an identity based on pride and culture and tradition, rather than pity - and now they’ve established the community to do so. The new generation are unafraid of outside perception, as Robyn says: “I try to just be unapologetically myself in my work and celebrate the North, and if that means that it’s seen to be challenging or adhering to stereotypes either way that’s fine with me.”
Article By Laura Molloy