Langholm Made: infinite hands

a programme of short films celebrating women, weaving and textiles.

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Image: still from Unravel, credit Meghna Gupta
Image: still from Unravel, credit Meghna Gupta

infinite hands | a programme of short films celebrating women, weaving and textiles

Although the ‘infinite hands’ films are no longer available via this programme (the original event took place from Friday 2 - Thursday 8 July 2021), most of the films are available to watch online via other platforms - please see the links below to watch.

Langholm Made artist Emma Dove has assembled a programme of short films, spanning 1945 to the present day, which observe and celebrate the roles played by women across the weaving and textile industries in the UK and worldwide - from mill workers to garment makers, ‘waulkers’ to home menders, hand weavers and textile recyclers.  

‘infinite hands’ brings together films from the British Film Institute’s ‘Textiles on Film’ collection, paired with contemporary films from the UK, Myanmar and India. Together they explore themes of labour, industry and mechanisation, camaraderie and teamwork, shifting attitudes, gendered roles and worker’s rights, material culture, fast fashion, recycling, industrial decline and overseas labour. 

 The archive films in particular offer a fascinating glimpse of former UK industries, working lives and attitudes that have largely slipped away. A 1945 wartime government campaign sees a family’s wardrobe of clothes come to life to suggest ways they can Make-do-and-mend so that their clothing coupons will go further. In Lancashire Hotpot - a 1946 dramatised film shot on location in Mather Street Mills, Bolton - we witness the mechanics of the weaving shed in close up details - neat rows of industrious looms, twisting cogs and firing shuttles. And in City of Women, filmed in late 80’s Nottingham, we see the textile industry in decline and a generational shift away from the ‘job for life’ mentality of working in industry. 

 Changes in attitudes towards women, their working roles, and the opportunities available to them (or not), are also apparent across many of the films. In Lancashire Hotpot we meet a young woman, Doris, grappling with the adverse attitude of her husband Jack, who exclaims “I won’t have my wife slaving for anybody!” over her desire to return to work in the mills, despite his own inability to work having been blinded in the war. In Miniskirts - a short public opinion newsreel piece from the 1960s -  a woman in a short dress is paraded around the city-centre streets of Plymouth to garner the (often humorous) responses of onlookers, though tellingly the model herself is denied a voice. In Natsumi Sakamoto’s Knitting the Intangible Voices, women’s marches in protest of inequality and gender discrimination within the workplace are represented through delicately hand-painted animation. And in City of Women, some women are turning to more traditional ‘male’ roles such as mechanics, yet the male interviewees consider jobs such as sewing and machining to still be ‘inherently’ female. 

 For the wider Langholm Made project, Emma has been interviewing members of the local community in Langholm, who formerly worked in the weaving mills within the town. In these conversations, many common themes emerged to those arising in the films - the camaraderie and teamwork, the roles of men and women, the changes in fashions and the marketplace. Former Yarn Store worker, Alan Miller, recounted how as a child he would play beneath the long lengths of fabric draped over the kitchen table like a tent - the result of his mother’s ‘outwork’ as a Darner - a theme also explored in City of Women. And as in A Million Threads - where an exhausted weaver comments “I can’t bend my fingers any more, it’s so painful,” - former Reid & Taylor Darners Mag Wilson and Ann Hislop recollected their sore, raw hands from rubbing the freshly woven fabrics, looking for faults. 

 Many of the Langholm Made interviewees - having eventually been made redundant or had to shift careers - also spoke about the shifting markets, industrial decline, and work going overseas. Ultimately, our contemporary appetite for cheap fabrics and fast fashion is evoked in the final film in the series, Unravel, in which we see the thousands of tonnes of discarded garments from the West which are shipped in huge bales to Panipat in north-east India, to be recycled into blankets. Here we meet Reshma, a garment recycler, who sorts through the bundles of clothes, wondering as she does so about the lives of the women who wore them previously. “They live according to their choices” Reshma observes, whilst her husband counteracts, “You tend to get dressed for other people. But at the end of the day you’ll be as beautiful as God made you.”


In response to this film programme, we invited 4 local contributors working in textiles and the arts to share a personal reflection to one or more of the films. These can be read on the project blog.


‘infinite hands’ film programme

 Although the ‘infinite hands’ films are no longer available via this programme, most of them are available to watch online via other platforms:


Make-do-and-mend (1945, UK, 1’22):


Lancashire Hotpot (1949, UK, 10’06):


Knitting the Intangible Voices (2021, UK, 2’35): not currently available elsewhere


Miniskirts (1966, UK, 3’35):


A Million Threads (2006, Myanmar, 15’21):


City of Women (1987, UK, 24’33):


Unravel (2011, India, 13’30):



Film Info


Make-do-and-mend (1945, UK, 1’22)

 This wartime information film was put together as part of the ‘make do and mend’ campaign, which in part hoped to encourage people to recycle old clothes, as new materials became a scarce commodity. The theme of camaraderie runs strong here, not just between families and communities, but also extending to the very clothes they wear, as garments in the wardrobe come to life with swift, pose-like movements - raising legs and shrugging arms - accompanied by useful suggestions, “Well if the youngster wants some shorts, I don’t mind being cut down.”

 The onus here is of course on women, particularly the mother of the family - it is she who recognises her responsibility to repair or rework the family’s garments, though thankfully her old clothes (and her local Technical Institute) are always there to offer a bit of advice!

 This film is available to watch online via BFI Player's ‘Textiles on Film’ series


Lancashire Hotpot (1949, UK, 10’06)

 To the delight of her boss and colleagues, Doris Wood, "one of the best weavers in Lancashire", is set to return to work at Mather Street Mills in Bolton - that is, until her husband, Jack, who has been blinded as a solider and is unable to work himself, says otherwise; “I’d look well pegging the clothes out wouldn’t I? The neighbours wouldn’t half laugh.” This concise family drama reaches far beyond its official scope to address such issues as gender stereotypes, post-war economics and disability.

As a dramatised film shot on location, Lancashire Hotpot offers a rare cinematic portrayal of the mills of this era - the industrious activity of the looms observed in carefully composed camera movements and sharp details. Daily habits and routines of the workers play out amidst the clatter of firing shuttles - a tea break when the trolley arrives; the high-pitched ‘yelp’ to get a colleague’s attention across the machines; the switching of shuttles and snipping of loose threads, and the powering down at the end of a shift.

 Shot at Shepperton Studios, London, and on location in Bolton, Lancashire Hotpot was one of a spate of films sponsored by the Ministry of Labour in the immediate post-war period to encourage women into the workplace and keep the wheels of industry turning. The film uses non-actors, the parts of Doris, Edna and Percy played play Anne Wood, Annie Cunliffe and Arthur Kendall from the Mather Street Mills, Bolton, and the part of Jack played by Stanley Greenwood, a blind man from the Bolton Workshops for the Blind.

 This film is available  to watch online via BFI Player's ‘Textiles on Film’ series


Knitting the Intangible Voices (2021, UK, 2’35)

 ‘Knitting the Intangible Voices’ is a drawing-based animation by Natsumi Sakamoto which explores work songs in female labour, focusing on the histories of the textile industries and domestic work in Scotland and Japan.

 As part of a wider project of the same name, Sakamoto studied the Scottish textile industry and the Japanese silk industry from the late eighteen-century to 1930s, focusing on the work songs, poetry and textile work of female workers, and examining the relationship between the body and mechanisation of labour.

 Highlighting the interrelation of the textile industry and women’s social position at that time, her research reflects on how inequality and gender discrimination within the workplace led women to become part of social movements, including the early feminist movement in both Scotland and Japan.

 The film animates a series of drawings inspired by archival images of the women of Crofthead Mills, Nielston, on strike, as well as the gestures of labour and the histories of these women. It also captures Sakamoto’s own experience of making textile herself.

 Sakamoto has collected work songs from archival collections in Scotland and Japan, and in doing so has incorporated parts of these lyrics, rhythms and melodies to compose a “new work song” supported by musician Sarah McWhinney. Taking inspiration from Òrain Luaidh, ‘waulking songs’, Sakamoto explores the work song as a forgotten memory and tradition. ‘Waulking’ is a practice traditionally performed by women in the Highlands of Scotland, where most of the process of cloth-making was through manual labour in the early twentieth century as water mills were usually not available. Simple, beat-driven songs were used to accompany their labour, songs only women were allowed to sing.

Read more about Natsumi’s wider project here

View the publication that accompanies Knitting the Intangible Voices here


Miniskirts (1966, UK, 3’35)

In this 1960s newsreel piece , a woman models the iconic 1960s miniskirt around the city-centre streets of Plymouth. Differing attitudes towards this bold fashion statement of the time are caught on film. Opinions and prejudices are revealed, not only in the reactions of passers-by, but also in the making of the film itself - as tellingly, the miniskirt model herself is never given a voice. She is there only for the eyes of others. Male observers seem to mostly react according to their own opinions or in consideration of the practicalities, “it looks lovely, I should imagine it’s rather drafty though,” - whilst the women react according to their own modesty, or from a consideration of the male gaze, “My husband wouldn’t like it as short as that” - “Would you though?” - “No! I like to leave a little to the imagination.”

Popularised by Mary Quant, miniskirts took the fashion world by storm in the sixties and defined the era. In the 50s, short skirts were seen as items of dance or sports’ clothing or worn by film actresses. But by the 60s many women were expressing themselves politically and through new freedoms such as the way they dressed.

This film is available to watch online via BFI Player's ‘Textiles on Film’ series


A Million Threads (2006, Myanmar, 15’21)

 Every year on a full moon night in November, thirty women gather at Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda in the Pazundaung district of Myanmar's former capital Yangon to take part in a competition known as Matho Thingan. There are many entrants but only ten looms. The task is to weave the finest robes for the temple's Buddha images. All robes must be finished by dawn otherwise they are considered 'stale'. Cheered on by large crowds and an orchestra of pulsating drums and high-pitched oboes, the teams of dedicated female competitors work the handlooms back and forth - weaving a total length of 165m of robes - in a feat that celebrates Buddha's own foster mother, Gautami, who is said to have woven her son a robe in a single day.

Director Bio

Yangon-born Thu Thu Shein was a video editor at Myanmar Forever June Co. before discovering her passion for documentary at the first Yangon Film School workshop where she was cinematographer on A Day with Aye Nan Lin (dir: Eh Mwee). “I wanted to show the weavers’ excitement, exhaustion and joy”, she says of her own directorial debut, A Million Threads, which she also edited during the 2006 YFS workshop. Thu Thu is a graduate of Yangon University of Culture’s cinema course and a regular cinematographer on YFS productions. She studied an MA in cinematography at the Czech Academy of Performing Arts FAMU in Prague. 

This film is currently available to watch online here


City of Women (1987, UK, 24’33)

By 1987 the textile manufacturers of Nottingham were having to persuade young people to enter the industry. Women working in the city’s textile factories were questioning the low pay, repetitive work and long hours, and outworkers were fed up with the irregularities of the job.

City of Women tells a familiar story of industrial decline, covering themes of fast fashion, cheap overseas labour and changing attitudes towards work. Gone were the days of automatically entering the trade and having a ‘job for life’. Yet is also highlights the essential roles that women played within the industry at the time, as well as the inherent biases of the men running those industries. And whilst men act as the official ‘spokespeople’ for the industry itself - discussing margins, seasons, trends and workers - it is the women who tell the real story of working in the industry - the highs and lows, the daily rhythm, the camaraderie - as one woman remarks, “you seem to know the girls here better than you know your own family”. And as is seen in an enacted fantasy sequence, it is clear that the desire to ‘throw it all out the window’ was sometimes a very real one.

This film is available to watch online via BFI Player's ‘Textiles on Film’ series


Unravel (2011, India, 13’30)

The ‘infinite hands’ film programme draws to a close with a short documentary that portrays almost the exact opposite of the ‘make-do-and-mend’ philosophy that it opens with.

'Unravel' follows the Western world’s least wanted clothes on a journey across Northern India, from sea to industrial interior, where they are recycled back into yarn.

Along the route, women workers in textile factories sort, shred and prepare the clothes for recycling. As they work, they reflect on the clothes and construct a picture of the lives of their previous wearers, using their imaginations and the rumours that travel with the cast-offs.

Reshma has spent 15 years working in clothes recycling factories in Panipat, and has never left the city. Sorting through the mountains of clothes by colour, she dreams of one day travelling the same vast distances as the clothes she handles.

This short, colourful documentary provides a fascinating insight into the circular route that present-day textiles take: often originally manufactured in India, shipped globally, then returned to be recycled back into yarn (and sometimes woven into other textiles that will be sold back to the West).  It also speaks volumes about two very different cultures and a lifestyle that makes cheap, “fast” fashion the norm.

This film is currently available to watch online here