IN the 1970s the world of textiles was dominated by women, but that didn’t stop Michael Brennand-Wood pursuing his passion – first at Bolton College of Art, then in Manchester. After all he’d been taught to sew and knit by his grandmother who worked in one of the mills in Summerseat, near Bury.
Now, more than six decades later, Michael – who is one of the country’s top textile artists with work in collections across the globe – has his first public commission in his home county – courtesy of Mirador.
“My grandmother was an industrial weaver in a mill, her parents worked in the mill and her sisters worked there too. As a child there was always lots of fabric around the house and me and my brother used to play with it,” he says. “We spent a lot of time with our grandparents. My grandfather was an engineer and he had a shed, so as a young boy I vacillated between textiles, metal and wood. It’s in my DNA!” he says.
He’s now back in Lancashire (he says the county is his home despite Bury being part of Greater Manchester since 1972) after Mirador commissioned him to create a large scale textile installation at Standfast & Barracks, a fabric printing company in Lancaster. “When I was a little boy I remember the looms and the noise. When I came to Standfast it was like going back home, it was a Proustian thing,” he says. “I got really excited, a historical site, with holes in the roof, stains on the wall and piles of printing cylinders, a really interesting sensory environment.”
Standfast’s 150-year history also fits in perfectly with Michael’s way of working – his exploration of contemporary and historical sources through traditional methods with a modern twist. “Since the mid 1980s I have been interested in historical textiles, looking at traditions and history. It hopefully inspires younger people to look at things which perhaps weren’t considered fashionable,” he says talking about the years when he was a senior lecturer at London’s prestigious Goldsmith’s College.
Born in 1952 it’s a long time since he lived in Lancashire, although he did have a solo exhibition You are Here at the Storey Gallery, Lancaster, in 2002. The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester has more of his works than any other in the UK and he’s been the subject of several A-Level textiles question, but he is still best known overseas where his colourful pieces grace galleries and private collections in Europe, Australia, USA and Japan.
He likes to push against convention and has never been afraid of a challenge – when he was studying he was the only man in a department of over 30 women for all three years of his embroidery degree. “I thought it was like painting was in 1910, it was uncharted territory,” he says. “Nobody knew what embroidery was, or could be in a contemporary sense, it gave me a lot of possibilities. As a schoolboy in Bury at a grammar school wanting to be an artist was right up there with wanting to be a spaceman!”
He takes pride in the fact that he still makes things – his work has focused on embroidery, pattern, lace and floral textiles over the years – often at a time when they were deeply unfashionable. “I still have fabrics from when I was a student,” he says. “There’s an expression from the US that ‘she who lives longest has the most fabric!’”
His new four-metre high installation for Standfast called Ghosts Within the Machines has been purpose made for the factory’s dye house. “There was a BBC ghost story many years ago, The Stone Tape, which was about how the walls of a building could act as a recording medium, experiences and energy could be retained in the fabric of the walls and replayed at a later date. Ghosts Within the Machines accesses and evokes the energy and creativity inherent within the factory spaces.”
He studied many of the hundreds of old pattern books –including some beautiful hand drawn illustrations from the 1930s – at the firm and used them as inspiration to create his new piece, using a grid structure filled with individual squares with references to pixels and LED lights. One of his three pieces will be on show at Mirador’s Behind The Wall exhibition at Lancaster City Museum from March 4-May 1 2017.