Researching Textile Heritage in Gloucestershire

This post comes from BA History student Sasha Thammer and discusses their work on exhibition at the Museum of Gloucester as part of the course.

At the half-way point of their degree, history students at UoG receive the opportunity to construct their own research project as part of work for the Cotswold Centre for History & Heritage. We get to choose between several prompts from local heritage institutions which are seeking students to support upcoming events or exhibitions. After writing mostly coursework in my first year I was excited to finally get my hands dirty and contribute to Gloucester’s local history.

The project I chose looked at the textile history in and around Gloucester. The University was approached by the Museum of Gloucester, looking for students to develop a project which would assist them in the ‘Buttons, Badges and Blazers’ exhibition (which runs until January 2024). This is an exhibition exploring the vast costume collection of the museum and highlighting its significant array of working uniforms – a part of clothing history which can be overlooked in favour of luxurious dresses worn by the upper classes. The exhibition’s aim is to celebrate Gloucester’s popular culture and people.

After getting a tour of the museum’s collection and a chatting with the collection’s manager, we decided that the research should explore the contribution of Gloucester to the textile industry and trade. The project was split into three parts.

The first would explore the local textile industry and how it changed throughout the past 200 years. These changes impacted how textiles were produced: from craftspeople making the fabric at home, to a larger collection of people in weaving shops, to factories. This also impacted wages, the personal involvement in the production and changing divisions in class and gender. I enjoyed applying what we have learned in our lectures to a specific case, the local area. It was interesting to see how some historical burning points the industrial revolution played out in Gloucestershire. It makes these topics more about people and lived experience than just numbers and stats, which I believe history is all about.

The second part of the project explored how far textiles produced in travelled beyond Gloucestershire. Fashionable shirts made in the Gloucester Shirt Factory were sold across the UK and could be found at tailors in London’s Savile Road in the 2000s. Red wool produced in Stroud was used to make British army uniforms but was also sold to Native Americans in the 1700s. This part of the project especially wouldn’t have been as thorough or enjoyable without the help of local museums and heritage organizations. It has taught me about how much of a research project relies on asking experts about your topic. They have helped me look in the right spots for material, or suggested to research into topics I was not aware of at the time. It made me understand how academic disciplines, like history, are highly collaborative.

The last part of the project was concerned with popular local shops in Gloucester and their stories. It explores where the people of Gloucester went to shop for their clothes in the past 200 years and the stories of these shops. One store that the project explored is Heal Bros. and how it became one of the most popular shops for children’s clothes and school uniform, and still is remembered today. This was my probably my favourite part of the project. There had been little to no work done on the history of Gloucester’s clothiers before, so it required multiple visits the Gloucester Archives. I had to dig through many old receipts, account books, building plans, adverts and letters! It leads you to find amazing sources that probably had never been published before, like an image of the workers inside one of Gloucester’s businesses or an order book filled with fabric samples. You also find out personal stories in unexpected places. For example, in between construction plans for the extension of a factory I found letters of complaint about the noise and decrease in daylight that a new two-story building in front of their houses would cause. I enjoyed this part of my research a lot because it’s something that you don’t get to do much for your regular course work because of time constraints, the locality or because the subject has already been broadly researched and material published.

Half a year after I handed in my work, the exhibition was finished, and I received an invitation to the exhibition celebration. It was lovely to see everyone involved and find out more about other projects associated with the exhibition. It certainly made me proud to stand in front of my work in print and tell my friends and visitors about a topic I now know so much about. A highlight for me was meeting a person who, after seeing my project panels, told me about her experience working in one of the weaving workshops I mentioned! It was great to have the chance to share our enthusiasm and I was happy to see how my work made people feel excited about their past.

This project has been one of the most insightful opportunities I have had during my university experience so far. It gave me first-hand experience with academic research. I learned what a research project involves, how to plan it, manage it and what resources are available to me. It also made me feel much more confident in tackling my final year as I now have more experience in independent research and I know how to go about it.

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