On 25 February 2009 Pacific Brands announced the closure of seven of its factories across Australia with the loss of 1850 jobs. The announcement was shocking and unexpected.
Retrenchment causes considerable economic and emotional difficulty for most workers, but what has also been lost is the community and shared identity gained by the experience of working together on a day to day basis with a common goal over decades.
To help workers deal with this difficult transition, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) set up an advocacy and support project to help workers get training and support, to find sustainable employment and to engage meaningfully with their communities. From this project emerged a community arts component.
In 2010 I was commissioned by the TCFUA as community artist, to help create projects that celebrate the contributions of workers from King Gee’s Belambi, Bonds Unanderra, and Bonds Cessnock. This project was to give a voice and platform to Australian textile workers whose stories would otherwise be left untold. These are not the stories of powerful people with loud voices. Rather they are stories of humble, hard working Australian makers whose very real skills were undervalued simply because their making was within the context of a factory. These are the real faces behind the brands.
From the very beginning I felt connected to these workers through the famous products that they made. More than just singlets and undies, more than overalls and shorts, these products carry deeper levels of meaning, they have cultural weight. Australians have had relationships with these products which reverberate on an emotional level generation through generation.
I have often helped others tell their stories within the context of three dimensional artistic media, clay or mosaic; stone or timber. However this was to be the first arts project where I recorded and transcribed the stories, approaching my work from the position of oral historian first and clay worker second. I felt the historic significance of the project, the need to gather, document and preserve the experiences and skills of people whose jobs had disappeared , hidden away off shore. It was clearly important that the textile workers stories be part of the public record.
Cottontales: Bonds in Cessnock 1947- 2009 was shown at Cessnock Library during March 2012. The project included an exhibition, a book and a DVD. The book and DVD were given to Cessnock Bonds workers. The print run was small, and many people have since enquired as to the availability of further copies of “Cottontales”. For those who were not able to receive a copy- my apologies. Copies are available on loan at Cessnock Library, or you may download “Cottontales” here for free.
“Cottontales” was produced by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.
Artist & Curator: Celeste Coucke
Filmmaker: Russell Hawkins.
Photographs: Stephen Fearnley & Celeste Coucke
Editing: Celeste Coucke & Helena Spyrou.
Design: Stephen Fearnley and Celeste Coucke
This project was also assisted by the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division, Northern District Branch.
“Cottontales” was made possible through the generosity of three generations of Cessnock Bonds workers.