Social history blowing in the wind
Glasgow Green project tells the story of the washerwomen
UNTIL artist Penny Anderson sent me a direct message on Twitter (the modern equivalent of the steamie) telling me about her forthcoming art project at the clothes poles on Glasgow Green, I confess I didn’t know such a place existed. But then, I’m not a native Glaswegian, unlike many of the passers-by I met when I visited Anderson’s Words of Washerwoman installation on its first day in situ. Mostly dog-walkers, many stopped in their tracks with a shock of recognition as they processed the sight of 28 white muslin sheets hanging on newly-strung lines of string from the neat rows of 36 cast iron clothes poles which served the women of Glasgow well over several hundred years.
Each of the muslin sheets has text stitched – almost invisibly in white thread – into the middle of the fabric. People were weaving in and out of the sheets reading the texts; a mix of real and imagined testimonies from women who hung out their clean washing on Glasgow Green over the centuries.
AS OUR SHEET DRIED I SLIPPED AWAY TO HEAR MRS CRAWFORD [sic] SPEAK INSPIRING AND STRONG
(Referring to Scottish Suffragette, Helen Crawfurd, who spoke at a meeting at Bridgeton Cross.)
MY MOTHER WOULD SAY OH I LOVE THE SMELL TEA TABLE IT WAS LOVELY EVEN IN YOUR BEDCLOTHES
(A quote from Margaret Connor, who remembers her mother drying laundry on the Green.)
According to one passer-by, Carla White, 56, a trip to the drying green was a great day out when she was a a wee girl growing up in nearby Bridgeton. “There were three washhouses around here at one point,” she recalls. “One on Parnie Street, one on Stevenson Street and another one in Greenhead Street. I used to get sent down to the steamie to book a bath for my dad on a Friday night and pick up a ticket for whites and a ticket for coloureds at the same time.
“We played at the drying green and watch the washing. If you didn’t keep an eye on it, hawkers would take it and sell it at the Barras before you knew it!”
Janet Dallas, 72, who has come for a look-see with her husband after hearing about the project on BBC Radio Scotland, lived in nearby Green Street.
“I was the youngest of eight children and my mother would take the washing down in an old pram. She’d leave us with sandwiches and bottle of water. We’d plan it like a day out and you had to get there early or it would be too busy. This was in the late 1940s, early 1950s. Everyone watched out for each other and we kept a close eye on the washing. That was the way it was.”
There’s no doubt that if these clothes poles could talk, they would have a lot to say. What Penny Anderson has done in a very simple and effective way, is give a voice to the thousands of women who laboured over their washing like it was an art form in itself. Which it was. In its own way.
I have memories of my own mother instructing me how to peg out washing. There was a way to do it and a way not to. The way she hung out washing was the way her mother had shown her how to do it; underwear together with socks pegged in pairs using one side of the ‘leg’, sheets in three sections so they could air properly, towels by the corners, and shirts by the seam.
Even today, I feel a sense of satisfaction at being able to peg out washing on a good drying day and – thanks to social media – I know I’m not alone in this. You know who you are…
According to Penny Anderson, Words of Washerwomen is not a history lesson although she has an abiding interest in place and memory. The little details are what makes this work. She has chosen muslin as a reminder of several muslin mills which once operated nearby. The stitching is white which is a reference to the white work which women workers made. “I have all the references for the texts, but have left some deliberately oblique,” she explains. “Some of the cloth is blank as not all voices are heard, even if I place them in public view again.
“I imagined one woman throughout millennia, and her view on the world as she saw it. “
It may not be a history lesson, but the history stitched into Anderson’s sheets, has the effect of opening your eyes to the events which the washerwomen who laboured here must surely have witnessed, including; executions, the Calton Weavers’ Massacre, the encampment of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Suffragette Gatherings and much more.
Aesthetically pleasing too, the vivid green of the late summer trees and grass contrasts with the white muslin sheets waving in the wind. Another layer is added when you view the work against the over-the-top glazed red brick, tiled and terracotta on the facade of what was Templeton’s Carpet Factory. Now flats, offices and a pub.
“When I was a wee girl, I used to think a a fairy princess lived up there,” says Carla White. “This was my playground.”
The ghosts of many pasts are currently hanging for all to see down at Glasgow Green. Catch them while you still can.
Penny Anderson’s work consists of 28 white muslin sheets. Each has a mix of real and imagined testimonies from women who hung out their washing on Glasgow Green stitched into the middle of the fabric