Weaving stories to celebrate Mill life
2019 marked 150 years since the establishment of a weaving mill in Lobethal. That’s a lot of stories to gather and it’s a project Fabrik will be working on for some time to come, but to begin the journey, we invited Vic McEwan from the Cad Factory to start the story-gathering process. In response, Vic developed Weaving Stories a project that became Fabrik’s first event for the annual South Australian History Festival.
Over a four-week residency in Lobethal, (spread out over three months), Vic connected with former workers from the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill, recording recollections of their time working there. Vic then produced a one-hour performative installation that creatively presented these recollections two nights a week throughout May.
The month of May in South Australia marks the beginning of the cold weather, so we gathered up all the Onkaparinga blankets we could find to make sure people were snug and warm as they enjoyed the performances.
Vic used Fabrik’s wonderful buildings as a canvas for large scale projections onto the walls, showing former workers telling their stories of working in the Mill. There were tales of romance, of hijinks and of hard work. One woman spoke of riding her bike to work every day from Oakbank (12kms away), even when she was eight months pregnant!
Adrian Quinn shared his experience of working on a commission for a beautiful, double-sided Stewart tartan rug. It was only at the end of the manufacturing process, when the label was being stitched on in the Blanket Room, that the staff realised the blankets were a special-edition farewell gift from the company to the workers. Adrian still has that blanket nearly thirty years later, kept in its original cardboard box, and still in mint condition!
Vic curated the Weaving Stories evenings to include guest appearances from other artists and performers. Adrienne Lovelock has long been writing songs about Lobethal, and Weaving Stories was a chance to perform them for the Lobethal community. One of Adrienne’s songs told of the time when weaving skills passed down through generations were being superseded by machinery that could complete the work more quickly. After one of her performances, Adrienne was approached by an elderly lady who had worked at the Mill, who quietly told her “every word you sang was true.”
When Adrienne performed her song the about the last sounding of the Mill whistle, there was not a dry eye to be found.
One of the poems presented by local writer Belinda Broughton explored one of the many stories of Mill ghosts (since Belinda’s performance, the Fabrik team have started calling the storage space under that stairs in Building 20 “Mollie’s Cupboard”). Belinda also imagined the 150 years of the Mill from the perspective of the land, reminding us that while we might think our efforts of industry are permanent, the land – the birds, the trees, the creeks, the animals – continues on regardless. Belinda performed in front of projections of paintings created by Flossie Peitsch when she was artist in residence in the Mill in the 1990s, just before it closed.
During his conversations with community members, Vic was delighted to learn that the highlight of the social year was the Onkaparinga Ball, which included a Queen of the Ball competition. Vic managed to not only find a dress worn by one of the competitors, but also an actual Onkaparinga Queen: Sandy Hughes! Sandy created a roster of former Mill workers (and dancers) who came to each event and taught the audience an Onkaparinga Ball favourite: the Military Two Step.
The Weaving Stories tale here on our website ends the way the performance, and the Mill, ended: with the blowing of the whistle.
This steam-powered whistle is now positioned above the vat of the Bierhaus brewery, which, like Fabrik, is nestled into one of the old Mill buildings. Blowing the whistle is not something to be done lightly: for starters, Alastair from the Bierhaus needs to stoke up his vat! Locals tell of how, in the days of the Mill, businesses in the Main Street prepared themselves for the lunch rush when the midday whistle blew. And the two hotels – the top pub and the bottom pub – would fill with workers after the end of day whistle on a Friday night. We later discovered that the last time the whistle was blown was in honour of Len, the Mill’s last timekeeper, who was known for his careful observance of time, right down to the second and we were glad that this evocative sound was able to provoke memories of local (not so long ago) history and lives well-lived.
Fabrik thanks Vic McEwan and Cad Factory for crafting such a heart-filled and poetic retelling of the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill stories.
Weaving Stories was made possible by Country Arts SA and the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund, which supports the arts in regional and remote Australia.