Friday, November 13, 2020

Annie Bindon Carter and the story of Painted Fabrics, Sheffield, 1915-1959

Developing from occupational therapy for men who had lost limbs during WWI, Painted Fabrics was a unique enterprise which combined the physical and psychological rehabilitation of ex-servicemen with the artistic and entrepreneurial talents of a small group of Sheffield women. The company they founded went on to produce fabrics and clothing of fashionable design and high quality for over thirty years. 

The establishment of Painted Fabrics Ltd was almost entirely due to the imagination and energy of one woman - Annie Bindon Carter (1883-1969) who, in 1915, volunteered to help at the Wharncliffe War Hospital at Middlewood. With the help of a few women who had trained with her at the Sheffield School of Art, she organised painting classes as a form of occupational therapy for men who had suffered horrific war injuries, including amputation as well as associated psychological effects. 

One man in particular, who had lost both his right hand and his left hand and forearm, was in a state of hopeless despair. With characteristic determination to help, Mrs Carter hit on the idea of tying a brush to his bandaged stump to enable him to do some simple stencilling on scraps of material. 

Phyllis Lawton, one of her friends, wrote later 

I guided his arm from the saucer [of paint] to the material and gently dabbed it over the stencil until completed, and when I removed it he was astonished at the result.” 

Soon after this Mrs Carter had a special leather strap made for him into which three or four brushes could be screwed, that by twisting his arm around he could use several different colours in turn. The realisation that he could actually do something after all marked the start of his recovery. That case inspired Mrs Carter to develop the idea into a proper business model. Providing work to men who otherwise, faced a bleak future without employment or purpose. Starting with small items such as tea cosies and table mats the range of goods was eventually extended to dresses, scarves, lingerie, furnishing fabrics and leather goods. Although hand stencilling using paints remained a mainstay of production, screen printing, block printing and spray painting with dyes were also used.

At the end of the war Mrs Carter and the committee she had formed obtained premises at West Bar in the centre of Sheffield which were converted and equipped as workshops for a few men, with financial help from local people. It was only after a visit from Earl Haig, however, that the authorities began to take serious notice of the possibilities of employment for severely disabled ex-servicemen that the enterprise presented. In 1923, land and hutments at the old WAACS (Women's Auxiliary Army Corps) camp at Norton Woodseats on the southern edge of Sheffield were purchased by the United Services Fund and leased to the newly formed company Painted Fabrics Ltd. Some of the huts became workshops, while others were converted to homes for some of the men and their wives and families, thus realising Mrs Carter's ambition of including housing on the site. 

Mixing dyes in the workshop

Painted Fabrics was officially opened in 1925 by Princess Mary (the Princess Royal) who became the company's Royal Patron. This was the first of several visits she and other members of the Royal Family made, and on this occasion she was presented with one of the painted shawls by two of the men - Taffy Llewellyn, who had the most war decorations, and Mr Hardy, who had the longest service with Painted Fabrics. By that date 29 men were employed. They were paid a minimum of 1 shilling an hour and guaranteed 30 hours work a week. The houses and gardens were let at 6 shillings a week. Both the living accommodation and workshops and equipment were adapted to the special needs of these former servicemen. In 1928 ten houses in a two storey block were built as Haig Memorial Homes. Over the next fifteen years as many as 67 men were employed at Painted Fabrics, some staying for quite short periods, others remaining there all their working lives. Most had suffered amputations of arms or legs or both, some also had neurasthenia or gunshot wounds, not to mention PTSD. The scale of their disablement can be gauged from the distressing statistic given in one publicity leaflet - "47 men with only 56 undamaged arms and 50 undamaged legs between them".

Painted Fabrics clothes being modelled

Through her compassion and activism Annie Bindon Carter became a champion for the disabled and created national awareness of the issues they faced. Her work forced the authorities to take serious notice of the possibilities of employment for severely disabled ex-servicemen that the enterprise presented. Painted Fabrics offered dignity, rehabilitation and recognition for injured veterans and promoted hope for all disabled people.

Discover more...

Delve deeper into the history Painted fabric Ltd by reading our Research Guide produce by the Sheffield Local Studies Library.

Annie Bindon Carter features on our timeline of local activists and rebels.  Download the timeline and discover more about Sheffield's long history of rebellion and resistance.

Check out the full list of events and recordings to accompany the Sheffield rebels season

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