Cotton Labour, 2022

Cotton Labour, 2022 Public Art

Cromford Mills commissioned Hetain Patel to produce an artwork in response to their site as part of the Meeting Point programme.

Cotton Labour, a large scale sculpture of symbolic portraits woven from yarn, remembered workers that were crucial to the success of Sir Richard Arkwright’s cotton spinning mills during the industrial revolution, and depicted the local women and children that formed the majority of Cromford Mills’ labour force.

The artwork also honoured the enslaved labour of the wider cotton industry and members of Hetain’s own family who picked cotton in Kenya and India.

Hetain Patel said:

“Sir Richard Arkwright is remembered today as one of Britain’s great industrialists, and his legacy is celebrated at Cromford Mills. In contrast there are no surviving records of the mill’s workers, the people responsible for much of Arkwright’s success.

Cotton Labour is about shining a light on the hundreds of forgotten workers that helped build the cotton industry in Britain, many of them women and children. It’s also a reminder of the enslaved labour involved in the wider cotton industry.

In addition, the artwork will reflect my own family’s personal experience of the cotton industry, as both my mother and grandmother picked cotton in Kenya and India.

Like all of my work, I want Cotton Labour to make a human connection, drawing links between the cotton industry and people of different ages, races, genders and backgrounds.”

Cotton Labour was a series of large-scale symbolic portraits woven into a mesh structure using yarn from donated clothing, textiles and materials. Hetain worked with members of the local community to create the yarn and build the portraits, which depicted women and children from Arkwright’s pioneering water-powered cotton spinning mill, the enslaved labour involved in the wider cotton industry, and members of Hetain’s own family.

Displayed using a round, mesh sculpture, audiences were able to view the portraits from both outside and within the sculpture.

Hetain continued:

“When people first see the artwork from a distance, the ethnicity of the portraits won’t be visible. I want people to engage with the imagery first. When they get closer, they’ll be able to see more of the human features and really connect with each and every portrait.”

Hannah Steggles, Head of Heritage at Cromford Mills, said:

“Whilst Sir Richard Arkwright is considered to have been a fair employer, life inside Cromford Mills was still extremely hard. People worked 13 hour days, six days a week. Each and every worker played a part in the mill’s success, but we have no surviving records showing who they were.

Hetain’s work gives us the opportunity to remember the people behind the success of Britain’s cotton industry, and reflect on an important part of Cromford Mills’ history.”

Cromford Mills participated in the fourth Meeting Point programme, which has seen 25 museums working with more than 50 museum professionals to create 25 new artworks and over 100 workshops.

Cotton Labour was on display at Cromford Mills in Derbyshire from 16 July – 18 September 2022.

Cotton Labour, 2022


  • Artist Assistant

    Hana Fredericks

  • Production

    Lindley Productions

  • Additional assistant support

    Tanya Cubric

  • Partners

    Cromford Mills, Arts & Heritage, Arts Council England