Tuesday Poem: Strands - the story of cotton

Blake's Dark Satanic Mills

It's National Short Story week in the UK, so I wanted to post a poem that told a story.  My father's mother came from an Irish family who worked in the cotton mills.  They came to Carlisle in Cumbria to work in Dixon's Mill - one of the biggest mills in the city and lived in one of the tiny 'tied' houses nearby, literally two up and two down for the whole family.  My great grandfather started work at the age of 12 on the machines, but became a pattern maker, punching holes in the cardboard sheets that were fed into the machines to 'programme' them - a bit like pianola rolls.  He suffered from emphysema and died from it when I was a young child.  One of the best mill museums is Arkwright's Masson Mill in Matlock Bath - they've kept it just as it was when the last workers walked out.  It gave me a big insight into the lives of my ancestors and these two poems were written there.  For a really good short story written in the voice of a young girl who has worked in the mills, by Catherine Czerkawska, please follow this link to Eliza Marshall's Tale.

finer than baby hair,
the thread
without the seed still
wants to float
like dandelion fluff
on a puff of air.

But stretched, tautened,
twisted together
cotton fibre makes a weft
as strong as spider silk to case
the cushions of Cleopatra
shroud the mummies of the Nile

and weave a slave’s shift,
to clog the lungs of northern lasses
coughing up a history
printed in blood.

Dixon’s Mill
My great grandfather worked this mill
aged twelve, crawling beneath
the clattering, bucking iron mules
that tore the cotton, threading the air
with fibre, twisting it into yarn,
to weave a million sheets
and pillow cases, hand towels
fancy table covers slubbed
and woven into country scenes
with roses, cottages and wooded hills.

Older,  became a pattern maker
punching the holes to set the looms
and skilled at Jacquard which
paid more than just a living wage,
though when I knew him
he was coughing lint from his lungs
in an upstairs room,
spooning watery porridge
like the snot he hawked up
into a shaving mug beside the bed.

© Kathleen Jones

For more Tuesday Poems, please take a look at the Tuesday Poem Hub - where you'll find good poetry from around the world.


  1. I love the way you capture past lives. My great great grandfather was a rope maker - I wonder if the rope factories were anything like the cotton factories?


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