Artist Rita Duffy Launches The Shirt Factory Project

Rita Duffy brings wit and wisdom to the City of Culture with an engaging new exhibition in the City Shirt Factory

The City Shirt Factory sits behind the Strand Presbyterian Church, and runs the length of Patrick Street in Derry~Londonderry. It’s a four-storey brown and yellow brick building; four elegant art nouveau-style lampposts in muted green line the pavement outside

The Strand Church held its last service in 2010, forced to close due to dwindling congregations and lack of money. The building stands empty and neglected. Likewise, the City Shirt Factory saw a drop in demand for its services. Once a powerhouse in an industry which saw Derry~Londonderry produce shirts that were exported all over the world, the time came for the machines to stop and for the building to fall into decay.

It is a problem faced by other important buildings in cities throughout the west world. What do you do with a building that has outlived its original purpose? While the Strand Road Church still searches for an answer, room by room the City Shirt Factory is finding solutions.

The Shirt Factory Project


One such solution is the Shirt Factory Project, housed in the old laundry room on the factory’s ground floor. It is both the brainchild and realisation of Belfast-born artist, Rita Duffy, who provided her own personal brief of 'reinventing and reanimating' the space. The result is quirky, imaginative, reassuring, challenging and inventive.

The Shirt Factory Project has not created a museum, although artefacts and elements of Derry’s industrial past are on display. Rather, the project as a whole is a merging of personal and civic history, industry, art, politics, polemics and commerce within the one space.

A line bench of sewing machines, stools and spools is the first thing to greet the eye. There’s an impression of 'how we used to work' about the rich wood and rusting metal, but that sense of the standard museum experience will be dispelled by the cloud of threads which are due to float above it, within which will be a speaker system to create a soundscape of songs, noises and narratives.

Through the centre of the room, between the functional, solid pillars, are old display cabinets. These might once have held product lines and samples. Now one contains an arch of spools and cotton spanning over a red button river, evoking a flavour of the city’s Butcher Gate. Another cabinet also has a bridge, but one made of leather-bound ledgers and books of records. The past has been taken and changed.

Tables stand near the cabinets, littered with offcuts and scissors. On these, new things are made out of the old. 'As a tribute to the women who worked here,' says Duffy as we walk through the space. 'I employ young women in an active part of the project, recycling old shirts to go on sale in the shop – aprons, bags, cushions.'

The activity draws on the tradition of the workers buying offcuts to make quilts, and echoes the custom of quilting, which Ulster Presbyterians took to America. Industry, history and art come together in another section of the project, which offers a laundry service. Members of the public can bring in a garment, get it cleaned and pressed – and it will be returned with a poem stitched inside.

One of the things that Duffy is concentrating on at the moment is the Derry London Shirt Project. The London Shirt was a style of white businessman’s shirt. Duffy’s idea puts a twist on this. Starting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the measure of a number of Westminster politicians will be taken, and each will receive a shirt handmade in Derry~Londonderry.

The Shirt Factory Project


The twist is that inside the collar will be stitched an extract from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In Duffy’s words, 'This is about power, renegotiation of power, reverse colonisation, and industry in Derry.'

Throughout the Shirt Factory Project there can be seen a reworking of ideas, artefacts, words and images. Duffy explores and reshapes themes of power, place and labour. Earlier in her career, she launched the Thaw Project, which aimed to bring an iceberg into the waters of Belfast, to show the need for and possibility of change and re-creation.

The gift shop at the Shirt Factory – unlike any other – is full of Thaw Produce. The shelves are stocked with B Special Honey, Edward Carson Covenanters Marmalade – orange, of course – and blood-red Padraig Pearse Pasta Sauce (which were previously on display in Belfast's Ulster Museum as Duffy's inclusion in the 2012 Royal Ulster Academy exhibition).

There are also tins of Red Ham of Ulster, Border Butter Beans, and Billy’s Baby Carrots. The barcode belonging to the bottles of Ulster Vinegar is made up of significant dates in Irish history. They are all for sale, and all edible.

It is playful, but there’s an artistic and satirical punch too. The food all comes from an English company dealing in surplus food, a reference to the famine of the 1840s as well as the current geopolitical situation. The beautiful labels talk of pain, anger and grievance, which can be added to all family dishes.

It is functional, political art, encompassing themes and images of domestic labour, the rights of women, and the role of men in today’s world. There are silk scarves for sale, showing Derry~Londonderry’s skeleton walking a skeletal greyhound around Amelia Earhart’s little red bus.

There are items showing a shirt exploding from the mortar fired over the city’s walls by besieging forces. Bizarrely – and hilariously – you can pick up a Dana teatowel. Or you can buy a teatowel adorned with a skull, on which is depicted the route of the Bloody Sunday Civil Rights march.

In more ways than one, this project has all kinds of everything. It is funny, clever, serious and engaging, and full of variety. Tins of vegetables proclaim the 'Peas Process', while the walls display some beautiful, delicate drawings by Duffy. The one I love the most shows a woman rising inside an enclosed, walled space. She is caged. She could be a beacon, or a watchtower, or a spirit of rebellion, or a guardian.

These drawings will feature in the book on which Duffy has worked with poet, Paul Muldoon, entitled At Sixes and Sevens. 'I believe in creativity, art, and the importance of work,' adds Duffy. 'I’ve been looking at what we consume and turning those things into art works. I believe in gainful employment.' On the project itself, she says, 'I’m not sure what I’m doing. But I’m having fun. And I’m on an interesting trajectory.'

The Shirt Factory Project continues until December 2013.

The Shirt Factory Project