On a Roll
When MA student Amy Harris arrived at Gallery Oldham she went in search of an object in our collection that she felt she had a connection with.
‘Having lived my entire life in Stockport this seemed like a daunting task and I didn’t expect to find a personal connection in Gallery Oldham’s collection. I now realise how silly that was.’
‘Many people from Greater Manchester have a connection to someone who worked in a mill or a factory or have some link to the textile industry. Today it may seem like the mills that surround us have little relevance to anything but the landscape but both my mum and sister work in a factory in Trafford Park working with textiles, and my dad was a Rotary Screen Engraver for over 20 years.’
‘Before my dad had even left school, he started working for Rotascreen, a company based in Stockport that printed textiles using rollers, ultraviolet light and a thick paint (lacquer). When he was hired there were only three criteria.
- He had to be tall so he could carry the 2m tall screens without bending them.
- He had to be able to clean so he could grease and wash the screens with an industrial detergent ready for printing.
And the most important criteria…
- He had to be able to make a decent brew (for self-explanatory reasons).
It was his job to cover the rotary screen, a malleable metal mesh sheet, with lacquer. Using a pressure washer the lacquer was removed to reveal the design. It was then exposed to ultra violet light which hardened the lacquer. When the screen was finished and placed over the roller, the paint would only come through where there was no lacquer.
While this may seem complicated, according to my dad, it was the easiest part. The hardest part was taking the lacquered screen, placing it over the metal roller and joining the edges. If you look at your clothes or wallpaper, you’ll see that the printed patterns are continuous. You should never be able to tell where the beginning and the end are. 20 years ago this was done thanks to the patience and skill of Rotary Screen engravers.
‘The joining of each screen was done using a high-pressure water gun. It could take up to 3 hours to do seamlessly.’
The rollers used during my dad’s time working as an engraver are still used today and were created in the 1800s. The use of rollers revolutionised the printing process making it quicker and more standardised. They allowed a continuous run of fabric or paper to be printed.
The Lees Family
In the 1800s the Lees family made Oldham one of the top manufacturers of these rollers. They owned multiple factories around Oldham from 1816 to the 1950s. In 1816 Samuel Lees established the Soho Works a manufacturing business that specifically made rollers for the cotton trade.
One individual recounted that ‘Mr Lees, of Soho foundry, near Oldham employs 130 hands regularly, in the roller making business. His works, and the buildings he has erected appears like a little village’.
The Lees’ mills were so extensive that by 1846 Soho foundries were using 18 tonnes of iron a week. By 1846 the Lees family had monopolised the roller business and their equipment was in use in factories all around Lancashire. With their wealth, Samuel Lees helped to establish the original gallery in Oldham in 1883.
The Lees rollers used the Intaglio method, a very similar method to that used to create rotary screens. Intaglio requires a pattern be engraved onto a metal roller. The roller was then covered in dye transferring the pattern onto the fabric or paper. It could also be used to make wallpaper, so it isn’t too surprising that the Lees family branched out into the wallpaper business. They founded the Lees Paper Staining Co in 1936 at Rome Mill.
Rollers from Rome Mill
Rollers from Rome Mill currently have a home in Gallery Oldham’s collection. These were created by inserting metal pieces into wood to form a pattern that could then be used to roll over paper to create ornate designs. These objects connected with me and led to my exploration of the history of printing in Oldham and my own family history. Seeing the rollers in person made me appreciate the skill, time and effort put into making them. These pictures don’t do justice to just how ornate and beautiful these rollers are.
Without the popularisation of rollers in the textile business my Dad’s career may have been very different. It was through his employment as a Rotary screen engraver that he met my mum. So, the next time you see an old mill in the distance; think about the lives they have touched. The mills that surround us have contributed to the history of our surroundings and our families. By extension they feed into a part of who we are. You never know what your connection might be!