Hetain Patel at Cromford Mills


Project Info


  • Hetain Patel


  • Cromford Mills
  • Arts&Heritage
  • Arts Council England

Cromford Mills commissioned artist 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.”

In March, Hetain gave an online talk about the project, which you can watch here.

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.


A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Hetain Patel on a ‘making of film’ for Cotton Labou, capturing the artist’s process.

Cromford Mills is the world’s first successful water powered cotton spinning mill, built by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1771, who invented the water frame and revolutionised cotton spinning. It is a key location in the history of the Industrial Revolution as the birthplace of mass production.

Built between 1771 and 1776 the two mills produced cotton thread with all stages of the cotton spinning process happening under one roof for the first time. The gritstone buildings were built to a high standard, and the mill complex, including associated warehouses were complete by the 1790s. Set within the Derwent Valley and Derbyshire Dales the surrounding countryside creates a beautiful environment.

The Arkwright Society was formed in 1972, growing out of the Arkwright Festival Committee, which ran a local celebration to commemorate this important and progressive industrialist. On the verge of demolition, Cromford Mills was bought by the Society in 1979 and the charity has been restoring it ever since. Although none of the original machinery remains, the exteriors of the buildings create an impressive atmospheric setting for visitors to enjoy.

Due to the success of dedicated individuals that form the Arkwright Society, Cromford Mills has been transformed from a derelict site doomed for demolition to one of World Heritage Status, employing a small team of 20 staff and a larger team of volunteers. The modern Cromford Mills site presents an impressive architectural statement of the industrial revolution and is Grade 1 listed.

The contemporary Arkwright Society has adopted its own green code and is actively seeking environmental solutions to power and waste. Today, Cromford Mills is an award-winning heritage attraction with a Visitor Centre, the Arkwright Experience, tours, cafés, and a range of retail and business tenants making us a busy, multi-use site with a diverse audience visiting all year round. The Arkwright Society, who own and manage Cromford Mills, is an educational charity devoted to the rescue of industrial heritage and helping to preserve the precious built and natural landscape in and around Cromford for the benefit of the public. It is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site which was inscribed by UNESCO in 2001 and represents 15 miles of industrial landscape along the River Derwent.

Chris Sharratt, freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow, visited Cromford Mills to view Cotton Labour, a Meeting Point commission by artist Hetain Patel. 

How can history be reframed, a yarn unspun and then remade? It’s a question Hetain Patel addresses subtly but without compromise in his public realm artwork, Cotton Labour. Situated in the large outdoor yard at Cromford Mills, Derbyshire – the world’s first successful water-powered cotton-spinning mill, built in 1771 – Patel’s slightly larger-than-life portraits gently turn the visitors’ gaze towards the unnamed, unrecorded people who worked at every stage of the factory’s cotton production. 

Patel is perhaps best-known for his highly choreographed films exploring ideas of identity, and in 2019 was the winner of the 12th Film London Jarman Award. He has, however, worked in a variety of different media, including photography, drawing and sculpture. With Cotton Labour he has created a temporary sculptural installation that acts as a kind of physical prompt, an invitation to engage. Using recycled textiles as its principal material, it both celebrates and questions, resonating with current debates around working-class representation, decolonisation and sustainability. 

Patel’s interest in Cromford Mills’ undervalued workers is embedded in the sculpture’s production and the many hands that laboured to create it. The 22 portraits are based on recently-taken photographs of local Cromford people and members of the community group Bright Ideas Nottingham, which among other things explores links between the slave trade and England’s industrial heritage. Also photographed were Patel’s own sister and her young children. Copied as line drawings, which were in turn woven by volunteers onto 8ft-tall wire mesh fence panels, Patel describes the portraits as symbolic of the mainly women and children who worked at the mill, as well as enslaved plantation labour and the Indian cotton industry. The latter connects the artist’s own family story to the artwork – both his mother and grandmother worked as cotton pickers in India and Kenya before moving to England. 

None of this, however, is explicit; it is not spelled out in the work itself. Instead, Patel creates space, both literal and metaphoric, for us to explore these possible connections, to become entwined with other lives. With the mesh panels arranged in a circle and an opening on one side, we can literally mingle with these people, view them from different sides, observe their shadows on a sunny day, look up at them and see the detail of their faces against the sky. Perhaps most importantly, bearing in mind Cotton Labour is a contemporary artwork rather than an attempt at historic reenactment, this multi-racial collection of figures do not appear to us as ghosts from the past, nor are they constrained by the industrial heritage that surrounds them. Rather, the use of colourful, contemporary fabrics to outline each figure’s distinctive features creates a feeling of proximity and connection, a sense that these are people rooted in the present, just like the visitors to Cromford Mills. A sense, too, that the dynamics of class, race and labour they embody are the very things that continue to define and shape our lives in the 21st century, wherever we are in the world. 

Cotton Labour acknowledges and challenges how the stories we do or don’t tell about the past have shaped, and continue to shape, the way we live. This temporary commemoration of forgotten lives, surrounded by the solidness of 18th century mill buildings and the histories these represent, wants us to think about who and where we are now.

– Chris Sharratt, 2022

The Artist

Hetain Patel is a Bolton born, London based visual artist and performance maker. His live performances, films, sculptures, and photographs have been shown worldwide from the Venice Biennale, Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, and Tate Modern, London to Sadler’s Wells, where he is a New Wave Associate. His work exploring identity and freedom, employing popular culture, choreography and text appears in multiple formats and media, intended to reach the widest possible audience. His video and performance work online have been watched over 50 million times, which includes his TED talk of 2013 titled, ‘Who Am I? Think Again’.

Patel is the winner of the Film London Jarman Award 2019, Kino Der Kunst Festival’s Best International Film 2020, and was selected for the British Art Show 9, a Hayward Touring exhibition for 2021/22.