"She was only a coal miner's daughter..."

Isn't that how the old joke starts?

My dad started work at the pit when he was fifteen years old, a fact that never really hit home until my own son turned fifteen. When it did, my blood ran cold. How must he have felt? Still not much more than a child, how did he feel as he descended from the pit head, at some speed in nothing more than a wire cage, almost 500 metres down, before travelling on an underground train (which he later drove) then walking, then crawling on his hands and knees to the coal face. It makes me anxious even now, when I think about it.

My dad spent almost 40 years working in the mining industry in South Yorkshire and told us many tales of his life ‘down the pit’, some funny, some not so funny – he was involved in numerous accidents underground, broke his collar bone, smashed his pelvis. Latterly he suffered with pneumoconiosis, although thankfully, not as badly as some. He was, however very proud of his job, his mates, his industry.

This little piece was made in 2018 for the Cork Textiles Network’s exhibition, ‘Tales’. The challenge was to choose a book and respond to it in a textile medium of your choice. I chose the book The Price of Coal by Barry Hines, a novelisation of his original pair of TV plays of the same name, which follows a mining tragedy in a South Yorkshire village as it unfolds against the backdrop of preparations for an imminent Royal Visit to the pit by Prince Charles. It’s powerful stuff and it speaks directly to me. I grew up in a South Yorkshire mining village almost identical to the one portrayed in the book – I recognise the place, the people and their families. I remember an almost paralysing fear as a small child that my dad would be trapped deep underground by a cave-in, explosion or flood.

Many thousands of miners have been killed or injured over the couple of centuries of deep cast coal mining. Many more were left with terrible lung disease, families made bereft or struggling to cope with the victims of pneumoconiosis, fighting for every breath. And since the closure of hundreds of coal mines, an industry has been laid waste, leaving behind communities with little work and less hope, communities where, for many, in recent years Brexit has seemed to shine a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy sky. I’m proud of my origins - the community, warmth, strength, resilience and sense of pride – but I cannot help but ponder the real Price of Coal.

The piece was made by first of all snipping tiny pieces of black prints onto a calico base, to create texture, then layering over with black voile before creating a quilt sandwich and free motion quilting it using a glistening black thread – I wanted to create the look of a good piece of freshly washed coal, which really does glisten (after all, jet is a gemstone!) Then I marked the shape of the coal piece and free motion embroidered contour and seam lines before satin stitching the outer line. Before trimming, I free motion embroidered the images of three mining symbols, the pit helmet, miner’s lamp and boots in a contrasting white thread, using a red thread for details, to represent the blood spilled over the centuries of deep cast coal mining.

This piece is displayed in my hallway, where I pass it each day and every time I do it reminds me of my roots, my family and especially my dad....and The Price of Coal.