East Leeds Project Team visit to Sunny Bank Mills on Saturday 8th February 2020
The Sunny Bank Mills Estate is owned by the Gaunt family, who have been converting the old cloth mill buildings into workplace units suitable for a range of businesses, from offices to artist studios, maker spaces, a play gym and an acting school, since the mill ceased creating cloth in 2008. There is a busy onsite café, Art Gallery and shop and creative enterprises such as SCRAP, a Centre for Creative Reuse, that we visited on the East Leeds project team research trip on 8th February.
The repurposing of old mill buildings and within them creating spaces for creative businesses and artists, is something seen across our region and the visit reminded many of us of the vast Salts Mill in Saltaire, but on a smaller scale. The buildings themselves are full of wonderful historic features, worn down stone steps and old Yorkshire stone. The Art Gallery had beautiful daylight streaming in through huge windows, creating a very different ambience to most white walled galleries. The gallery shop stocks a range of work from local designer makes and has a small tearoom serving hot drinks and cake. On site there are a small number of artist’s studios and a project space with textile printing available to hire for a half or full day. The mill also hosts small performances and concerts and can be hired as an event space.
Sunny Bank Mills sits at the very heart of Farsley. Founded in 1829 by a group of local weavers, the Mills developed into one of the world’s most important fine worsted mills. As it has always been such a central and iconic site for local people, it was wonderful to hear that some of the employees from when it was an operating mill are still employed there today. The mill felt incredibly grounded in its sense of place as part of a village community. The site is open and welcoming and the mix of different buildings, businesses and the position of the site, results in it simply feeling like part of the town itself and easy to dip in and out of. Having said that, making such historic buildings fully accessible is undoubtedly no small task. Modern toilet facilities and lifts have been installed but creating full access to all will be certainly an area with lots of challenges for the management. There does seem to be a real and genuine commitment to make sure these buildings will continue to be occupied and an important asset to Farsley for years to come by the Gaunt family.
There is also an onsite Archive, which houses an historic collection of mill items, including textiles and weaving looms. Open for the public to visit and to be used for research, the archive really acknowledges and celebrates the mills history and its legacy.
On our way to visit SCRAP, I noticed School of Sew, who offer tailored sewing lessons and courses. Seeing a space dedicated to one craft was brilliant and the possibility of having multiple studios and dedicated spaces for a range of creative practices seemed very natural and at home in the mill buildings. They are really making the most of the opportunity that such a large estate offers, with a range different buildings and sizes of space to play with and configure.
SCRAP itself is full of possibility for any creative, continuously stocked with discarded materials originally destined for landfill, sold on at very low prices. This a wonderful resource for individual artists as well as community groups, schools and students. As well as the ScrapStore SCRAP also has an eco-friendly refill station and hosts a community craft café. They create ScrapSheds for schools and educational settings and also run creative workshops and training. It is a brilliant example of a social enterprise that really engages with the local community in several ways.
Some proposed further research for the Project Team would be to speak to some of the studio holders to find out more about the creative community that exists around the site and if any activity or collaboration takes place that is artist lead or managed in any ongoing way by the estate. There is clearly huge potential for collaboration across art forms and to grow the creative output and engagement of the mills, but as a private business this might not be something considered or prioritised by the management. It would also be useful to get a sense as to how tied into the wider creative community across Leeds the mill is and what, if any conversations are happening with other creative organisations in the area. With local businesses, including HR, engineering and digital marketing companies all within the same complex, there is something quite refreshing and exciting about just how easily these different industries occupy the same space and how embedded the arts are throughout these buildings, providing an asset and helping to make Sunny Bank Mills in to a real destination, rather than simply a place of work, or office block, but part of the community and somewhere people want to be, live and work.