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'Behind the Seams' Exhibition - Museum of Brisbane

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by West End Girl (subscribe)
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'Behind the Seams', showing at the Museum of Brisbane till 30 October, is a moving and sometimes funny exhibition about the women who worked in the Can't Tear 'Em workwear factory at West End.

I'm a third-generation West Ender, and my family has seen much change in the suburb. One major shift has been the transformation of Montague Road and surrounding streets: from an area dominated by industry to one accommodating new units, business parks and cafes.

While these changes have brought many positives, it's also worth remembering that generations of people worked in the factories that used to be here, and developed their own strong connections to these places.

The women featured in this exhibition are one such group. Mostly migrants, they were machinists, supervisors and packers in the Can't Tear 'Em factory at 75 Victoria Street. The property and the clothing companies it housed changed hands numerous times over the years, but these women worked there steadily -- some for decades. The factory finally closed and the women lost their jobs in 2009, when then-owner Pacific Brands sent its manufacturing off-shore.

'Behind the Seams' records the women's memories of work at the factory, the bonds they forged with each other, the challenges they faced, and their feelings when they were finally forced to leave the factory. Featuring photographs, a short film, and numerous quotes from the women, it is a rich and entertaining chronicle of a skilled group who took great pride in their work.

It is also a chronicle of how women from Vietnam, the Philippines, India and many other countries created friendships that went well beyond the factory floor, and the dignity and sense of belonging that their jobs provided.

This made the factory's closure an even greater blow, and their sense of loss is captured here. I was moved to tears more than once reading the women's accounts of how it felt to realise that they would never again go to work at the factory with their friends. At the same time, a wicked sense of humour shines through in many of their recollections, and I found myself smiling at some of their comments about working life.

Rapid change often ends up erasing history in our cities, as older residents forget what used to be, and newer residents know only what is. Exhibitions like Behind the Seams play an important role in recording the experiences of people who were part of Brisbane's inner-city fabric for many years.

I'd urge you to go along and catch it while you can. While you're there, you might also like to take a look at the very interesting Blakely & Llloyd photography exhibition, on show in the museum's second gallery until 20 November. Both are free.

'Behind the Seams' is a joint project by the Museum of Brisbane and the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia. It is part of a national arts project acknowledging the contributions of textile workers at the seven east-coast Pacific Brands sites that closed in 2009.
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Why? For a moving look at local history
When: 10am-5pm daily
Where: 157 Ann St, Brisbane
Cost: Free
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