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Weaving the global story of progress in Ronse

Jean Marie Vandendaele is a proud man.

Proud of his trade, as a weaver.

Proud of his town, Ronse, which was once the centre of Belgium’s textile industry, with 25,000 people working in 500 mills at its height, between the two World Wars.

And he is clearly proud of his current job, as a guide for MUST, Ronse’s textile museum.

We turned up one morning last week expecting the usual regional museum fare: a few old looms, some badly written copy and a handful of tacky souvenirs for sale.

Instead we were treated to a compelling two-hour private tour by Jean Marie, where he told us the story of the textile industry, from the first mechanical looms of 1700 through to today’s computerised machines that can weave wings for Airbus planes.

Yes, the wings on modern planes are woven, just like a tea towel.

As he showed us the 1930 machines, whose noisy rhythm echoed a tango, and explained the binary coding that looms have used for centuries, he was also telling us the story of the industrial revolution, and bringing alive the impact of globalisation on working people the world over.

“The machines are better,” he said showing us the last computerised loom made in Belgium, “but is the life of man?”

Globalisation and its sister immigration are not new phenomenon.  Tribes have traded with each other since, well since we decided shiny shells had value.

People, sometimes in very large groups, have travelled across continents to escape war, poverty and sometimes just for adventure.

Only last month archaeologists found evidence of Chinese people in London between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD, suggesting much stronger links between ancient China and Europe than previously thought.

The textile industry, in Belgium and the UK, was dependent on immigrant labour.

People came from as far afield as Italy and Pakistan to make the cloth that created immense wealth for mill-owners and powered economic growth.

And engineering companies sold their machines across borders.

Jean Marie was showing us how a 1900 loom worked when we spotted the legend David Sowden & Sons, Shipley.

More than a century ago this machine had been made in West Yorkshire, less than a mile from our former home in Saltaire, and sold to a mill in Wallonia, where today it sits as testament to free trade across Europe.

When we left, we bought a pack of three hankies made on the Shipley loom.

As we wander round the European Union, marvelling at the straightness of German autobahns and the friendliness of everyone we meet, we will carry the green and white cloth with us as a constant reminder of our European roots.

Government ministers may call for lists of “foreigners” to be kept; people scared of the future may continue to be whipped into a xenophobic frenzy up by second rate politicians; and yes, the UK will leave the EU.

But…

Jean Marie’s surname, Vandendaele, means from the valley.

He, like his ancestors before him, grew up in the Ronse valley in Wallonia, in southern Belgium.

But Jean Marie is a citizen, not just of the country of his birth, but of the European Union and, yes, of the world. That is how we humans progress

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