Intergenerational connections

Ancestral Interconnections – the exhibition

Take a tour through seven generations of my family, interlacing genetics, ancestry and weaving with a focus on matrilineal inheritance and mitochondrial genetics.

Matrilineal inheritance is traced through the mother’s line. Mitochondia are the powerhouses of the cell, generating the chemical energy needed for cells to function. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on by mother’s to all their children and passed on again by their daughters. By sequencing my mitochondrial DNA, I sequence that of the matrilineal fore-mothers. DNA data flowing forwards in time from millennia ago.

The systematic and centralised collection of individual records for all residents of Scotland since 1841 lets us visit the most recent fore-mothers, including those beyond living memory. Birth, marriage, death certificates and census returns reveal where the fore-mothers lived, when, with who, and how they were employed. And it reveals the materials they worked with – brown linen (from flax) and jute.

Genetic information flows in one direction; social information, skills, values flow in many, moving back and forth in time and space. People move around.

For at least seven generations, my family has been employed in occupations related to the weaving trade in Angus, Scotland – handloom and powerloom weavers, yarn winders, in the offices of weaving factories – with an almost unbroken line of weaver-ish women. Those women are represented here by seven objects, handwoven using the same materials my ancestors worked with. Through them, we consider what it is that makes us “of a place”, the values and skills they shared, and the journeys our ancestors have taken to bring us where we are. Where might they want us to go next?

The inside of a digital gallery space showing interpretation panels, images of work, and a doorway.

Visit the digital version of this exhibition by clicking the image above. This will open in a new tab in your web browser of choice. There are two rooms where you can explore the physical objects made digital in different ways, find out about the inspiration behind each piece (from information boards and audio), and get up close and personal with 3D models of the work presented in different places. You can enter the digital exhibition space as a guest, although registering for an account gives more options for moving around within the spaces. Visit on a phone (the first room only – the second room requires more processing power than most phones have), on your laptop, or using the browser inside a VR headset (where you can click on the goggles symbol to make each room immersive).

Move between rooms by clicking the wooden door. Use the “Go To” functions to jump between different parts of a room; or move around the room using navigation tools.

In the second room, the works are laid out as they are in the physical exhibition space, but here you get to choose the context.

The physical version of this exhibition can be visited at the Meffan Museum and Art Gallery, Forfar, Angus, Scotland from Sat 14 Jan – Sat 22 Apr 2023, open every Thursday-Saturday from 1000-1600. The digital exhibition is accessible 24/7 indefinitely.

Huge thanks go to Steve Colmer at Lateral North for helping to create these digital spaces!


The story goes a little like this…

Maureen left school and started working in the office of a local weaving factory. At the factory, she met and became friends with powerloom weaver Jean. Maureen and Jean enjoyed socialising outside work. After their nights out, Maureen would drive Jean home, where Jean’s brother David also lived. David took a shine to Maureen and she to him. And so the courtship began.

Maureen and David got married, mixed their DNA, and made me.


So I exist, in part, because of weaving. Weaving was around me as a I grew up in Angus in the 1980s and 1990s, in the weaving factories that still operated in Kirriemuir and Forfar, and in the “Jute, Jam and Journalism” of Dundee. The first bar I pulled pints in was called The Osnaburg, named (I now know!) after the fabric that was once extensively woven in the area.

Back then, weaving was considered a dying trade with factories in the UK struggling to compete with cheaper production elsewhere in the world. Only a few still operate today. Technology was the future and a university education was the route to upward social mobility. So off I ventured to become a scientist in the field of human genetics. At that time, I didn’t know that weaving was (almost) in my DNA…

Your selvedges are very neat for a beginner. You must have been a weaver in a past life!

Weaving tutor

It turns out that I come from a long line of Scottish weavers. By researching national records that span seven generations going back to 1841 and combining this with family records and memories, we (the family – it’s been a collective effort!) have found relatives in every generation who worked as weavers or in jobs related to weaving. This includes handloom weavers and factory powerloom weavers as well as yarn winders and a weaving factory office worker. We know when and where they did this, and have been able to follow the threads of weaving interwoven throughout our family history. It’s a story of working class women and men scraping a living from local production in a trade built on empire. It’s also a story of change, from weaving as a heritage skill to weaving as contemporary craft.

This project combines that family history of weaving with my previous scientific research in human genetics, using this very personal but – in some ways – universal story to think about the threads that run through families, the stories that are interwoven across generations and countries, and how these connect us to people and place.


Embroidery showing family tree with weavers indicated

Maternal inheritance – an (almost?) unbroken line – mitochondrial DNA.

People and places

Mapping people and places in space and time in 3D.