Textiles: A conversation about conservation

My favourite phrase was coined by my friend Amy who got her words tangled and said “Speaking of talking…” I just thought that was great! You can say that at anytime, in any conversation, on any topic. It developed to become a subtle way of changing the subject.

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So, speaking of talking. In my previous post I gave you a tour of my tour of the People’s History Museum in Salford. In the museum there is a textile conservation studio, and I got to talk to one of the conservationists there and ask some questions about her work. I did some learning!

I learnt that conservation is not restoration. The team work on prolonging the life expectancy of historic textiles, but they are not interested in making it look as it did it its glory days. What they focus on is how to prevent further damage, not necessarily fixing the current damage.

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For example, this is one of the banners that she was working on, an old family crest flag, that was crumbly. I don’t know if that is the technical term, but the thing looked super fragile! Most of the banners and flags they work on are made of silk. It was the most popular choice throughout the 19th century for two reasons: silk is extremely strong when it is densely woven, and it absorbed the dye pigments well creating a vibrant cloth. So, if you wanted to advertise your trade society as being worthwhile, you had better make an eye-catching banner!

This silk painted flag, while not a trade union banner, was still hanged to celebrate the family’s heritage and had either been used to death or had been improperly stored; resulting in deterioration.  So, the conservation team had to flatten it all out, keeping in mind that they cannot steam or iron it because of the paint, they lay glass over the top to weigh it down and prevent curling. They traced the flag design onto a plastic sheet, which was then transferred by hand painting onto a piece of fine silk, which had been dyed to match the cream colour. This is the stage it is at in the photo, and so far 45 hours has been spent on this single project! The flag will be adhered to this piece of silk, being sandwiched with another at the back, so any crumbly bits cannot peel away from either side.  The design had to be transferred this way because as the silk was dyed cream, it made the darker areas of the flag painting look cloudy. Once the flag is sandwiched in, the piece will be near invisibly hand stitched in a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines which will reinforce the flags weakest spots.

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When the flag is to be displayed, they will mount it onto a cloth covered board by hand stitching it around the edges and standing it at a slight angle leaning back. This helps to distribute the weight of the flag, decreasing the amount of stress on the top edge. The woman we spoke to also said she would paint a fish eye on a piece of wooden board and place it behind the flag so the eyeless fish doesn’t look too scary!

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Above is another banner that was being worked on and is almost finished. Another museum had sent this one to them to fix up. When it arrived at the studio it was covered in mould as it had been stored in damp conditions. You can still see there is some staining that cannot be removed! This banner is for the lamp lighters union, although I don’t know how old it is. We were stood talking about the valance-like frilly border, and apparently this type of border is a more recent addition to the banner. When the original fringing wore out, this ruffle would replace it, and more likely it was the men in the union who would be the ones doing the sewing. So this ruffle became quite common, as it was the easiest and most forgiving border that inexperienced sewists could make.

I did so much learning! And I must say the Conservation Studio was just amazing in itself! It was in the newer part of the museum and was very open and spacious. It had it’s own little library of books to refer to, and piles and piles of rolled up banners and flags. My only complaint is that I wanted to touch things, but my grubby mitts were not allowed, for obvious reasons. I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it really, as textile conservation isn’t something I’ve ever looked into. But as soon as I got in that room, I had tons and tons of questions for her! I’m beginning to wonder if this is a path I would like to take, I shall have to look into it, this textiles conservation thing.

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5 thoughts on “Textiles: A conversation about conservation

  1. This is fascinating! I want you to go for it because it would be so awesome but really because I want to hear all the details 🙂
    Crazily enough, I thought this post would be about “conservation” – in the more environmentalist kind of sense and after a bit if thought, I wasn’t too far off. This post really inspires me to make stuff well, so that its both awesome and lasts a long time.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I always think this when I go into museums and see textiles that are centuries old, better weave those ends in real good! I also looked into some MA Courses for textiles conservation, and it just sounded a bit dull. Your not going to like what I have to say, but it is really chemistry based. I remember liking chemistry in high school, but for the past six years I got to choose my education to be about storytelling by taking English lit, Film Studies and Art Courses. Maybe I just liked hearing the story the fabric went through, as I didn’t really take into account all the scientific choices the conservationist would have to know in order to work on it. Your a better candidate for this job!

      1. Oh the story telling aspect is the best! I think you can’t go into this kind of thing if you’re not 100% committed to learning the story of the piece. And I totally get it, my first time in school I was studied Film, Ethics and Rhetoric. The story is key and I think all that chemistry is just trying to tell the story backwards. Like all things chemistry has a lot of different perspectives and I can with all confidence tell you that I would be horrible with that job. I’m the kind of chemist that thrives when making new things and I’m less interested in all the other aspects.

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