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Collectors' Group Autumn Meeting

Visit to Ashmolean Museum

Wed 20th October 2010
11am to about 4pm

Ashmolean Museum
Oxford

‘Do no harm!’ It was apparent from the presentation given to 15 members of the Textile Collectors Group by Sue Stanton, textile conservator, at the Ashmolean Museum on 20 October, that the exigencies of the Hippocratic Oath apply just as much to the work of textile conservators as they do to medical doctors.

Why? The conservation of textiles is a rapidly evolving field in which the development of new tools and materials is having a profound effect on what is believed to be ‘the best’ way to conserve a textile: current work must therefore not compromise future conservation efforts. And conservation is not ‘restoration’: it is vital that the conservator does not ‘overwork’ a textile just to ‘improve its appearance’, removing features that may help determine the provenance of a textile, or are an essential part of its history (for example, stains may be an integral part of a burial garment!).

At its simplest level, the work of a museum conservator focuses on the correct storage of a textile: should it be rolled, hung or folded, and, if so, how and in what?

When Sue first arrived at the Ashmolean she found a textile collection subdivided into four main groups: embroidered and printed archaeological fragments, Chinese and central Asian coats, carpets and ‘the rest’: three plan chests ‘stuffed’ with folded textiles. A major part of Sue’s early work there was to ensure that these pieces were properly assessed and stored (which has resulted in a significant expansion in the space needed to store these items: the contents of the three chests now take up a whole room!). However, this story served to highlight the first of the many conflicts that face a conservator: should a garment, such as a Japanese robe, which, traditionally, is folded in a certain way, be folded differently for long-term storage to avoid permanent damage in areas creased by the traditional folding pattern?

Sue’s main work as a conservator now focuses on preparing textiles for display. This starts with an assessment of the textile and how it will be displayed to determine what preparation work is required. In many cases, the primary requirement is to stabilise the item, securing areas of damage and ensuring that the conserved textile has the strength to withstand being hung for an extended period of time. This phase may also include ‘undoing’ any earlier work that has been carried out on the textile. For example, damaged areas may have been folded under and sewn to the back of the sound textile to provide a new hem. In such cases, this later stitching will be unpicked and the textile steamed to remove the creases that it created. Sometimes this unpicking provides the conservator with a ready point of entry to insert a support fabric (such as melanex) to stabilise the textile and provide a framework to which to attach damaged areas. In other cases, the conservator may be faced with a further ethical dilemma: whether or not to cut some of the original stitches so that a support fabric can be introduced. Such decisions are not taken lightly.

Cleaning is also an area fraught with difficult decisions: are the marks an integral part of the textile or not? Often, textiles are just cleaned using a micro vacuum cleaner to remove dirt from the surface and fibres (the Ashmolean preserves the material which has been cleaned from the textile so that it is available for further examination at any time in the future to help verify provenance through an analysis of, for example, pollen grains found in the fabric). Sue also has the facility to wet clean textiles where this is deemed necessary and appropriate.

Sue showed the group both completed pieces and work in progress to demonstrate the processes that go into preparing a textile for display. The conservator must first assess the textile and determine the work that needs to be done to prepare the textile for display: for example, does it need to be stabilised and supported and should it be cleaned? Sue then puts together a work programme – what is to be done and how, using which materials - with an estimate of how long the work can take (the preparation of a Chinese altar piece for display required 280 man hours). Finally, the conservator must keep detailed records of the work done, as it proceeds.

This demonstration served to highlight the range of textiles that she is responsible for conserving: silks, cottons and linens; embroideries, crewel-work and stump work; wall and altar hangings, and items of clothing; and also the range of tools and techniques that she has at her disposal. These include: threads, fabrics such as conservation netting and melanex, dyes (like a good watercolourist, Sue has developed her own palette of colours from her knowledge of mixing a range of Ciba Geigy dyes) and special stitches, such as laid thread couching stitch, to ‘invisibly’ attach a textile to whatever stabilising fabric is used. It also highlighted the difficulties that can arise from using modern materials in the conservation and display of old textiles – Velcro being particularly difficult to use when hanging a textile – which only served to emphasise, once again, why it is so important that a conservator does the absolute minimum to a textile to prepare it for storage or display and, thereby, does no harm.

John Fisher