Costume and textiles

We all wear clothes, and textiles are part of our daily lives.  How you treat a textile in daily life differs from how you treat a textile that is no longer actively worn or used but still needs to be preserved for future generations.  

Textiles are flexible and squashable, and that makes them vulnerable to damage.  Creases and sharp folds lead to a host of damage over time.  Insect pest larvae can cause massive damage as can damaging aspects of visible light, ultraviolet radiation, relative humidity and temperature.  Contact with, for example, wood and wood-based materials, metals and chemically unstable materials often leads to damage and degradation. 

If textiles are on display for long periods, they would ideally be under protective glazing the way prints and drawings usually are in glazed frames.  As this may be impossible, especially if textiles are large, the best practice is to remove dust from them.  In museums textiles may spend much more time in storage than on display.  Covering textiles in storage protects them against damage through light, dust and pollution. 

The method by which textiles are packed can have a seriously damaging effect on them over the long term.  However, it is possible to slow down their deterioration through preventive conservation, using conservation quality methods and materials as well as considering their display and storage environment.  Preventive conservation can help save the cost of treating the textiles in the future.

The longer a textile's life, the more damaged and deteriorated it often is and the more important it is to keep its handling to minimum.  How textiles are packed for storage depends on their condition and how often they are needed for display or other viewing.  A textile in a busy research collection may need a permanent mount for access and presentation.  Mounts prevent three-dimensional textiles from becoming squashed and creased.  Specially vulnerable textiles benefit from packing so that they can be retrieved without needing to touch them.


Conservation and packing of Robert Burns's parasol for storage

A parasol that had belonged to Robert Burns was in a weak and damaged condition, squashed in a cardboard box in storage.  Such an iconic object required treatment in order to ensure its long-term conservation and prepare it for exhibition.

Parasols and umbrellas are complex composite objects.  Even with its numerous problems it could be seen that this parasol was beautifully hand made.  Its cloth shield was degraded, weak and creased.  Corrosion of the metal tip had damaged the shield in contact with it and the movement of the folding mechanism had compounded the damage.  The stitches that held the shield to the folding mechanism were mostly broken, and this had allowed the shield to separate from the mechanism.  Most of the bone finials at the ends of the ribs had vanished, and those still left had become damaged.  It was no longer possible to lift the parasol upright without the shield falling down its tube. 

After weighing up the benefits against the risks, the shield was separated from the mechanism and cleaned.  The damaged ferrule end of the shield was supported by stitching on a piece of fabric that was dyed to closely match the shield.  This allowed the shield to be re-attached to the metal ferrule of the parasol again.  Will Murray, the Studio’s Artefact Conservator, made replica finials to replace the numerous missing ones as they were of critical importance in re-attaching the shield back onto the folding mechanism.

A two-part conservation-grade storage box was constructed, tailored to the dimensions of the parasol.  In its new box, the parasol is able to sit slightly open without undue tension or creasing.  It is possible to open the box and view the parasol in it without the need to handle it, thus reducing the risk of further damage. 

The parasol squashed in its old storage.
The parasol before treatment. The shield had mostly become detached from the mechanism.
The shield being cleaned.
Samples of wash and rinse baths showing release of soiling from the shield.
Corrosion and action of the mechanism of the parasol had damaged the top of the shield.
The top of the shield after conservation. This made it possible to lift the parasol upright again.
One of the few remaining original bone finials.
A replica finial made in the Studio. These new finials made it possible for us to attach the shield back to the parasol's folding mechanism again.
The parasol in its tailored storage box. The box makes it possible to access the parasol without the need to touch it.

Packing a silk pennant for long-term storage

This early 20th century painted silk pennant had suffered some creases and splitting.  As there were no plans to display it, instead of spending time supporting the splits it was packed for long-term storage without support work.  A fabric-covered handling board and a shallow storage box were made for the pennant.  The pole of the pennant was tied to the board, along with its tassel.  A feather-weight silk and polyester wadding ‘duvet’ was made to lie on top of the pennant to keep it in place in the box.  It is possible to access the pennant simply by opening the box, avoiding the need for direct handling of the fragile object. 

The pennant on its handling board.
The ‘duvet’ and box lid about to be placed over the pennant.

Preparing furnishing textiles samples for safe storage and easy access

These samples of printed and woven furnishing fabrics, from circa 1888 – 1980’s, had been stored folded since before they had been deposited in an archive.  They had become soiled and they were very difficult to access in their stacks. 

Each sample had a paper label with information about its date and design.  Many of the labels were creased, soiled and torn.  The paper labels had also been stapled onto the samples. 

We cleaned hundreds of the samples.  Each paper label was carefully removed from its sample to make the cleaning of the textile samples possible.  The tears in the labels were supported and straightened with advice from the Studio’s paper conservator, Helen Creasy.  This made them safe for handling.

Cleaning the samples released much of their soiling and relaxed the samples’ creases.  Without creases the designs of the samples became much easier to read than they were in the folded state. 

The samples were returned flat to the large drawers of plan-chests in the archive, where they are now available for fast and safe access for the inspiration of students and researchers.  

A stack of folded furnishing fabric samples before treatment.
One of the fabric samples, from the 1940's, before treatment. The fabric along its folds had become especially soiled, its paper label had become damaged and its edges were fraying.
The sample after cleaning, treatment of its paper label and edges.
The torn information label, attached to the sample with a metal staple, before treatment.
The sample's information label, after treatment, temporarily removed from the sample.
The sample's information label sewn back to its exact original location.

Textile maintenance on display

Textiles on open display are vulnerable to soiling due to accumulating dust and dirt from the air, changes in the relative humidity and temperature of the environment, handling by and contact with people, and materials around them. Deterioration owing to such causes takes place gradually.  Once it becomes visible, often it is too late to remove it.  The best practice is to protect textiles in order to prevent damage from taking place, and, if good protection cannot be afforded for whatever reason, to maintain and clean textiles periodically as they hang on display.

We carry out cleaning and maintenance of large textiles on open display.  We also line large textiles to help protect them on display.

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Years of lack of maintenance and protection against the environment sadly allowed this embroidery to become irreversibly soiled.
Curtains behind an altar, and flags, in need of periodic cleaning.
A canopy ready to be taken down for cleaning.
A large hanging of textile art in a public entrance lobby.
An altar cloth highly vulnerable to damage through exposure to light and wear from passing people.
Large wall-hangings being re-hang after cleaning.
A large modern tapestry on the wall of a public entrance atrium.

Thinking on one's feet - packing armour in Abbotsford for temporary storage

We worked on the Abbotsford restoration and conservation project.  As the House had to be emptied to allow for refurbishment, we packed some of the most vulnerable objects for temporary storage.  This made it possible for them to be safely moved.  Here are some examples of the packing that was designed to minimise risks for the objects while they were in their exile out of the House.



17th century armour on display in Abbotsford before it was taken down and temporarily removed from the House for the restoration project.
Fragile textile element along the bottom edge of 17th century armour.
17th century armour about to be packed.
A Napoleonic military hat with a delicate plume as it had come down from display.
The Napoleonic hat secured in its tailored compartment in a storage box.
The plume of the Napoleonic hat safely suspended in its tailored storage compartment for temporary storage.
Two breastplates waiting to be packed for temporary storage. They had fragile textile elements on associated with their shoulder straps.
After the storage box was made taller and separate compartments made for the breastplates it was possible to pack them for safe removal from the House.