Northern Society of Costume and Textiles
Conservation of Textiles + AGM
Rodley Ecumenical Church Hall, Rodley, Leeds

20th April, 2013

Venue: Rodley Ecumenical Church Hall, Rodley, Leeds, LS13 1LJ

"Restoring the Past"

Conservation of Textiles + AGM

Following the brief formality of the Society’s AGM, long-term member and lace aficionado, Grace Pacey enlightened us with ‘A brief history of handkerchiefs’.

Grace charted the roots of this everyday item, with the Egyptians and Romans valuing their highly prized ‘Sudarans’ and ‘Mappa’s’ as a mark of wealth and office, the latter using them as a signal to start gladiatorial combat.

The emergence of Christianity saw Church hierarchy embracing the handkerchief as a status symbol, with this highly prized luxury being depicted in the late 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry and appearing in death inventories by the 13th Century.

Grace explained that so scarce and valuable were these objects that it was unusual for anyone other than Royalty to own more than one, tellingly five dozen ‘cromarties’ being included in the 1480 washing accounts of Edward IV.

By the height of the Renaissance, Henry VIII’s red and white silk handkerchiefs were embellished with the highly desirous gold and silver lace known as ‘Flanders work’ and courtiers presented similarly richly decorated examples to court favour with Elizabeth I.

By the 1830’s, due to its change in usage, the handkerchief had become an everyday item, used by rich and poor alike, with 20 London shops selling 4,000 to 5,000 a week. Indeed, a lucrative criminal trade developed washing and unpicking the beautifully monogrammed ‘pocket squares’ that fashionably, but oh so temptingly, protruded from the pockets of the rich, a ‘skill’ so memorably perfected by Fagin’s gang in Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’.

Grace concluded this fascinating insight by charting the origins and features of favourites from her collection, including a very rare 1900’s example of ‘Bedfordshire’ lace.

Our afternoon speaker, Michele Harper, told how Post-Graduate training and work as a Conservator at Hampton Court’s ‘Textile Conservation Centre’ had led to the setting up of her own company, conserving and restoring a wide range of Textiles for private clients, such as the National Trust and Birmingham’s Egyptian Gallery.

Michelle explained that due to the delicate nature and lack of colour-fastness of many of the Textiles that she encounters, she employs specialist techniques and equipment to maintain the unique integrity of each item. Damaged threads can be stabilised using modern Conservation fabrics such as Crepeline and steaming through moisture repellent Gortex, relaxes creases safely without fear of non-colourfast dyes running.

Michelle used the latter technique to restore a large, double-sided, printed silk map of northern Burma. Issued to all World War II RAF pilots for use in the event of escape, it had, understandably, been scrunched up into a small ball in the owner’s pocket. Once smooth and with all loose threads secured, it was mounted onto a board and displayed under glass.

Over the years, Michelle has undertaken many challenging projects, learning to ‘think out of the box’ and regaled her audience with projects such as the Stoke Potteries Museum parasol, with its problem of very delicate silk either being crushed when down or put under damaging tension when up. The fragile silk was supported by adhering a fine silk underlay to it, Michelle specially designing a metal cowl to display the parasol in the open position without the full tension on the delicate fabric.

From conserving painted silk fans and re-wrapping Egyptian mummies, to restoring a 1930’s RAF high-altitude flying suit, Michelle has encountered every type of Textile imaginable, the latter requiring a specially designed foam form to be placed internally to support the degraded rubber, which itself had been adhered and mounted onto a canvas ground for support.

An enjoyable day was concluded with Michelle sharing her expertise and experiences during a question and answer session.

Fiona Lawrence