Conservation of a ‘Poiret’-style Dress

For my latest blog post, I’m going to show you the advances to one of the objects previewed in an earlier blog post.  The object in question is this early 20th century dress, in the style of Paul Poiret (CST.527). It is made from purple silk satin, with a colourful printed fabric decoration around the collar and cuffs. It has been selected for the re-display of Fashion & Textile Gallery in 2019.

CST.527 Front and back images, before conservation treatment
CST.527 Front and back images, before conservation treatment

The dress was determined to be in a fair condition. It was creased from storage, and showed stains on the purple silk and inner bodice. The main problem was a large tear near the hem, as well as some small holes, and loose seams on the front panel of the skirt.

Details of condition; clockwise from left - creasing, loose seam, soiling, large tear at the hem
Details of condition; clockwise from left – creasing, loose seam, soiling, large tear at the hem

The conservation treatment is now complete, it involved surface cleaning of the dress, and localised spot cleaning to try to reduce the stains around the hem. The area was tested with a dry chemical sponge first (see image below), followed by a wet method. A solution of de-ionised water and a conservation detergent (Dehypon LS45, a low-foaming non-ionic surfactant) was introduced to the area, using a piece of blotting paper to absorb the dirt and moisture. The stains were reduced considerably, leaving a slight shadow where the soiling was ingrained, but this would be hidden inside the hem.

Detail of stain removal; clockwise from left - before cleaning, after cleaning, the spot cleaning process
Detail of stain removal; clockwise from left – before cleaning, after cleaning, the spot cleaning process

To reduce the creases of the silk dress, it was gently steamed allowing the creases to drop out. The final result of the treatment is satisfactory, removing all the creases.

Steaming the dress to remove the creases
Steaming the dress to remove the creases

The open seams were stitched closed; using a fine, curved needle and 100% polyester threads (Gutermann Mara 220 and Skala 360) in a matching colour.

Re-stitching the open seams
Re-stitching the open seams

For the large tear and the small holes, a patched support treatment was needed. Colour-matched silk patches were used, with conservation stitching (laid-couching) using also a curved needle and polyester thread (Skala 360) in a matching colour. The silk fabric was dyed in the conservation studio to ensure a perfect match.

Detail of conservation stitching, using a colour-matched silk patch, and colour-matched thread. Below - after conservation.
Detail of conservation stitching, using a colour-matched silk patch, and colour-matched thread. Below – after conservation.

The dying process probably needs a post for itself, but for the moment I’ll just tell you that in conservation we only use dyes which are colour- and wet-fast, giving us the security that they won’t fade and change colour, or harm the object if it got wet in the future. The dying process is strictly controlled, the calculations to measure proportion of dyes and additives are recorded, along with the depth of shade, dry fabric weight, time and temperature. This guarantees repeatability, producing a recipe which can be used again to create exactly the same shade (if the object requires future conservation treatment).  For the dress I needed silk fabric, matching with the original, so I chose to use a medium-weight silk Habutai, with Lanaset® dyes (a 1:2 metal complex acid and reactive dye). Small samples are dyed, with the recipe then adjusted until a colour-match is created. A total of 12 samples were produced before I worked out the perfect colour.

Dying silk for patched support
Dying silk for patched support

For the reconstruction of the hem some contact humidification with small weights was required. The hem was then turned back into place, and invisibly stitched using polyester thread (Mara 220) to complete the treatment.

Mounting of the dress onto a custom-made acrylic mannequin will be the last step in making it ready for the future re-display, but for the moment you can appreciate the final result on a provisional mount (below).

After conservation
After conservation

By Maria Pardos, Textiles Conservation Intern

Research and Restoration ~ Rupert’s Workshop

Last week I went to visit Rupert McBain in his studio with Alison Nicholson, the Project Fundraiser, and Rosie Bradford to see how the work is going on the conservation of the Flemish altarpiece. Rupert and his team are working on the carved figures at the centre of the altarpiece and are making a new frame and stand for the work to be placed upon.

Alison, Fundraiser, showing how big the new frame is!
Alison, Fundraiser, with the new altarpiece frame

Rupert gave us a tour of the studio and talked us through what they are doing, how they are doing it and what stage they are currently at. Rupert has been working closely with the Museum Conservation Manager, Jon Old, and has carried out extensive research himself, visiting Belgium to examine another altarpiece with paintings attributed to the Master of the View of Saint Gudule and carvings which closely match those in our altarpiece. When we arrived at the studio we were all struck by how different the altarpiece looks out of the gallery setting and in the studio. Raised up far higher than its previous display position, the figures were more visible and as such the skill of the carving could be better appreciated.

Rupert & the carvings raised up
Rupert & the carvings raised up

In its original formation the altarpiece would have had six pillars separating the carved scenes and so Alan, a member of Rupert’s studio, is in the process of carving them anew.

Alan carving one of the new pillars
Alan carving one of the new pillars

The two outer examples will rest on top of the base, whilst the four inner will be inserted into the bottom of the base. Once refined, they will be coated with a layer of gesso and gilding.  Many other examples of 15th century carved Northern European altarpieces are known to have had coloured and heavily gilded carvings; however, there is no trace of colouring on our work. Therefore, the original carvings will not be changed, and gilding will only be applied to the new pillars. The gilding will be aged accordingly so as not to appear too bright and this process will begin in April. The figures will also be placed against a new gilded back panel. Alan will also be carving a free-standing replica figure to be newly displayed alongside the altarpiece for visitors to touch. He is using green oak that has been cut so that the grain runs in the same direction as that of the altarpiece’s figures and he will also carve out the back of the figure in the same style to try and prevent the oak splitting. Interestingly Alan is using similar tools, and methods of carving that would have been originally used to carve the altarpiece in the fifteenth century.

Alan showing us how big the replica figure will be
Alan showing us how big the replica figure will be

We then went through into the other workshop to meet Andy who has been making the new oak frame for the altarpiece. Without the carvings the frame looked vast and is a beautiful example of exquisite craftsmanship. The frame will be dyed black using layers of pigments and varnishes to create a beautifully rich colour that parallels that of the one Rupert saw in Belgium. It will then also be aged accordingly. Mouldings will be attached to the front and these will also be gilded. New robust drop hinges will enable the panels to be opened and closed each day at the Museum and will also allow the panels to be easily lifted from the altarpiece if they require any work in the future. They are also in the process of making a new altar table which will raise the altarpiece up to about 1200mm.

Andy with the new frame
Andy with the new frame

The altarpiece will be reassembled in the Museum, and will be ready for unveiling at the end of April. The new redisplay of this object is a very delicate process combining historical accuracy, technical skill and the requirements of the gallery and it was fascinating to see this process in action. It was particularly interesting to see the altarpiece in the workshop environment, as this collaborative style parallels exactly the way in which the altarpiece would have been originally created.  The level of skill, craftsmanship and research that has gone into the project is outstanding and it was fantastic to see the progress that Rupert and his team are making. The altarpiece is going to look fantastic and will transform the early picture gallery.

By Becky Knott, Student Intern

Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Conservation Studio Tours

The Conservation Department is pleased to announce that we will be throwing open the studio doors to our visitors for behind-the-scenes tours. This is a chance to meet the conservators, see a few of the projects that we’re working on, and get up close with some objects from the Museum’s collection.

Other conservation work
Conservation Manager Jon Old, in the Paintings Conservation studio

Tours will run on the following dates and times, and will last approximately 40 minutes (20 minutes in the Paintings Conservation studio, and 20 minutes in the Textiles Conservation studio). Places are strictly limited to 12, available on a first-come first-served basis, and general admission applies.

Wednesday 13th May 2:30pm

Tuesday 9th June 2:30pm

Wednesday 15th July 2:30pm

Tuesday 11th August 11am

Wednesday 9th September 11am

To reserve your place on a conservation studio tour, contact Caroline Nilsson on 01833 690606, or info@thebowesmuseum.org.uk

See you there!

Rupert McBain Visits St Dymphna Church to Research European Altarpieces

St Dymphna Church in Geel, Belgium houses the Passion  Altarpiece which is stylistically closest to The Bowes Museum’s 15th century Flemish Altarpiece which is currently being conserved and re-displayed following a successful fundraising campaign on Art Happens.

A flying visit courtesy of Eurostar in February was made possible by the openness and consideration of Maria Gerits and Frie Van Ravensteyn.  Frie kindly opened up the church and sat, uncomplainingly huddled in coats, for the entire  7 hours I spent measuring, photographing and generally tuning into the St Dymphna Passion Altarpiece.

This visit has had a major impact on the decision making process for re-displaying The Bowes Altarpiece.

Frie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel AltarpieceFrie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel Altarpiece
Frie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel Altarpiece

A replica carved figure is also being made for the gallery to give visitors the opportunity to touch and feel the texture of the carved wood. A green piece of oak is cut by me ready for Alan to carve.

Master carver at work
Master carver at work – Rupert McBain

A new case for the Bowes Altarpiece is being made from two inch thick oak joined by large, bold dovetailing.

This type construction was seen in the St Dymphna Altarpiece and is typical of the period.

Cutting the large carcass dovetails
Cutting the large carcass dovetails

By Rupert McBain, Furniture Conservator

People & Patterns: The Carpet Weaving Industry in Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle is known for its historical relationship with the castle, for which the town takes its name. However, the town also has an interesting industrial history. Having been granted the rights to set up a market during the 12th century, the town prospered under the influx of raw materials including lead, iron and wool from the surrounding countryside. These materials were essential for the development of the manufacturing businesses that were powered by the fast flowing waters of the River Tees, on which the town sits.

Throughout the 18th century, the woollen industry was predominant in Barnard Castle; using local wool from local farms, and domestic weaving and spinning became popular along Bridgegate and Thorngate (along the southern end of town). However, by the beginning of the 19th century a decline in the demand for woollen cloth and high unemployment meant that the town needed to find more ways of using its supplies of wool. A rise in carpet exports from Britain at the beginning of the century meant that the production of carpets was a sound investment, and so manufacturers in Barnard Castle clung to this opportunity. Factories were built along the river banks, which brought the production of woollens out of the small domestic workshops. During the first half of the century, the production of carpets overtook that of the weaving industries in town, and by 1834 the town was supporting seven manufacturing businesses.

Watercolour of Barnard Castle, 1788, by Thomas Hearne. The painting shows the ruined castle in the background and one of the mills on Bridgegate in front of a few domestic weaving workshops
Watercolour of Barnard Castle, 1788, by Thomas Hearne. The painting shows the ruined castle in the background and one of the mills on Bridgegate in front of a few domestic weaving workshops

Carpets were sold to a relatively wide market, with sales made as far as London out of the port at Stockton, and with more regional sales from Darlington to Newcastle. However, the prosperity of the industry was not to last, and for a number of unclear reasons (including financial troubles, location and health problems) during the middle of the century, the industry was in decline. The largest of the carpet manufacturers, Monkhouse, closed in 1863.

The Bowes Museum had previously exhibited on the history of Barnard Castle’s carpet Industry in 1996 (People & Patterns: The carpet weaving industry in 19th century Barnard Castle) and it was decided to bring out the wonderful graphic panels from that exhibition and re-display them with a small selection of objects from the museum’s stores at The Witham Community Arts Centre, also in Barnard Castle.

Part of the display, including replica samples of Barnard Castle carpet
Part of the display, including replica samples of Barnard Castle carpet

The objects on display include replica samples of carpet made during the 1996 exhibition, as well as objects from The Bowes Museum’s social history store, reflecting the range of textile industries in town. Before the objects could be put out on display, they were handed over to the museum’s conservation department so that their condition could be assessed, and they could be prepared for display.

Preparing the objects for display: checking and recording their condition,  and removing surface dirt
Preparing the objects for display: checking and recording their condition, and removing surface dirt

As a result of a partnership between The Bowes Museum and The Witham Community Arts Centre in Barnard Castle, the exhibition on the history of the town’s carpet industry will be on display at The Witham from 18th March – 30th March 2015 (Free admission).

Bowes Museum social history objects on display
The Bowes Museum social history objects on display

By Rosie Hughes, Curatorial Assistant

Bengali Bedhangings & Portuguese Portraits

A fourteen piece embroidered bed set of Indo-Portuguese provenance was recently brought into the conservation studio to be prepared for photography. Once unpacked it was clear that their current storage was no longer providing adequate support and needed to be re-designed for the long term preservation of the hangings.

The bed hangings c.1600, are of high importance to the Bowes Museum as they were bought for the collection by the founder John Bowes in the late 19th Century and are an interesting example of 17th Century Indian embroidery modified for the European market. The hangings were originally bought attached to what was believed to be a 16th Century four poster bed but which was later found to be a 19th Century reproduction.

An undated photograph of the 19th century bed and Indo-Portuguese bed hangings when previously on display in the Bowes Museum.
An undated photograph of the 19th century bed and Indo-Portuguese bed hangings when previously on display in the Bowes Museum.

They are thought to be made of at least three separate 17th Century Indian embroideries which have been pieced together into their current format at some point before they entered the museum collection. Two of the embroideries used are yellow raw (tussah) silk thread on a cream cotton or silk ground. The third embroidery is cream cotton thread on a dyed indigo ground, which have beautifully detailed portraits of figures in late 16th century costume.

The shaped bed-head cover from the set. The indigo embroidery motifs have been stitched on to the yellow and cream embroidery
The shaped bed-head cover from the set. The indigo embroidery motifs have been stitched on to the yellow and cream embroidery
Close-up of a king embroidered in cream cotton thread onto an indigo cotton ground
Close-up of a king embroidered in cream cotton thread onto an indigo cotton ground
Close-up of valance showing three different embroideries which have been pieced together
Close-up of valance showing three different embroideries which have been pieced together

Unfortunately the bed hangings are in poor condition with evidence of light and water damage which has caused discolouration and loss of many of the embroidery threads. One piece of the bed set is a coverlet with bolster shape which is in particularly bad condition with tideline staining, heavy surface soiling and a great deal of the embroidery has been lost.

The image below shows the dramatic difference in the condition of the coverlet where a curved panel was unpicked during the 1970’s compared to the silk which was left exposed. This highlights the importance of having low light levels and rotating objects on long-term display.

Close-up of coverlet showing the severely degraded silk and cotton embroidery
Close-up of coverlet showing the severely degraded silk and cotton embroidery

All pieces of the bed set were re-packed but the coverlet was the most challenging due to its size, unusual shape and poor condition. There was limited space for storage and a limited amount of conservation grade materials available.

Coverlet before re-packing
Coverlet before re-packing

Firstly we made a cylindrical cushion of polyester wadding, polyester felt and an outer layer of cotton calico to maintain the three-dimensional bolster shape. Two narrower rolls were made to further hold out the shape and fill any fold lines. If a textile object is stored for a long period of time with sharp folds or creases, the ongoing strain to the textile fibres along the fold can cause permanent distortion or even breakages.

The main body of the coverlet was interleaved with acid-free tissue and rolled inwards towards the bolster. The decision was made to fold the plain cotton side tabs inwards during rolling to reduce the final length. Although this was not ideal, the coverlet was almost three metres wide and otherwise would not fit on the store room shelves.

Coverlet being rolled using polyester wadding cushions and interleaved with acid-free tissue
Coverlet being rolled using polyester wadding cushions and interleaved with acid-free tissue

Once we had the new storage dimensions, a Correx® (corrugated polyethylene) box was custom-made to house the coverlet. A fitted Tyvek® (semi-permeable non-woven polyethylene fabric) lid was tied on with cotton tapes to keep out dust and reduce extra weight to the large box. Finally, a label and packing instructions were attached to the outside of the box for future use.

Coverlet rolled and re-packed into a Tyvek® lined custom-made box and covered in acid-free tissue
Coverlet rolled and re-packed into a Tyvek® lined custom-made box and covered in acid-free tissue
The final box, labelled with packing instructions
The final box, labelled with packing instructions

The full bed set is now back in store but three of the pieces have been selected for the Fashion and Textile Gallery re-display in 2018, including the headboard cover shown above, and two of the valances, and will come back into the conservation studio to be treated and mounted for display.

For other examples of Indian embroideries, check out the upcoming V&A exhibition ‘The Fabric of India’ opening in October 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/the-fabric-of-india/

By Emily Austin, Icon Textile Conservation Intern

Gerald Scarfe Installation

This week and the next is filled with installing the new Gerald Scarfe exhibition ‘Milk Snatcher, The Thatcher Drawings’.

With over 100 original hand-drawn works to be hung there is a lot of work to be done.

It all starts with the design, for this a scale model of the room is needed.  After the very tedious task of cutting out all 117 works to scale and a lot of deliberation from the exhibition curator, Greville Worthington, the cut outs were placed on the walls. This is a very important step in planning the exhibition as it helps us visualise the space before the works go up on the walls.

Curator Greville Worthington placing cut outs.
Curator, Greville Worthington placing cut outs

The plan was to get all of the works framed or re-framed; this way we will have consistency in the exhibitions space.  For the works that came to us already framed, Vin (our Exhibitions Technician) and I had the task of de-framing the images.

Once the pictures were out of the frames, Catherine and I could begin to condition check the works. We had training in how to condition check these works by Conservation Manager Jon Old. We were looking to see if there were any tears, creases, markings on the paper and the condition of the ink or paint. A few of them had tape holding them together so therefore very delicate bearing in mind that the tape would be at least 30 years old.

Catherine (left) and I (right) condition checking Scarfe Works
Catherine (left) and I (right) condition checking Scarfe Works

The next step was to get the framer in to measure up all the work, and then it was just a case of sending the works off to be framed.

Once framed pictures started coming back the hanging fixtures could be attached to the back of the frames. When that was done we could then place the works against each assigned wall.

Works stacked ready to be hung.
Works stacked ready to be hung
Measuring up the space where the works are to hangMeasuring up the space where the works are to hang
Measuring up the space where the works are to hang

All to do now is to set the work in the right place, add captions and prepare for the opening on Saturday 14th March 2015.

We hope to see you there.

By Charlotte Thresher, Cultural Apprentice