Textile Conservation

Above: Costume mounting on mannequin. Photo: Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd

Have you noticed that many of the V&A’s blockbuster exhibitions have something in common? Exhibitions exploring different aspects of fashion, textiles, and costume have proved immensely popular in recent years. For example, the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition drew more than 590,000 visitors, making it the most attended show in the museum’s history. 

What not many people know is that textile and fashion collections need a lot of specialist care and treatment to preserve them for the future. Textiles are among the most fragile objects in museum collections as they are susceptible to agents of deterioration that include physical forces, pest damage, light damage and incorrect relative humidity. The role of a textile conservator is to care for, treat, research, and preserve textiles.

There are two different types of conservation: preventive and remedial. Preventive conservation procedures and actions are carried out to avoid and minimize any future deterioration or loss to an object. Any treatment undertaken is always indirect, meaning it does not interfere with the materials and overall structure of the object. The most important thing is that preventive conservation does not modify the appearance of a garment or textile. There are many examples of preventive conservation measures that are put in place in museums and collections, such as: storage, correct handling procedures, and emergency planning. One of the key issues in preventive conservation is environmental management. Light, humidity, pollution and pest control can all have a serious effect on textiles. For example, how many of us have found those tell-tale moth holes in our favourite wool jumper?

Shoe storage
PHOTOGRAPH BY Victoria Haddock

Examples of preventive conservation include monitoring storage and display areas for pest activity using Integrated Pest Management systems. Insect traps are an easy way to monitor a collection, and prevent an infestation before it starts. Another preventive method is using the correct storage techniques for the relevant object. Garments, if they aren’t too fragile, can be stored on acid free hangers padded to increase the surface area of the hanger, and thereby reduce the stress on the garment. Garment bags can also be used to protect hanging garments from light, dust and pests. Bags must be breathable so as to not restrict the airflow and cause condensation. Some items, particularly heavy, large or fragile textiles, can only be safely stored in acid free boxes, lined with acid free tissue paper. Over time, most tissue paper and card will become acidic and brittle with age. The acidity can then transfer to adjacent objects causing them to become weak and possibly dicoloured. Acid free tissue and boxes are used as they are specifically processed to remove such contaminants.

Costumes in Tyvek bags
PHOTOGRAPH BY Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd

Textiles should be clean before they are placed in storage as any soiling can attract pests. It is also good practice to wear gloves when handling textiles to prevent the oils from your skin permeating the fibres or metal fastenings used on period garments. Due to the use of toxic dyes, such as Arsenic green, gloves also act as a barrier to protect a conservator’s skin from potentially harmful chemicals.

Costume mounting is a preventive conservation practice relating to the way garments are displayed in museums. Underpinnings and padding are applied to provide a supportive foundation for a garment to rest upon, ensuring that the costume is not under stress, whilst also acting as replacements for the period underwear which would have supported the garment when it was originally worn. It can take anywhere between 5 and 25 hours to mount a three-dimensional textile for display, depending on the complexity of the object. Mannequins are carefully selected that are smaller than the garment that is to be displayed on it, meaning that unnecessary pressure is not put on the garment. The mannequin then has padding applied using polyester wadding stitched to the form, covered with a stretch fabric and layers of underpinnings, to create the specific dimensions and period silhouette of the garment.

Finally, remedial conservation, also known as interventive conservation, refers to any treatment by a conservator that involves a direct interaction between the conservator and the object/material aimed at stopping current damaging processes or reinforcing the object’s structure. Remedial treatment is only ever carried out when an object is in such a fragile condition, or deteriorating so rapidly, that it could be lost in a relatively short time. A major difference between preventive and remedial conservation is that remedial treatment sometimes modifies the appearance of an item. Examples of remedial treatment can vary from minor treatment, such as securing seams and loose threads, to cleaning and stabilizing a garment to withstand display in an exhibition that can last for a number of months. Textile stabilisation methods aim to stabilise any weak points in textiles and to prevent further degradation or damage to the fabric through the use of localised supports, such as patches and fills, fabric overlays or the use of conservation stitching.

You can find out more about textile conservation and read some fantastic articles on different conservation projects undertaken by Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd. at: https://www.zenzietinker.co.uk/conservation-stories/

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Victoria Haddock

Victoria Haddock graduated with a BA (Honours) History degree from the Open University in 2016, before undertaking a Masters degree in the History of Design and Material Culture from the University of Brighton, graduating with a Merit in 2019. Victoria’s dissertation focused on the topic of fashion tie-ins inspired by film costumes during the 1930s. She currently works as a Freelance Collections Care Curator for Zenzie Tinker Conservation, working on the Royal Courts of Justice Legal Dress Collection, and has previously worked for the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, and the National Trust’s Killerton House. Victoria has also been volunteering with the Costume/Textile collections at Killerton and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum for a number of years.