Conservation of the King's Bed at Knole

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May 1974: an ambitious project began to conserve the King's Bed, one of Knole’s great treasures. Intended to celebrate the marriage of James II with Mary of Modena in 1673, it’s the most magnificent state bed of Louis XIV period to have survived anywhere in the world.

It’s covered in 'Cloth of Gold', a luxurious fabric of cream and yellow silk with silver and gold threads woven on top. This fabric covers the outside in six ‘cantonnieres’ or bed curtains, and the matching set of two chairs and six stools. By the early 19th century, the bed hangings had begun to decay. In 1974, we decided to set up a dedicated conservation workroom at Knole with volunteers stitching under supervision from professional conservators.

Conservation techniques

Conservator Annabel Wylie, who ran the project from 1982 to 87, described this as conservation rather than restoration. We wanted to preserve the bed hangings using wet cleaning and supporting the old textiles onto new backing fabric, recognising that 300 years of wear would be visible.

After each curtain was removed from display and laid flat on the conservation work table, we lightly vacuumed through nylon net to remove surface dirt. Then it was tacked onto a fine nylon net frame, face up. All the gold areas were stitched over leaving the silver areas loose, the whole lot being protected by another fine net.

The next phase was repeated gentle washing with de-ionised water and detergent solution, using small sponges and a vertical motion, which caused a gentle suction action. We used heavyweight blotting paper or disposable nappies to remove excess wate. The curtain was left to dry naturally before being placed onto polyester satin on a large embroidery frame.

And then the stitching…

For the Cloth of Gold stitching, we used crewel needles and mainly polyester sewing threads. Each line of pattern from the original weaving was worked over in backstitch going over one gold thread at a time. Each panel took 3500 hours of volunteer time.

The coral pink silk lining which covered the whole inside of the bed was also washed and dried, before being bonded onto a support of polyester crepeline, and stitched. We taped the fringing along the top edge with the tassels bound together, as the original pink silk was fragile.

Following 300-year seam lines

To re-assemble everythin before re-hanging, we hand-seamed the cloth with a backstitch, following the original seam line. The lining was laid across the back of the curtain, the top and long edges were turned in and stitched onto the heading seam and the edge.

The lower edge was left loose until after the curtain had hung for a while, to allow for any movement before it was turned in and the fringe attached. Then we stitched box pleats to the top of the curtain, copying original measurements. After curtain rings were attached to the heading, each curtain hung in the workroom for at least a month to allow for final adjustments.

The bedspread, headcloth and headboard required equally painstaking care from our team. The very last stitches were sewed in April 1987, almost exactly 13 years since the start. Up to 200 volunteers had been involved, but by the 1980s, it had become a core of about 70. Conservator Annabel Wylie said it was probably a timescale no one foresaw: ‘Perhaps just as well, since the enthusiasm of the volunteers might not have been maintained throughout that period if they had known how long their commitment would have to last.’