Day to day in the textile studio
Textile Conservation Adviser
I trained at the Victoria and Albert Museum before entering private practice, running my own studio in London for ten years before joining the National Trust at Blickling, Norfolk, in 1991. I became Conservation Adviser in 1995. Since then the studio has grown from three to ten staff and now occupies a specially converted barn on the Blickling Estate.
A difficult recent project has been the 150-year-old carpet from the Dining Room at Cragside, Northumberland. It needed a full cleaning and conservation treatment, and it required some innovative thinking due to its size and complex structure. Our local rangers were called in at appropriate moments to provide extra handling power. We also enlisted the help of a car mechanic, who advised us on suitable jacks that would support the heavy rollers.
Another on-going project is the Spangled Bed from Knole, in Kent. It’s a rare silk satin and damask bed, embroidered with metal threads dating from about 1620.
It’s of great importance and is in a fragile condition. Often conservation reveals interesting historical information, so a great deal of documentation is carried out to make sure we learn as much as possible about its past use, so we can better inform visitors about the history of objects in our care.
Our day-to-day work is varied. Our team of professionally trained and accredited conservators undertakes activities both at the studio and on site. These range from treating costume items and preparing them for storage or display to upholstered furniture, state beds, carpets and tapestries. We carry out condition surveys and give advice on preventive conservation, disaster planning and emergency treatment. Apart from working on site, textiles are sent to the studio when they require ‘major surgery’, a process that can take several months.
The cost of conservation is really all about detailed and precise, labour-intensive work. The smallest pieces are often costume accessories such as purses. Conservation of state beds can be very expensive and, again, labour-intensive. We are currently working on one of the largest tapestries in the Trust’s collection – one of the Flemish tapestries from Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, depicting the story of Gideon. It measures some 6m high x 9m wide. Luckily for us, it has been woven in three sections and sewn together, so we have been able to work on it in three parts. The work will take about two and a half years to complete and includes wet cleaning. Wet cleaning of tapestries is now usually carried out in Belgium at a specialist facility.
The worst thing that you can be is intimidated. If you are frightened by the object you will do something wrong. It is a privilege to work on pieces and to feel close to the people who made them. Training people is also a privilege and should always be a two-way conversation – as techniques develop, it’s important we keep up to date with current research and methodology.
This year’s work programme is full and includes tapestries from Hardwick Hall and Cotehele in Cornwall, as well as commissions from private clients. Much remains to be done to preserve our rich textile heritage, from humble lampshades to huge carpets, and we would like to thank all those who continue to support our work.