Conserving Ellen Terrys costumes

Conservation of Ellen Terrys precious costumes

Ellen Terry's costumes require careful attention and particular methods of conservation.

The collection is kept in carefully regulated conditions which control light, temperature and humidity but textiles are also notoriously susceptible to pests. In the spring of 2012 carpet beetles were found to have infiltrated not only our costumes store but the conservation boxes in which our collection of theatrical costumes are stored. The 250 costumes worn by Ellen Terry during her sixty-year career were under serious threat from woolly bears, the name given to the larvae of carpet beetle. 

Faced with the prospect of an attack on these most precious items we consulted our area conservator, Gill Nason, and our textile consultant, Zenzie Tinker; Zenzie has recently been responsible for the conservation of the famous Beetle wing dress worn by Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888. The solution was clear - to freeze each costume in order to kill the larva and eggs, but how to go about this?

Ellen Terry's beetlewing dress
Conservators working on Ellen Terry's beetlewing dress

The cost of hiring a refrigeration unit was prohibitive as was the possibility of sending all the costumes elsewhere to be treated. We decided our only option was to treat the costumes ourselves using the limited resources on-site.

After consultation we settled upon treating the costumes in our large freezer, which runs at -30 degrees, for 72 hours and 14 days in our small freezer, which runs at -24 degrees, in order to kill the infestation. We removed most of the acid-free tissue that pads out the costumes and carefully wrapped them in tissue paper, paying particular attention to metal and glass attachments. We then vacuum packed them in polythene.

On removal the costumes were left to defrost at room temperature for 48 hours before being cleaned. Some of the costumes had had conservation work carried out during the 1980s using adhesive, these we were unable to freeze without compromising the repair and eight costumes were treated in a hydrogen chamber for a week at Hampshire museum service. 

There were many challenges along the way; avoiding cross contamination, identifying materials that would suffer in the freezing process and carrying the boxes down icy steps, through small doorways and over a busy road to the freezer all in very cold temperatures.

By the end of the process our professional conservationists and invaluable volunteers had learned a great deal about the construction and design of the costumes and the differences in technique between different designers and needlewomen.The conservation of Ellen Terry’s costumes and astounding theatrical collection is an ongoing project at Smallhythe Place, so stay up to date with what’s going on via our website.