First Steps - Textile Conservation

Sutton Hoo textile conservation

As we make preparations for construction work to begin at Sutton Hoo, one of our first steps is the careful removal and conservation of the items already on display and in use.

One of the largest categories is our textiles collection, used throughout the Hall in different displays, all of which need to go through important cleaning and conservation processes before they can be stored, ready to go back into use in the future.

In the past, we have known cases of moth infestation to be found in several of the fabrics in a display, so a careful and thorough process is now underway to both clean the textiles and ensure any insects or insect eggs left in the cloth are killed and removed.

The best way to ensure this is through freezing the textiles, however, this requires special preparation to ensure no further damage is accidentally caused during the process.

Sutton Hoo textiles are carefully vacuumed
Sutton Hoo textiles are carefully vacuumed
Sutton Hoo textiles are carefully vacuumed

The Conservation Process

After the fabrics have been gathered up from around the Hall, the first stage is an initial clean, slowly vacuuming each item to remove any surface dirt and dust.

The items are folded to fit the size of the freezer before they’re carefully packaged up, ready to go into the freezer. To ensure any moist air in the freezer doesn’t damage the fabric and any potential moisture from condensation during defrosting, they are first wrapped up in acid-free tissue paper and then polythene, before being sealed up.

The first stage is the acid-free tissue paper, which the packaged textiles are wrapped in. Whilst inside the freezer, if the seals are broken or fail and moisture does manage to get inside, the acid-free tissue acts as a last line of defence, able to absorb the moisture before it can get into the fabric and cause damage.

Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene

Next, the acid-free tissue paper is wrapped again in an outer layer of polythene. All openings of the polythene have to be sealed up to control the environment inside the bag.

Packaging tape was used to seal all the joins in the polyester – it’s a lot like wrapping a present you don’t want anyone to be able to open! The joins are then rolled down before being taped, providing extra protection, just in case the seal fails.

These measures working together should help us ensure that the cold, moist air of the freezer will not affect the textiles during the period of freezing. If the crystals of frozen water did manage to attach themselves to the fabric, this could cause damage.

Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene

With the textiles all packaged up, they can then be placed into the freezer. The items will stay in the freezer for two weeks, kept at a temperature of -18C to kill off any possible pests that they might contain.

When first placed in the freezer, it is also important to ensure that the packaged fabrics are brought all the way down to -18C within the first 24 hour period, otherwise there is a chance that the insects or bugs might acclimatise to the temperature and manage to survive. This is where it’s important that the textiles have not been folded too many times, as the denser the package is, the longer it will take to freeze at the centre.

After the two weeks are up, the textiles can then be removed from the freezer. They will stay in the polythene for a further 24 hours after removal to allow them to thaw out safely, without too rapid a change. As we are essentially establishing a small microclimate inside the layers of wrapping, this helps up maintain the steady moisture levels within.

Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene
Sutton Hoo display fabrics in acid-free tissue and polythene

The Result

With the full process completed, we can then take the fabrics out of their layers of wrapping to check them over. A careful examination will take place to check for the carcases of any pests that had been living in the fabrics but had been killed off from the cold.

Using this process of freezing, we should end up with all pests safely removed, leaving the items ready for use.

The textiles will go through a further clean before being prepared for storage during the closure period. Some of the textiles will then go straight back into the Hall, used within new exhibits and displays and some may go into the collections store, ready for use in the future.