Skip to content

Conserving the workbox at Quebec House

Workbox detail, Quebec House, Westerham, Kent.
Workbox detail at Quebec House | © National Trust/Tabby Gibbs

Textile Conservator, Tabby Gibbs treats a nineteenth-century workbox from Quebec House in order to stabilise the silk covered lid panel and prevent further damage.

Conserving a nineteenth-century workbox

One of the objects in the collection at Quebec House is an early nineteenth-century workbox. The workbox lid panel has a silk top fabric decorated with a copperplate printed image of fruit. The panel was in a poor condition and only loosely secured to the box lid, while the silk was very fragile with widespread loss of the warp fibres. Tabby Gibbs carried out conservation on the workbox during an internship at Zenzie Tinker Conservation as part of an MPhil in Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow.

What was the workbox used for?

The workbox is made of red leather and wood with gilt brass mounts. There is a small drawer at the front and inside is the main compartment with several smaller sections. Hidden within are two little needle cases which suggest the workbox likely held sewing supplies. A label on the inside of the box indicates that it was made my Thomas Lund, based in Cornhill, London. This dates its manufacture between 1814 and 1820.

Our project aims

  • To stabalise the silk and prevent further deterioration
  • To better demonstrate how the workbox would have originally appeared
  • To allow visitors to Quebec House to continue to enjoy the workbox for years to come

The extent of the damage

The box itself was in fair condition, with one loose metal strip and some dust and dirt on the inside. However, the textile panel on the inside of the box lid was in poor condition and only loosely secured. This was the main area of conservation focus. The panel consists of a satin weave silk fabric which has a copperplate printed image of fruit with a vine border. The silk layer covers layers of paper and cotton wadding on a wood panel.

There was widespread loss of the warp fibres, leaving the silk very fragile. This is very typical of damage from exposure to sunlight, to which silk is particularly sensitive, and was exacerbated by the frequent opening and closing of the box lid during its lifetime. Many of the threads were hanging loose and obscuring the printed image. On the bottom left corner the silk and paper had torn and the wadding was poking out.

The conservation process

The decision was taken to remove the textile panel to fully assess the extent of the damage and to view the reverse. The panel easily came away as the adhesive was likely an animal glue and had weakened significantly with age.

After very delicately cleaning the panel to remove any dust and loose fibres, the priority was to repair the tear in the paper which was distorting the silk layer on top. To do this a sling was created to gently lift the silk up and allow access to the torn paper underneath. Japanese paper was toned with a wash of acrylic paint to match the colour of the original paper as closely as possible. Strips of the Japanese paper were then adhered across the tear to secure it in place. After this, a larger square of the paper was attached over the corner to flatten and secure the historic paper. This enabled the silk to lay much flatter over the top.

To secure the silk back down in this area and flatten the loose fragments of silk on the rest of the panel, a layer of custom dyed nylon net was placed over the front. The nylon net was fixed in place with pins and then stitched to a piece of cotton secured to the back of the panel. This ensured the net was not stitched directly into the fragile silk. The loose fibres were then painstakingly realigned with a pin.

The last step in the conservation process was to re-attach the panel back into the lid. Prior to this, the old animal glue was removed where possible. An insert was made from conservation safe materials to fit the shape of the lid and was attached to the panel. The panel was then secured into the lid using a hinge of conservation paper and a reversible conservation adhesive.

The final result

Overall, it took 34 hours to conserve the workbox. The treatment was very successful and will prevent further loss of and damage to the silk. Visitors to Quebec House can now enjoy seeing the workbox closer to how it would have originally looked.