Week 6 of our Collection Cleaning Course and we are leaving the archive in Hackney behind and heading for the main Museum of London site at London Wall. I love being at London Wall but the temptation to wander off round the galleries is very strong, even using the pretence of research will not save me if I am found late back from lunch. It is half term and as I approach the Museum before opening time the pavement is thronging with excited children clamouring to get in.
I feed off their excitement and find myself very much like a child preparing for a day of wonder and excitement, I will have to stop myself running up and down the galleries excitedly shouting out every discovery. Today we are learning how to care for textiles, as soon as we go behind the barriers and descend to the Museum lower levels the tension builds and I can’t wait to see what treasures and secrets are held in storage below the busy galleries. The textiles store and lab may be below ground but it is not dark and dusty, it is bright, white, sterile and clean. We walk through what feels like a gallery of ghosts, there are a number of mannequins set out ready for a student group coming later in the day. Their hidden historical finery is dressed in bulky white covers that give the eerie impression of a gaggle of ghosts ready to greet our arrival.
The day begins with a talk on pests, I am quite glad we start this topic early enough in the day so it won’t put me off lunch. We soon get up close and personal with carpet beetles and moths, luckily they are dead (not so lucky for them). Woolly Bears unfortunately aren’t as cute as they sound but are infact the larvae of the carpet beetle and it is the larvae that does most of the damage. I had no idea to be honest that they only like proteinaceous materials – things which contain fur, feather, wool, hair, skin etc. We discuss how trapping a few moths is only the first indication that you may have a problem, the main aim is to break the cycle of life, if you want to break the cycle of damage.
After a while I begin to feel a bit itchy looking at all these creepy crawlies, I can tell pest management is not going to be my forte but this needs to be done. How can you recognise the threat if you don’t know what the enemy looks like? It is also quite an eye opener to see the damage that pests can cause. We see a moth-eaten fox fur and a poor mouse from a handling collection with one eye, looking like he served up quite a feast for some lucky avaricious pests. He wouldn’t look out of place in a house of horrors.
I take really useful points away from this first session, simple steps that can help prevent damage to textile collections. If you have items that go out on loan, make sure they are checked for pests when they are returned, you have no guarantees on where these items have been stored when out of your sight. Why put the rest of your collection at risk? Make sure storage labels highlight if the item contains feathers or fur, then if you have any concerns about infestations you know which items to go straight to for a quick check. Train your volunteers, even your cleaners, to recognise pests and pest damage, they can be your eyes to prevent problems. Showing how damaging moths can be is a great way to emphasise the issue, I know I am not going to forget that one eyed mouse for quite a while.
It is almost a relief to meet the Museum of London’s Textile Conservator, her wonderful French accent makes the most mundane of words and actions seem exotic. Which is probably a good thing as the first item I am allowed to get my hands on is a tea towel. It has a squirrel design on it, but at the end of the day it is still a tea towel. Initially I am a little disheartened that we are not allowed to handle the museum’s collection but as the day progresses and the fragility of fabrics and the complex methods to store and protect them become apparent, I am quite relieved.
As a novice, the hardest part of this course is to fight your natural instincts and learn a new way of thinking and acting. If someone asks you to pick up a teapot, you naturally reach for the handle, potentially the weakest part of the object. If you see before you a tea towel and an 18th century dress it is incredibly hard to treat each with the same respect, but that is what you must do. Every textile is unique and must be treated with the same care and respect. Perhaps we often think of fabrics as fairly robust, if you drop a dress on the floor it is not going to break, but that perceived strength can be deceptive. It is remarkably easy to tear or rip a fabric by poor handling and storage techniques, and it is not always easy to see where the weaknesses are.
The conservator passes round swatches of material so we can compare cotton, wool, silk, and lace, but it is not as easy as recognising a fabric. Cotton can appear very different depending on the thickness of the thread, if it is mixed with other fabrics or treated in a particular way. Wool can be knitted or woven and its appearance varies dramatically, every item really is unique and each should be treated as such.
We begin by lightly hoovering fabrics using museum strength vacuum cleaners that allow you to turn the suction right down to the lowest level. No tea towels disappearing up hoover nozzles on this training course! We use very small nozzles with tights stretched over the end and secured with an elastic band. It prevents any loss of fibres and provides an early warning system to prevent loss of any threads or material from the garment. We also lay a net frame over the fabric to prevent the suction damaging the material. Vacuuming a tea towel certainly seems to be one of the strangest things I have done on this course, but dust can be damaging to the object and harbour mould spores and provide a food source for insects. When you vacuum an item there is no miraculous transformation, it can be incredibly hard to see any noticeable difference and there is no doubt that makes it a time consuming, slightly frustrating job.
We are not removing stains or grease, we don’t get to throw fabrics into the washing machine for a full spin cycle. The natural temptation on seeing a dirty dress is to think it needs a wash, but once again it is the stains and marks that tell the story, they are the window on the person who wore the item. A perfect illustration is given of a garment in the museum collection said to belong to Charles I worn on his execution day, I will leave it to your imagination as to what the stains might be. It is easy to see why such stains should never be removed, they are the marks of our history.
Again we are reminded it is about doing what we can to prevent problems occurring within our own means and capabilities, we are not leaving the room as textile conservators but hopefully museum professionals who have more respect, knowledge and understanding of fabrics. The rules are simple but easy to overlook: always wear gloves; write in pencil not ink – preferable on a completely different table to your item; work on a clean surface – a fitted sheet can be your best ally, neatly fitting over a table top and easily washed to be used again; no jewellery; and no smoking, eating or drinking near textiles.
In the afternoon we learn packing and rolling techniques. On week 1 we learnt how to make acid free tissue puffs or ‘snowballs’, now we get to learn the ‘sausage’. I find it quite therapeutic to roll these out and it doesn’t take long before I have a pile of ‘sausages’ next to me on the table. We are shown a clothes rail with an assortment of garments, it is our choice to pick a garment and box, then attempt to pack it away to museum grade standards. It quickly becomes apparent that it is harder than you think, each layer of fabric must be separated with acid free tissue paper and we use the sausages to support arms and collars, supporting any folds to prevent damaging the fabric.
We move on to looking at how to hang garments correctly, how to pad hangers to support the material. Who knew it would be so hard to select the right hanger? Wire hangers are a big ‘No no’ and I despair of my own wardrobe at home with its wire hangers and misshapen clothes. We return to the clothes rail and choose an outfit to work with. Our textile conservator has set us lots of traps, garments that actually shouldn’t be stored on a hanger, items with straps to thin too support the weight of the outfit, or delicate fabrics that would be at risk if you tried to insert a hanger into them. It really is about seeing each item as unique and coming to each item with fresh eyes to make the right decisions on care.
Our final task of the afternoon is to roll fabrics on to acid free cardboard tubes. It is the best way to store flags, or embroidery and once again it proves harder than you think to maintain even tension when rolling slippery silk scarves. We listen to instructions and it all seems so simple, but the practical hands on element of this course is the real way to learn. By trying, sometimes failing and by asking questions we get to understand the right tips, techniques and practices to make it all come together.
I listen to our French instructor intently, I love the way she talks of tears (rips) and it sounds more like tears (crying), I am anthropomorphising clothes and thinking of them silently weeping when they are roughly treated. Perhaps this is what I need to do, think of them not as wool and cotton but as echoes of the person who wore them. If each item has a story to tell it is easier to come to each with respect and treat each one as unique.
In my own wardrobe I have my Dad’s wedding waistcoat and his 1970s leather jacket, for me these items are brimming with memories, stories and history. I treat them with reverence and care. To someone else they make look slightly tired and tatty, but to me they are so precious. I think this is my way in. I may not always know who wore a garment, what it meant to them, the occasions it was worn, but if I remember my Dad’s waistcoat and jacket I can call on feelings of respect and a love of stories and history that will ensure I treat each item as unique and afford it the care it deserves. I may have begun the day with a tea towel, but now I see that tea towel in a whole different way.
Please note any inaccuracies are purely my own and not the fault of Museum of London staff.
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