Frayed: the Conservation Side – Deborah Phipps, Textile Conservator

My name is Deborah Phipps, I work as a textile conservator for Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. I work on all aspects of textiles and historic dress conservation, from packing and conservation remedial work, to display solutions.

I started work on “Frayed” in July this year, after having carried out an assessment of the objects on Ruth’s (the exhibition curator) list. This is the first process for conservation; at this time, measurements and images are taken and the physical condition of the object is noted along with any recommendations for conservation work and display ideas.

The star of the show; the Lorina Bulwer sampler, is an amazing piece of social history expressed in stitch. This object is in two pieces and together they measure approximately 4m long. The sampler is constructed of hundreds of pieces of fabric on both front and reverse and all the edges are bound with fabric scraps as well.

Because the sampler has been well used by researchers, students and curators, some of the more fragile fabrics were starting to show signs of wear. Also, the front surface was rather dirty and dusty. So I vacuumed the whole thing with a specialist vacuum cleaner called a Museum Vac, which has variable suction control, and used a small soft goat’s hair brush. The damaged areas of the edges were protected with a layer of fine nylon conservation net, which was stitched in place with polyester threads. In the image below, I am pinning the net in place on the reverse of the sampler, prior to stitching in place.


Another object in the exhibition that I particularly enjoyed working on. is the Elizabeth Fry quilt. This is made from three pieces of fine linen seamed together. This ground fabric has then been decorated with applied patchwork hexagons, a central motif (now missing) and an outer border.

What makes this object stand out, is the obvious variety of makers who worked on the piece, the patchwork motifs show a variety of stitches some neatly executed, some done in a less practiced hand. The border is a good place to see how different stitchers viewed the task of piecing the fabrics together. Mostly, they are randomly pieced, but at least one stitcher preferred her patches in lines of colour, as can be seen on the right of the image below.


The quilt is suffering from a problem with the dye used for the darker colour fabrics; to get the darker colour a pre dye treatment known as a mordant (this helps the dye molecules attach to the fibres) was used. Unfortunately, the mordant also accelerates the deterioration of the fibres resulting in weakened fabrics and areas of loss. This is often seen as holes within a printed pattern on the fabric, or as a general weakness through the whole piece as shown in the images below.

debbie1c debbie1d

These fabrics are vulnerable to more losses and so to help support them, lines of laid couching were worked across the affected areas. These stitches go through all the layers of fabric and so help hold loose pieces in place.

These are my personal highlights of the exhibition, there is so much more to tell; my next post will be about installing the Brereton Bed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s