Introduction | Essay | Paintings | Paper | Preventive | Textiles | AICCM conference papers 2008

Textile conservation

Another journey begins

Indonesia c.1900 Cover for ceremonial objects, batik, embroidery on silk, Acquired through gift and purchase from the Collection of Robert J. Holmgren and Anita Spertus, New York, 2000, Collection of the Nationla Gallery of Australia detail: Indonesia c.1900 Cover for ceremonial objects, batik, embroidery on silk, Acquired through gift and purchase from the Collection of Robert J Holmgren and Anita Spertus, New York, 2000, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
 click to enlarge

The Conservation department is preparing the Gallery's world-class Asian textile collection for exhibition.
Deb Ward describes some of the challenges.

In a textile factory on the Coromandel Coast in south-eastern India over 400 years ago, a piece of hand-woven cotton fabric was prepared for printing. The cloth would undergo up to 30 different dye, mordant and bleaching processes to become one of the finest printed fabrics ever seen. The decoration of this cloth, and millions of others produced in India from the 15th to the 19th century, often incorporated designs and motifs never used or seen in India itself. They were made specifically for trade and their beauty and fineness made them valuable commodities from Europe to northern Africa, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The Gallery began collecting Asian textiles in 1979 and now holds one of the finest collections in the world. In particular, the Gallery's collection of Indian textiles, which were traded to Indonesia for over 1,000 years, is arguably the finest collection of this textile type in the world, including India. The cloths were made in India and stored over the centuries as clan heirlooms in remote mountain villages across the Indonesian archipelago, eventually coming to rest in the Gallery's textile store.

For the textile conservators at the Gallery this is not the end of a road but the beginning. These Indian textiles and the Indonesian fabrics that they have influenced over the centuries will be the focus of a major exhibition at the Gallery in 2003. Hundreds of cloths will be prepared and conserved for this exhibition. Considering the age and the history of these traded textiles, the Gallery's collection is in very good condition. However, insect and rodent damage, tears and splits, and the natural weakening of fibres over the centuries cannot be avoided.

It is critical for the conservator to learn as much as possible about the materials, manufacture and history of each textile before treatment. This understanding ensures that the best possible treatment and care is provided for every single cloth. Textile conservators have initiated several major research projects, including a study into detergents suitable to use in treatments and the development of a database of natural dyes to assist in the identification of the exact dyes used on each cloth. Some very exciting research is under way using Carbon 14 dating of the textiles, from which some extremely early dates have been recorded.

The road ahead may be long but, for the conservators, it is very exciting. The condition of the works is at times a challenge, and new treatment methods are constantly being devised. The sheer size of some of the fabrics is a unique problem, with many of them exceeding 6 metres in length. The size and condition of the textiles makes the conservation work very slow, with many requiring over 400 hours of work to conserve and prepare for exhibition

In the lead-up to the 2003 exhibition, the textile conservation staff will be keeping artonview readers up-to-date on preparation work for this exciting show.

To assist with the mammoth task of conserving these textiles and ensuring that the research is ongoing, the Gallery is developing a special sponsorship program to accompany this exhibition. Sponsorship of research, exhibition preparation and conservation treatments will be offered to the public and fully acknowledged in the exhibition. It can be very rewarding to know that you have contributed to preserving cloths of such beauty and interest, as yet unseen in the West, or have sponsored the dating of a cloth which could prove to be the oldest.

The Indian and Indonesian textiles for the Gallery's 2003 exhibition have travelled many miles, and each has its own unique story about which we know too little. However, the story of their conservation for this exhibition will be revealed in artonview over the next 18 months.


Deb Ward

First published in artonview 29 autumn 2002