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

Textile conservation


Sari to Sarong restoration

Gujarat, India traded to Sumatra, 'Indonesia Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom [patola]' 18th century, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Sari to Sarong: 500 years of Indian and Indonesian textile exchange showcases the Gallery’s major collection of Asian textiles. The exhibition features some of the rarest and most beautiful examples of this textile tradition, many of which have undergone significant transformation in preparation for their display. This is the culmination of three years work by the textile section of the Conservation department.

The process of restoration can be challenging and time consuming but also most rewarding. This involves restoring physical strength to damages, such as tears and holes, so that works can be displayed and further deterioration prevented. As with many aspects of conservation, there is no general rule for restoring a textile; each has its own problems and these must be assessed for a specific treatment to be developed. However, there are general principles that apply. All work the conservator carries out in restoring a textile must be reversible – which seriously restricts the techniques that can be applied. Museums throughout the world have examples of works of art whose condition has been seriously damaged by well-meaning attempts at restoration.

To ensure conservation work is reversible extensive tests and research are undertaken to ensure that only archival, soluble adhesives are used, and that the removal of agents will not affect textiles. People often find it surprising that adhesives are used on historical textiles, but years of experience have shown that removing a very thin layer of adhesive from a very fragile textile causes a lot less damage than do stitches. Stitching is, however, required to secure frayed threads and heavier weave textiles.

When restoring an area of damage, it is not the role of the conservator to reproduce the design area that is lost so the damage is no longer distinguishable. However, the restoration process is governed by the principle of ensuring (if possible) that the repairs do not detract from the original design concept. In making such decisions the conservation staff work closely with the curator. It is always the intent that the repair blends in but remains distinguishable.

Many textiles have damaged areas that have previously been repaired. If these repairs provide adequate support to the textile and are aesthetically sympathetic, they are kept in place. Some past attempts at restoration are historically interesting; in one textile a large hole in an indigo field had been patched with bright red fabric and purple stitches over 2cm in length. All damages and past repairs are part of the history of the textile and it is the role of the conservator to maintain this history. If the decision is made that past repairs are visually disturbing and do not provide adequate support, a full written and photographic record is made prior to their removal.

Little research has been documented on the diverse conservation issues affecting Asian textiles, so often the conservator must develop new techniques for solving problems. Over 90% of the textiles in Sari to Sarong required some form of restoration before they could be displayed. For some this may be a few small holes supported or a small tear patched. Others have been transformed from brittle piles of threads to at least a hint of their original splendour, requiring hours of restoration. Sari to Sarong is a unique exhibition, not only because of its presentation of the collection, but also in its demonstration of the Gallery’s commitment to the conservation of Asian textiles, on a scale rarely before seen.

click on the links below to see restoration photos
Man's cloth [hinggi kombu]
Woman's ceremonial skirt [tapis]
Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom [patola]

Debbie Ward

First published in artonview 35 spring 2003