Textiles are, quite literally, a part of the fabric of our everyday lives. From wedding dresses to upholstery, ancient shrouds to a John Piper tapestry, church vestments to trade union banners, textiles combine the traditions of art, culture and technology. They form a multidisciplinary subject integrating scientific knowledge with aesthetic sensitivity and practical skills.
Regardless of whether we are intentional collectors or not, many of us have some form of antique textile in our home. An upholstered chair, an embroidered sampler, a woven carpet or an item of clothing, which may have been passed through generations, becomes instilled with an emotional and historical significance. But these are frequently functional pieces; chairs were made for sitting on, and carpets for walking on. The organic make-up of textiles and the unavoidable wear and tear upon them determine that the process of disintegration is more or less inevitable. However, the effects of use and decay can be dramatically slowed down by a conservator's intervention, and by the regulation of light levels, humidity and temperature. It is an obvious point to make, but worth underlining: keep all vulnerable textiles out of the glare of sunlight and do not expose them to the effects of damp or central heating. A change of heart has affected the business of textile conservation in recent years. Where full reconstruction was once essential for a piece to make a top price, these days buyers may prefer to see the piece in its current condition and know what exists of the original workmanship. Faded colours, blemishes and flaws can be acceptable and even welcome evidence of antiquity. Another reason for caution is that inappropriate work may adversely affect an object's long-term preservation. Repairing a damaged textile by renewing missing or worn areas could do more harm than good. This can be avoided in a museum when the item is needed only for display in controlled conditions, but the problem demands sensitive compromise when the piece is going back into the home to be used.
There are three main areas involved in the care of antique textiles: cleaning, restoration and conservation. The cleaning of antique textiles is a very specialised and complex process. If the dyes are safe, the textile may be washed in de-ionised water. Otherwise, chemicals similar to those used in the dry cleaning process can be used. But the question of whether to clean at all is one which conservators must address anew with each individual project. Signs of wear and dirt may offer crucial clues to the historic use of a textile, and act as a vital witness to its authenticity.
The art of restoring textiles is also a delicate balancing act. Ela Sosnowska of Restoration Studios, based in London W12, works on all woven material. 'Old textiles are always very fragile,' she says. Unlike the furniture restorer who likes to use antique wood to repair old furniture, the textile restorer uses mostly modern replacement materials. 'To reconstruct a hole in silk, an old silk thread would simply not be strong enough,' Ela explains. The restorer tries to intervene as little as possible in an original area. In cases where replacement is deemed necessary, traditional methods are used. Special looms for tapestries, and frames for smaller pieces, are constructed. A chair cover must be taken off the chair and put on to a frame to create the correct tension, and to enable the restorer to gain access to the underside of the fabric.
The most prominent place for the education, scholarship and practice of textile conservation in Britain is the Textile Conservation Centre, an independent charity housed in the magnificent setting of Hampton Court Palace. The centre, which was instrumental in establishing textile conservation as a profession and has educated more than half the world's textile conservators, is keen to point out the differences between textile conservation and restoration. It handles a lot of important projects for the National Trust, but also runs a commercial operation and will conserve anything from the sampler your great-grandmother worked, through to a museum-quality Flemish tapestry. Using the resources of its specialised laboratory, dye room, photographic studio and unique reference collections, the Centre's conservators will assess your textile's specific needs, and carry out appropriate cleaning and conservation treatments to ensure its long-term preservation. No charge is made for a full written report and estimate.
A competent conservator commands a wide range of skills. As well as a knowledge of correct cleaning and mounting methods, he or she must understand environment monitoring, be familiar with storage and display techniques and be well versed in textile history. Common themes in his or her work include the stabilising of weak materials and structures, and the removal of previous repairs. He or she will be able to identify solvents which can remove unsuitable adhesives, and re-adhere the textile to a new support. Other problems to be tackled are moulds and insect infestations which must be handled with an environmentally acceptable approach. A textile may also become crumpled then hardened by dust, which hides the colour and structure. The main treatments in such a case are humidification, surface cleaning and wet cleaning. One form of textile seen regularly by conservators is the embroidered sampler. Embroidery is the art of producing ornamental designs in various stitches with a thread, usually of silk or wool, on a textile support. This can be linen, cotton, silk or, sometimes (particularly with Oriental pieces), wool. In the days when proficiency in needlework was an expected female accomplishment, the sampler was the perfect vehicle for a child to practise these stitches. Damage by damp or insects makes your sampler less valuable, as does having missing words or numbers replaced. If the colours have run or faded, the asking price is reduced. However, beware unusually bright colours; this may signify a forgery. Some of the worst damage to samplers is found in the corners and is made by insects and woodworm. If your sampler is framed, it should be well sealed to protect from moths; placing the sampler behind ultra-violet protective glass is also recommended. If it is mounted on a wooden panel, this should be removed and replaced with acid-free stretchers. Finally, never be tempted to wash a sampler yourself as the colours are often unstable, and once they have run, nothing can reverse the process.
Tapestry differs from embroidery in that there is no 'support' fabric. Instead, the tapestry is created by weaving coloured thread (known as the 'weft') horizontally through fixed vertical threads (the 'warp') stretched out lengthwise in a loom, using an instrument called the 'shuttle'. In the 18th century tapestries were the height of sophisticated taste in European interior decoration; the English responded with wool (crewelwork) embroidered curtains, and seats upholstered with needlepoint covers, both of which resembled tapestry. A large quantity of crewelwork curtains made around the first decade of the 18th century have survived. The majority of these have been faded by light, though where the fabric itself is not rotted it is often still in robust condition. Needlepoint is more hard-wearing than embroidery, and therefore more suitable for seat covers. It consists of fine, dense stitches covering the whole surface of the support, which is usually woven linen or canvas. Conventional upholstery uses metal fasteners to attach the upholstery under tension to its frame. This technique is damaging both to the textile and wooden frame. A skilled conservator can relieve this tension for you, thus prolonging the life of your chair and its upholstery.
Textile Conservation Centre, Apartment 22, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU (tel: 0181 977 4943).