On our first morning at the Heritage Skills Centre we arrived full of excitement to an empty space that would soon be transformed into our busy tapestry conservation studio. The tapestry conservation team is made up of Elaine Owers – Tapestry conservation consultant, Amanda Davey – senior project assistant, Kate French – Tapestry conservator and team leader, Sophie Minnis and Alice Brown – Assistant tapestry conservators. After being introduced we quickly got to work setting up the studio.
There were numerous boxes of brand new equipment to be unpacked. In each parcel there was something new and exciting, scissors, tape measures, glass headed pins, tapestry needles, day light lamps, coloured wools and stranded cottons. It felt like Christmas.
We had a trip to Doddington Hall to see the Holly bedroom where the tapestries had hung from 1762 until they were removed for conservation in 2010. It was great to get an understanding of the history of the house and tapestries and the context of the environment that the tapestries would be returning to after their conservation is completed.
The two wooden frames and the first two tapestries from the set were delivered to the Heritage Skills Centre. The frames have a long history of use and have seen a number of tapestries in their life-time, this has given them a certain character of their own. We had a number of long wooden poles to choose from; ideally we were looking for straight poles with an even diameter but these poles over time have developed a few curves, perhaps not in all the right places, this quirk was overcome by inserting extra padding when rolling on the fabric.
We attached adhesive backed hook Velcro® to the poles, this would give us a means of attaching both the linen support fabric and the tapestries to the frames. You can see us fighting with a piece of Velcro® in the image below trying to peel the backing off the sticky side of the Velcro® without sticking ourselves to it in the process.
Image 1- Alice and Sophie attach hook Velcro® to the wooden poles.
We then turned our attentions to preparing the linen (scrim) support fabric, this required scouring at 90◦C to shrink the fabric and remove any dressings and then carefully pressing to keep the grain of the fabric straight, to do this we made our own giant ironing board by stretching a blanket and cotton sheet over a table. We hand seamed lengths of the linen together to have enough to be slightly bigger than each tapestry. Finally we attached fabric aprons with loop Velcro® sewn on, to both ends of the linen, which would allow us to secure it to the tapestry frame.
Image 2- Amanda, Alice, Kate and Sophie stitching the linen to the aprons.
We then turned our attentions to the tapestries themselves. There are six main tapestries in total, plus a number of small fragments, Elaine our consultant had chosen two for us to start with, we have come to know them as ‘The Cobbler’ and the’ Bagpiper and Dancing Dog’. We spent a couple of days crawling around on our knees with the tapestries rolled out on dust sheets on the floor (tables just aren’t big enough!) taking photographs and recording the damage and making estimates of just how long the stitching work is going to take.
We then attached aprons like those on the linen to one edge of each tapestry, only then framing up could begin. First we rolled our linen onto the centre pole of each of the two frames, making sure to keep the grain straight; it was then the turn of the tapestries. Due to the way tapestries are woven, the way in which they have been hung and their age usually means that a tapestry will have stretched and distorted making it almost impossible to impose straight lines, these tapestries were no exception. We had the added difficulty that both had large sections cut out of them to accommodate the Holly Bedroom fireplace! We slowly rolled each tapestry onto the back roller of the frames adding padding and smoothing the tapestry where needed to try to keep the weave as straight as possible. The linen was then stretched across to the front pole and the tapestry flapped over onto it allowing us to attach the tapestry to it with our stitching. We will work through the tapestry rolling it slowly onto the linen as we go. We are now ready to get stitching!
Image 3- Sophie, Kate, Elaine and Alice rolling ‘The Cobbler’ onto one of the frames.
Image 4 – Both the tapestries on their frames and pinned onto the first sections of linen ready for stitching.
For images and weekly updates on the conservation project, follow us on Instagram at conservation_at_doddington.