Amgueddfa Blog: Textiles

Back in 1998, long before I started my current job as Senior Textile Conservator at St Fagans National Museum of History, I spent two work experience placements at the museum, helping my predecessor Clare Stoughton-Harris.  I had just started on my 3-year post-grad course in Textile Conservation the previous year.  The course was based in apartments within Hampton Court Palace.  I saw an ad for a placement at St Fagans on the Centre’s noticeboard and decided to apply. A few weeks later, I found myself driving over to Cardiff to start my placement.

My first stint was for 3 weeks, over the Easter Holidays.  The work mainly consisted of preparing St Fagans castle for re-opening after refurbishment, so it involved a lot of surface cleaning, but we also got around to wet cleaning a carpet.  The image shows Clare sponging the carpet in the detergent bath in the studio. 

When I came back in the summer, my project was to improve the storage conditions of the shoe collection.  Most shoes were stored on open shelving, with several pairs stacked on top of each other.  Some were not wrapped at all and were gathering dust, and others were wrapped in yellowed newspaper as you can see in the 2 pictures below.  That’s me, unwrapping and examining some children’s shoes!

As they were, the shoes were also very inaccessible as it was impossible to know which pair was wrapped in each bundle of tissue paper.  So I remember assembling endless flat pack boxes and re-packing the shoes… so here they were in their lovely new storage boxes:

Once the contents of the Old Costume Store moved into the Collection Centre at St Fagans in 2008, the project was improved upon by adding thumbnail images of each pair, clearly attached to the outside of the box, so here they are in their current configuration!

From 1998, it took another 7 years, and jobs with the National Trust, in Norfolk, a private studio in Dublin and 2 years at the British Museum before I was became the Senior Textile Conservator at Amgueddfa Cymru. Now I have the occasional pleasure of overseeing students myself and can return the favour of giving them the chance to expand their experience and help them along their career path!

 

Recently, we’ve been privileged to accept a fabulous new accession into our collection.  It is a set of three silk garments which belonged to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet, who lived between 1749 and 1789.  He owned vast areas of land in Wales, was active in politics and was a great patron of the arts.  You can find out more about him here:

Image of painting of Watkin Williams-Wynn from our 'Collections Online'
Small pastel portrait from the museum's collections

As part of Sir Watkin’s lavish lifestyle came an opulent wardrobe.  The garments we have acquired are a matching set of waistcoat and breeches made from grey silk, woven with silver metal thread, silk embroidery and metal thread trim,

F2019.21.1 waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.1 waistcoat, detail of buttons, embroidery and metal thread weave

F2019.21.2 breeches Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.2 breeches, metal trim

F2019.21.2 breeches, button

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as well as an embroidered waistcoat of flamboyantly pink satin. 

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

 All three items have passed through the Textile Conservation Studio over the last few weeks to record the garments’ construction, materials, and condition, before packing them up to go into storage.  The grey set of waistcoat and breeches were in remarkably good condition, but I was worried about the embroidery on the pink waistcoat.  The embroidery consists of undulating bands of white net which covers small florets made of paper.  The bands run down both sides of the centre front and across the lower edge as well as across the pocket flaps.  Other embroidery features are foliage and blossoms made from chenille thread and mauve ribbon-worked rosette flower heads. 


The white net is made from silk which has been coated with a stiffening agent.  This stiffening agent has made the net brittle and the yarns have cracked in many places resulting in areas of loss and loose areas.  Those loose remains of the net were vulnerable to snagging and abrasion and I was afraid that further pieces would break off and become lost.  Equally, the paper flowers that lay underneath and were formerly protected by the net were now exposed and also at risk of damage or loss through accidentally brushing against them.  As it was, a number of petals had pulled away from the stitches that held them in place and had curled up and become creased and distorted, with several petals and some entire flowers becoming lost. 


To protect the fragile areas I decided to apply an overlay of very fine white Nylon net.  This net does not disturb the aesthetics of the embroidery while at the same time providing protection to the vulnerable net and paper underneath.  Before I could start, however, I had to humidify the paper petals to re-shape them and arrange them in their correct position. For this, I dampened the paper with deionised water applied with a fine paint brush.  Once it was wet, the paper was pliable and creases could be removed.  To apply the net overlay I stitched it in place with small running stitches using a thin white silk organzine thread.  I used a curved needle as the garment had to remain flat on the table (to avoid unnecessary movement).  It’s only now that it has been conserved that the waistcoat is strong enough to go into storage.

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat vulnerable areas before conservation

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat, detail of applying net overlay using silk thread

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat after application of net overlay - now protected and safe for storage

There was something else that was interesting about the waistcoat: The rear panel is made from tabby woven cotton fabric and the lower section is made of cream silk.  As it is now, the seam allowances are facing outwards and raw edges are visible.  It is not unusual that areas of the garment that aren’t on view are made from less expensive materials and that the stitching might not be as carefully executed as on the visible areas, however, the current configuration and some indication of previous stitch holes suggests that the waistcoat would have had an outer back panel and what is visible currently, is simply the back section of the lining.  There is therefore a strong indication that the waistcoat may have been altered and the original back getting lost in the process.

F2019.21.3  pink waistcoat, back panel

 

The early 18th century court mantua from Tredegar House is perhaps the most well-known dress in the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru. Donated to the Museum in 1923 by Lord Tredegar, the mantua is currently on show in the Wales is… gallery at St Fagans.

Last year, we commissioned Kate Barlow – a maker and needlework teacher, originally from Mold – to replicate a motif from mantua’s heavily embroidered petticoat. This beautifully crafted tactile piece is now on display alongside the dress in the gallery. Here, Kate explains how she went about replicating the motif, and how she became a professional embroiderer.

Can you tell me how you got into embroidery?

From a very early age, I always loved to draw and paint and make things. My Nan was the kind of lady who could do all kinds of crafty things and she taught me to sew and to do embroidery. I went on to study Theatre Design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and specialised in costume. I worked for a few years as a freelance costume maker and then joined the wardrobe department at the Welsh National Opera. I stayed with WNO for nearly eight years and loved my job very much, but I missed being creative. I decided to take the plunge and re-train as a professional embroiderer and tutor at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. After three years of intensive training, I graduated with distinction in 2016 and haven’t looked back since.

How did you go about replicating the motif from the mantua – what were the steps/processes involved?

I chose a motif from the original mantua that would make sense on its own and work well as a stand-alone piece. I then chose threads and wires that replicated the originals as closely as possible, and sourced a teal coloured silk satin as the ground fabric. 

To transfer the motif to the silk, the design was drawn onto tracing paper and tiny holes were pricked along the lines with a needle to create the ‘pricking’. The tracing paper was then pinned to the silk which had been laced into an embroidery frame. Pounce powder made from ground charcoal and cuttlefish bone was rubbed through the holes of the pricking and the paper removed. Excess pounce was blown away and the dotted lines were painted over using watercolour paint, a fine paintbrush and a very steady hand! Once the painted lines are dry the stitching can start. 

Goldwork embroidery has to be worked in a certain order, with any padding being done first. Then the check thread and smooth passing threads are couched down, any loose ends are ‘plunged’ through to the back of the work and stitched down. The cutwork is always stitched last as it is quite fragile. Wire check and smooth purl resemble tiny springs and are made from very fine wires. These can be cut to the right lengths and stitched down in the same way as a bead. The thread used to stitch the goldwork down is always run through beeswax to protect and strengthen it. Goldwork threads, particularly cutwork, can be quite sharp and can damage the sewing thread. The beeswax helps to prevent this.

How long did it take you from start to finish?

From choosing the motif to taking the final stitches, the whole process took over 15 hours. 

Do you have any thoughts on the design and skill level of the embroidery on the mantua?

The mantua is made from silk damask which would have been costly on its own, but the amount of metal thread embroidery would have made it a very expensive purchase when new. The mantua would definitely have made a statement when it was worn, the embroidery would have truly sparkled, especially in candlelight. The embroidery would have been done by an experienced craftsman. Working with metal threads is very different from other embroidery techniques and requires a great deal of skill. 

Do you have a favourite embroidery technique or a favourite period in embroidery history?

I don’t really have a favourite embroidery technique, but I really like the effects that can be created with blackwork. Black threads on white linen can look stunning. I’m bit of a magpie and love anything that sparkles. I like using goldwork techniques with coloured metal threads and wires. I also love the stumpwork that was stitched in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The level of detail, the fineness of the stitching, the figures and motifs are all fascinating. The skill involved can be exceptional, particularly when there was no artificial light to help.

What does embroidery give to you? How does it make you feel?

There are endless possibilities with embroidery. Beautiful things can be created with just a needle and thread. There are so many different techniques, I feel like there is always something new to learn and always room for improvement. I really enjoy recreating historical embroidery. Most of the techniques and tools used in hand embroidery haven’t changed much in hundreds of years and stitching period designs gives a little window into the lives of stitchers past.

The Cardiff 2018 National Eisteddfod Chair is sponsored by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales to the celebrate 70th birthday of St Fagans National Museum of History.

St Fagans has championed crafts in Wales since it opened in 1948, and sponsoring the chair for the National Eisteddfod in 2018 is a fitting celebration, which continues the Museum’s tradition of supporting Welsh craft and makers.

Chris Williams had the honour of designing and making the 2018 Chair. He lives in Pentre and has a workshop and gallery in Ynyshir, Rhondda - he works as a sculptor and is a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.

Elements of the chair were made at St Fagans National History Museum in a purpose built building, Gweithdy. This is a brand new sustainable building celebrating the skills of makers past and present - where visitors of all ages can experience traditional craft skills first-hand.

At Gweithdy, Chris demonstrated and shared the process of making the chair with visitors – a first in the history of making the National Eisteddfod chair.

Swipe, or tap the circles below as Chris explains the process of making the iconic Eisteddfod chair:

  • From the Hearth to the Stage

    The 2018 Eisteddfod Chair, through the eyes of its maker

  • The Inspiration

    The 2018 Eisteddfod Chair is inspired by Welsh stick chairs like this one, pictured at Cilewent Farmhouse at St Fagans.

  • Celebrating Welsh Makers

    This Welsh carthen, or blanket, was chosen for its beautiful repeating pattern - becoming the main motif for the chair

  • The rough materials - elm and ash - arriving at the workshop in Pentre

  • I designed the chair in Rhino 3D, so I could have an accurate model. This enabled me to take dimensions, to create jigs and templates for shaping the arms, spindles and legs

  • The seat and back are made from the same elm tree. Sanding the wood reveals the grain, and reveals any defects in the timber that need to be sanded away

  • I shaped the seat with a scorp and cabinet scraper at Gweithdy workshop at St Fagans. It was nice to share this experience of making the chair with the public

  • The seat and back were then engraved using a Co2 laser engraver - thank you to Caerphilly council for letting me use the engraver! The elaborate pattern was inspired by a blanket woven at Esgair Moel woollen mill in the 1960s. The mill (and the blanket) is now at St Fagans museum.

  • The clamping operation was complex and required a number of sash clamps to control the pressure

  • The text on the arms was also engraved with the laser engraver. This was done on a flat piece of ash which was laminated to the curved arms with many, many G clamps

  • Gluing the legs into place

  • Getting closer... The back is mortised into the seat

  • The arms are cut around the back to create a unique join, and glued into place. Then, the spindles are fitted with wedges, to be cleaned when the glue has dried

  • And here's the finished article - the 2018 Eisteddfod chair. Good luck to all the competitors!

The Museums Association Conference of 1948 was held at National Museum Cardiff over five days, running from July 12th to the 16th. All conference meetings were held in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre, while an area within the Zoology Department was used as Association Office, Writing Room and Smoke Room.

We know the majority of host duties would have been carried out by Frederick J. North, who was Keeper of Geology and Archibald H. Lee, Museum Secretary, because they are listed on the programme as Honorary Local Secretaries. It is most likely we have them to thank for the ephemera held in the Library, including copies of the programme, associate and staff badges, reception invites, day trip tickets and the official group photograph, taken on the steps of the Museum.

The first day of the conference began with registration, followed by a Council meeting and visit to Cardiff Castle and a reception at the South Wales Institute of Engineers in the evening. The programme states this event as requiring Morning dress code which, during this time period would be a three piece suit for the men, and smart day dresses for the women, or general smart clothing suitable for formal social events.

The second day began with official welcomes by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Alderman R. G. Robinson, and the President of the National Museum Wales, Sir Leonard Twiston-Davies. This was followed by a number of papers read by delegates [all fully listed in the programme], gathering for the official conference photograph, and a Civic Reception at City Hall, hosted by the Lord Mayor [with refreshments, music and dancing].

1948 was the year that St Fagans National Museum of History was first opened to the public as the St Fagans Folk Museum and to mark this, a visit was arranged for the afternoon of day three. St Fagans Castle, gardens, and grounds had been given to the National Museum Wales by the Earl of Plymouth in 1946 and over the next two years extensive work had been carried out to make it suitable to open to the public. According to the 1950 St Fagans guide book, in the Castle, new central heating, electric lighting, and fire appliances had to be installed along with a tickets office, refreshment room and public amenities. By 1948 our delegates would have had access to the Castle and its newly refurbished historic interiors such as the kitchen with two 16th century fireplaces, the Hall furnished in 17th century style, 17th and 18th century bedrooms and the early 19th century Library. They would also have enjoyed walking the gardens which included a mulberry grove, herb and rose gardens, vinery, fishponds, and flower-house interspersed with bronze sculptures by Sir William Goscombe John. Onsite also were a traditional wood-turner and a basket-maker, creating and selling their wares. The handbook also describes a delightful sounding small tea room with curtains made at the Holywell Textile Mills and watercolour paintings by Sir Frank Brangwyn. However, according to a Western Mail clipping, this didn’t open to the public until some weeks later on August 24th. Presumably a room within the Castle itself was used for the delegates’ buffet tea to which they were treated after being greeted by the Curator of St Fagans, Dr Iorwerth Peate.

Interestingly the programme provides times of the train service that ran from Cardiff Central Station to St Fagans. Sadly, the station at St Fagans is no longer there, the service being withdrawn in 1962, although a signal box and level crossing on the line remain.

The Annual General Meeting, Council Meeting and Federation of Officers Meeting  were all held on the next day along with more papers, including one by Mr Duncan Guthrie [of the Arts Council], on the upcoming “Festival of Britain, 1951”. There was also an evening reception in the Museum hosted by the President, and the then Director [Sir Cyril Fox], with refreshments and music by the City of Cardiff High School for Girls Orchestra. The programme states evening dress if possible for this event so it’s a shame we don’t hold any photographs of what would have been a sea of tuxedos and evening gowns.

The final day consisted of further papers in the morning followed by escape and fresh air with visits to the Newport Corporation Museum and the Legionary Museum and Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon during the afternoon.

The September 1948 issue of Museums Journal contains a full report on the conference, with detailed examination of all papers presented and the discussions they generated. It also lists the delegates including those from overseas. The report concludes with thanks to the National Museum Cardiff for the welcome and hospitality accorded to the 240 delegates, with special mention to North and Lee [who would certainly have earned their salaries over those five days!].