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Conserving historic textiles

Within the treasury of decorative arts that comes under the National Trust’s remit of care and conservation, historic textiles must surely be the most vulnerable. Fragile victims of wear and tear, carpets, curtains, upholstery, tapestries, embroideries and garments are highly sensitive to light, heat, moisture and dirt. Their cleaning, repair and preservation is best achieved using a combination of sophisticated modern technology and old-fashioned needlework hours of meticulous handwork by skilled conservators.

A recent visit to the National Trust’s textile conservation studio in a converted barn complex at Blickling has left me awestruck at the scale of the undertaking and the level of patience a typical commission requires. One job I watched in progress was the conservation of an 18th-century bed hanging from Houghton, trapunto quilted and embroidered with chain stitch. Its old lining had been removed and previous unsightly repairs were now being painstakingly cut out so that it could be wet cleaned, before being sewn onto a new, specially dyed linen lining, which will be carefully aligned to match the grain. The piece measures 12ft by 5ft, and it will take two conservators a little under a year to repair it.

They are part of the team of 10 textile conservators managed by Ksynia Marko, who has run the Blickling workshop since 1991. ‘It’s the largest independent conservation studio of its kind in the country,’ she tells me proudly. ‘Although we’re employed by the National Trust, we’re a self-contained business. The Trust pays for each job, and we also take on outside work.’

Miss Marko got into conservation by chance. ‘In my last year at Goldsmith’s College, I met the textile conservator Karen Finch and went to work for her in Ealing, first voluntarily, then for 50p an hour.’ She went on to become senior textile conservator at the V&A for eight years, before going freelance in 1980.

‘I got a studio in the operating theatre of the old Metropolitan Hospital at Dalston. It was brilliant so much space, clean tiled surfaces, water laid on, good lighting and a lovely long stainless steel sink where the surgeons washed their hands.’ By the late 1980s, Miss Marko had bought her own studio, where she employed a team of seven and trained apprentices. Much of their work was for English Heritage, the V&A and the National Trust, and they also had private clients.

Today, Miss Marko tends to use her practical skills during site visits to houses; in the studio, most of her time is taken up with administration and working out solutions. ‘My strength is problem solving,’ she says. ‘People come to me when they can’t make up their minds what to do. At the V&A, I learnt not to be frightened of objects and to be very practical; there’s always something you can come up with. But I miss the bench work.’

Some tapestries are sent to be washed in Belgium, where they have a safer suction system, but the studio has its own lab with solvent extraction tubes, a vacuum hot table and other machines, where dyeing, wet-cleaning and complex chemical treatments are carried out. The day I visit, however, the conservators are mostly hand-stitching at worktables or large frames, and I am struck by how peaceful the atmosphere feels.

‘We conserve rather than restore,’ says Miss Marko, showing me a huge late 17th century tapestry from Houghton, richly woven with metalwork. ‘We are not reinstating every stitch or the original bright colours,’ she explains, ‘but replacing rotten warps, and “couching” the tapestry onto a new backing using a spaced darning stitch that can be adapted to suit the weave.’ Costs range from £40,000 to £140,000 per tapestry, the latter being the approximate figure for one in extreme disrepair.

Also in the workshop are a cleaned chair seat cover from Erddig, dirt-blackened when it arrived, now crimson; a flood damaged, pink silk dress from Springhill, Northern Ireland; and one of Hardwick Hall’s 16th century Scipio tapestries, badly soiled from years of Derbyshire coal dust. But the greatest challenge is a cantonniere from the James II bed at Knole1680s Italian cut velvet with sumptuous trimmings. ‘We’re trying to rescue the bed from instant death,’ says Miss Marko. ‘Bad 1960s repairs are pulling the hangings apart.’ Work on this piece is part of a trial to see whether it would be feasible to conserve the entire ensemble, which includes a suite of furniture. Some £800,000 is the estimated cost, and it still needs to be raised.

That this is the Trust’s only in house conservation workshop is partly due to chance. Its origin was a workshop founded in 1976 by the curator at Blickling and run by volunteers, who cared for the house’s important Mortlake tapestries, as well as textiles in other Trust houses in the region. But the team here today is conscious that the workshop is also, in a sense, a continuation of a tradition of maintenance and care of both textiles of status, such as tapestries and state bed hangings, and everyday items, such as linens and garments which was undertaken by the women of the household.

Textile Conservation Studio 01263 735878