Textile conservators, weaving life back into ancient history

Ask someone what a textile conservator does for a living and you'll probably get a shrug of the shoulders. Yet this craft is responsible for bringing ancient history back to life.

Ask someone what a textile conservator does for a living and you’ll probably get a shrug of the shoulders. Yet these craftswomen are responsible for bringing ancient history back to life. Most of their work is unseen or secretly hidden in a glamorous display of ancient clothing that hangs majestically in a museum.

It’s 3pm in the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou. The room is quiet and visibility is not good because the shades are pulled down, yet conservators dexterously work away.

Shi Jia

Conservators work on a 19th century dragon robe.

“These were once worn by Yuan Shikai (1859-1916),” said Wang Shujuan, a textile conservator from the museum, pointing to a pair of navy blue woolen trousers that are turned inside out on a worktable. Yuan was the first Republic of China (1912-1949) president. He later attempted to restore monarchy in China.

Only when getting close to the item can you see small holes linked together near the crotch and bottom part of the trouser-leg, probably damaged by insects.

“This is the conservation room for our better preserved textiles,” said Wang.

On another worktable, two conservators are working under a lamplight on a 19th century dragon robe owned by a Tibetan Museum. The 1.4-meter-long robe is spread entirely flat on the table while the darning area is framed by rows of small magnets so that it can’t be moved as they work on it.

The stitching is intensive work that requires a 100 percent concentration. The conservators use yarns with a linear density between 11 to 13 deniers. One denier is equal to 1 gram per 9,000 meters of the fiber, to fix on to the damaged textile. And, in order to get close to the original color of the fabrics, they dyed the yarns themselves.

“Sometimes, when I am really focused during work, I don’t even realize that my feet are hanging in the air,” said Lou Shuqi, a conservator who has been working in the museum for 20 years. “After a day’s work I just want to lie down and do nothing.”

When Lou started to work as a conservator in 1996, there were only two of them at the museum. There are nearly 20 in the team now, the largest in the nation. All of them are women. And more than half of their projects come from local museums in other parts of China.

“I don’t know, maybe men think stitching is not for them,” commented Wang.

Apart from the conservation room most of the work is done in the textile conservation exhibition hall of the museum.

China National Silk Museum

Fragments of a pair of women’s trousers from the 4th century

A pair of trousers after restoration

The first floor of the exhibition hall was transformed into a conservation workshop in 2012 while people visiting the second floor can see through glasses how conservation work is carried out.

The workshop is constantly kept at a temperature of 23 degrees Celsius with humidity ranging between 55 to 65 percent. And conservators need to wear surgical masks when they are handling unearthed textiles.

“Wearing masks is both for protecting the textile and our conservators,” said Wang. “A lot of the textiles we handle are grave goods, and some of them have been worn by unearthed corpses. So they carry strong smells and are especially fragile after being buried underground for hundreds of years.”

When a piece of ancient clothing arrives at the workshop, it goes through several steps of documentation, examination and restoration.

It is first put under a high-resolution scanner to keep a record of what it was like when excavated. The second step is to disinfect and clean. It is then placed in a low-pressure cleaning cabin, where mud, dirt, blood and grease stains are cleaned bit by bit with a small amount of water. The equipment ensures water does not reside too long on any textiles and cause damage and there is a dry environment overall.

Specialists also mix chemical and natural dyes in the same place.

The restoration process follows and, in order to protect the extremely delicate textiles, a silk crepeline is used as a supporting structure beneath and above the item so the stitching isn’t directly on the antiquity.

Wang pointed to a pair of women’s trousers from the 4th century. When they first received them in 2016, there were just a few pieces of silk embroidered fragments. They spent a lot of time on determining the physicality of the trousers and where the pieces on the pants belonged.

“Fortunately, an inventory was found in the tomb at the same time listing all the clothes buried together with the body, including this piece called feixiuku (楹給욍), meaning a pair of scarlet embroidered trousers,” explained Wang.

By checking literature on images, and descriptions of these trousers from the period, they managed to complete the missing parts with the same color, materials and stitches.

“It took three to four of our conservators working for more than three months,” added Wang. And during that process, they had done tests and made sample trousers over and over again.

The cleaning and restoration must be done on the basis of not doing any harm to the historical heritage. But not all ancient textiles can be recovered to that extent however.

“Sometimes the stains on garments leave us with information of how the person died. For example a woman’s lower garment has been found steeped in blood because she might have died from an obstructed labor. In this case removal of the blood stains is both difficult and unnecessary,” Lou said.

In recent years, technology has also assisted in the process of preservation.

Solution containing fibroin, a type of protein present in silk, has been used to consolidate century-old silk textiles. Equipment, such as near-infrared spectrometer and X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, are introduced to analyze the texture and element composition of the textile without causing any damage.

In 2016, during the preservation of the buried clothes from a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) tomb in Zhejiang Province, conservators and researchers used a newly developed 3D scanner to take records of the excavated silk remains.

The system is equipped with 208 LED lights, 24 industrial cameras and seven computer terminals, allowing it to collect data on the textile’s shape and appearance that can then be used to construct digital three-dimensional models.

They have also established offices in Gansu Province, Xinjiang Uyghur, Tibet and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions, to help museums in these regions to develop their own team of textile conservation.

For conservators, the sheer joy of facing ancient textiles, day after day, comes from a moment when they turn back the clock and make it anew in their hands.

“One time, when I was sewing on a dragon robe, the bat on it was so vividly embroidered that in the end it seemed to come alive and fly away from it,” said Lou.

Special Reports