Conservation of a 12th-century textile
Conservation of a 12th-century textile

In our collection, for more than a hundred
years, we have fragments of the funerary robe and
mitre of King Henry VI who was a German King but who became King
of Sicily when he married the daughter of King Roger. This textile came to me because it’s planned
to be included in the Sicily exhibition They’re 12th Century textiles and they’re
part of his mitre which was worn on his head so you can see here a diagram of what the
headpiece would have looked like, there would of been a crown piece here and the two pieces dangling down the back and that’s what you can see here. It’s his funerary robe and mitre that were
actually found in his tomb that is still in the cathedral of Palermo but it was opened in the 18th century and as was very common then; the clothes,
the robes were taken out and were distributed among the most famous
collectors of the time. And after a while some of these pieces came
to the British Museum. It was in a very bad state, even when it came
to us it was already in a very bad state because it had been entombed for several centuries and through different conditions, moisture but also actual bodily fluids, it had been damaged quite a lot. So to do this exhibition gave us another opportunity
to re-conserve it So our conservators, especially Anna worked tirelessly to piece together the mitre
back again so that visitors can understand what it originally
looked like. We thought possibly at the beginning that it might just be a question of fairly
simple re-mounting. It was in quite an old, what we call a pressure
mount before which means that it was lying on this board and a piece of perspex was on top and the perspex was clipped around the sides
and it held it in place. Although it hadn’t held it that well because
the small pieces had moved around, as you can see it’s in quite a poor condition. So what I had to do was have a look at this
textile, think about re-mounting and actually as I was examining it I realised
that the pieces were in the wrong position so we’ve got this central ribbon which runs
down the length of the lappets… which have alternating lions and eagles inside
the roundels. and actually, they don’t alternate as it is
at the moment. So what this has turned into has been a question
of me really examining what remains and trying to figure out where the pieces
actually go. What it represents is the art of textile that
emerged on Sicily. Sicily was very famous for embroidery during
the Arab period, but when the Normans conquered it they wanted
to become more successful in it so Roger actually kidnapped, lets say imported
Byzantine weavers to the island, so from that moment onwards, they could weave
their own textiles. What the fragment of the robe actually represents is this combination of styles that we then
start finding on the island. The actual decoration pattern, which is a very repetitive pattern of different
animals is very Western, it’s Byzantine and Western. But the actual embroidery style and even the
weaving style is still very Islamic, so its that combination of styles that emerges
on Sicily. I’ve spent a lot of time looking through the
microscope to try and see any features that can help
me show the positioning of the different pieces when I reposition them. So for example stitch holes, any stitching. So what I did was photograph the textile, almost blown up to the proper size, so that
I could use those images. So what I was able to do with my photocopies
was cut them up, I’ve taken out the bits that I think are possibly
in the wrong position and moved them around and worked out where
they go. Having worked out the new position of all
the fragments according to my diagrams, I made a fabric covered board, and very carefully transferred the pieces
on to the new board into the position that they should in fact
be in. It was a difficult process because obviously
the pieces are extremely fragile. So the way that I am going to secure these
on to the board so that they can then be put on display safely is to use nylon net over the top of the fragments. And what we do is dye the nylon net to the
colour we need and lay it over the top. And I can stitch all around the fragment and
it holds it in place and doesn’t actually mean I’ve stitched into
the fragment at all. and it’s a very reversible way of securing
a textile which has got lots of holes in it. And once the nylon net is secured over the
top of the fragments, you don’t really see the net, but you do see
the textile beneath.

16 thoughts on “Conservation of a 12th-century textile”

  1. rubadux says:

    Interestingly, a king (a layman, though annointed and chosen for his office "by God's grace") would be entombed wearing not a crown but a mitre, not secular at all, but usually a headgear designating higher church prelates.

  2. Critter T says:

    Thank you all for saving history 🎈

  3. mimanda says:

    I like how the context and history was given

  4. Kelly White says:

    I wonder if they will go on to try to reproduce the textile to show how it would look when it was new.

  5. Helen Myers says:

    Many thanks – fascinating to see you at work and to hear how passionate you all are about your work.

  6. pyewacket 5 says:

    I embroidered a Sassainian Senmurv once. It was in a roundel. I'm a decorative arts nerd…

  7. NelliNightshade says:

    wow. yet more history preserved. the weaving and embroidery is just spectacular.

  8. Ed E says:

    Ana looks as bored as I feel. Sorry.

  9. Oliver says:

    Is this stolen

  10. fododude says:

    Fabric from the 12th CENTURY?? I tried to preserve my Star Wars shirt from the seventies. No dice.

  11. Christine Cameron says:

    DEAR BRITISH MUSEUM: Please please please pretty please with a cherry on top, can you guys have 1 of these made today using historical methods, and put out a video?? it would be a wonderful reference piece, and a pretty cool project for some historical fabrics expert to make.

  12. AngeLife says:

    Before and after comparison photos, please!

  13. LizMcNamara47 says:

    Is there no transparent netting available? I felt the dyed netting obscured the detail slightly.

  14. Ursa Minor says:

    Grave robbers

  15. psammiad says:

    Slight confusion – he was actually Henry I of Sicily, more commonly called the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. By his grave goods being "distributed to collectors", they tactfully mean shamelessly grave-robbed and sold to the highest bidder!

  16. Mycel says:

    uhm… I do see the mosquito screen. it's coarser than the textile on display. why didn't they put it under glass or perspex again, and simply use a softer backing to distribute the pressure better and hold the small pieces in position?

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