Caring for objects in museums is really important because it ensures they are preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Conservators at the Bowes Museum have spent the past 10 months painstakingly conserving and mounting 25 items of costume from the museum collection. These items are destined for display in the new Costume Gallery. In this series of blogs, we’ll be exploring in detail the specialist work they’ve undertaken.

 Court Mantua dress

The first dress we’re going to look at is the most bizarre type of dress ever worn! It’s called a Court Mantua and only married women could wear a dress like this to be presented at court for a specific occasion. Margery Jackson, a Carlisle character, possibly owned this dress but it’s unlikely she ever wore it! Dresses like these are very rare to survive because they were so impractical to wear! This example is very special because it’s complete, unaltered and in amazing condition. 

Before the conservators could start treating the dress, they condition checked it. This involved examining every part of the dress in detail checking for any problems.

 

The conservators took photographs of any problem areas and wrote up their findings in a report. They then outlined proposals for treatment covering methods, materials and the number of hours it would take. All their treatments are designed to be reversible. They sent their completed report to the museum for sign-off.

The conservators then started to treat the dress. Depending on the object’s condition this can take from a few hours to several hours. It took them 75 hours to treat the Court Mantua! The sheer size of the dress and the number of small repairs needed meant it took quite a long time to rectify.

But the Court Mantua’s in remarkably good condition considering it’s made from fragile silk woven with real silver thread, it’s been subjected to physical wear and it’s 270 years old!

On close inspection the conservators discovered that most of the damage was to the silver threads. These are woven into the silk to form the flowers and leaves which you can see on the bodice and skirt.

In places the silver threads had worked loose and were sticking out of the silk or were entangled or completely missing as you can see in this image.

The silver lace trimming was also tangled and distorted in places.  Some of the silver thread in the lace had unravelled and it was tarnished. Here you can see the silver lace trimming on one of the sleeves.

 

In this video the conservator is cleaning the silver lace with special conservation grade detergent to remove the tarnishing. They then rinse the lace with a small amount of water into blotting paper. While the lace is still wet they’re able to manipulate the lace more easily. Here you can see them opening out the distorted silver lace wire where it has become folded over. This whole process removes the tarnish from the surface of the silver lace and returns it to its original shape.

The conservators secured the loose silver threads throughout the blue silk with a special stitch called reverse couching. This is worked on the reverse and means the stitches are invisible on the front. They also cleaned the entire surface of the dress using a low powered conservation vacuum cleaner to remove dust. They used a covered nozzle to protect the surface of the dress. The conservators then used a conservation chemical sponge to clean the silk to remove soiling and to restore a slight sheen to the silk. They couldn’t remove some ingrained soiling which is to be expected in a dress of this age!  They also replaced stitching where it had come loose along seams. They copied the original stitches and were careful not to make any new stitch holes in the silk.

When the conservators finished treating the dress they sent the museum a fully illustrated report outlining their treatment methods and materials used. This report is invaluable to the museum as it will help inform the future care of this very special dress. 

The dress will be displayed in a custom-made airtight case in the new costume gallery. This will protect it from dust and changes in temperature and moisture in the air. Lighting will be kept low to prevent the silk from fading.

Once the conservation’s complete the Court Mantua can be mounted for display. In this image the conservators wear gloves to protect the fragile silk while they hold the bodice in place. They worked with a specialist mount maker who customised the clear acrylic mannequin visible underneath the dress. Here we can see it before it’s cut down to follow the neckline. This mannequin has a double benefit. It supports the inside of the bodice when on display but is completely invisible. This means the mannequin won’t distract from the dress when it’s on display.  

Here we can see the centre of the bodice which is a completely separate piece. It’s elaborately trimmed with silver lace and blue silk bows. It’s stitched in place to keep it secure for display. It’s edged on each side with a vertical strip of silver lace.