In this post Vicky, one of our textile care volunteers, takes you behind the scenes…
The Whitworth has a small but dedicated team of textile care volunteers, who come to the gallery once a week to help the collections care team with the textiles collection. As the gallery is home to over 20,000 textiles, and with the busy exhibitions schedule demanding much of the staff’s time, volunteers are essential to improve the storage of the textiles. I have been a textile care volunteer for over two and a half years, and while it seems like slow work, the progress I have seen in this time is impressive. Here’s what a typical Wednesday volunteering looks like.
In the mornings, I work on some small projects with the collection. All of our work aims to improve how the collection is stored, so recently I have been assessing the lace and making sure it is stored in a way that is both best for the textile itself but also makes the best use of the space we have available. In most cases, textiles are best stored rolled, as this makes sure the tension put on the fabric is equally distributed, presses out any creases, and prevents warping. For the smaller textiles, it also means that rollers need to be built from Melinex (archival polyester film) and Tubegauze (knitted cotton tube bandages), which is a task in itself. Very small textiles are stored in Melinex sleeves, and any three-dimensional pieces are supported by acid-free tissue paper and then put on purpose-built trays to make sure that they can be stacked without putting any weight on the ones below.
The textile care team meet in the afternoons and pick up the larger, ongoing projects. We are coming to the end of two of these large projects – firstly, working on the larger printed textiles. Many of these pieces were prepared for display when they were acquired by the gallery by adding curtain tape and hemming the edges, and then rolled for storage. Not only does the bulk of the hems and tape put the fabric in danger of warping, but this is also not the preference when displaying fabrics anymore. We have been unpicking the hems and the tape, and re-rolling the fabric on a Melinex-covered roller, applying an even pressure which will prevent any warping in the future. This project has taken seventeen years, and Ann, the textiles conservator, is now finding it much harder to come across any fabrics left to be unpicked!
Our other ongoing project is the auditing of the boxed textiles. As pieces are taken out from their storage locations to be put in exhibitions, it is possible that the new location may not have been recorded. We have been looking through every box of textiles – there are around 200, and some contain this many items – to write a list of what is inside each one so that the entire collection can be accounted for. This information can be used to reassess how the collection is stored, leading to projects like my reassessment of the lace. Auditing also shows how varied the collection can be, with us opening boxes to find tapestry practice panels, detailed embroidery, and even ballet costumes.
After the official volunteering session has finished, we always end the day in the Whitworth Café for a cup of tea, a catch-up, and a Modern Caterer cookie. I’m looking forward to getting back to the gallery once it’s safe, but for now I’ll be sharing some of our auditing finds on Instagram @whitworthart in the coming weeks, so be sure to head over there if you’re interested!