Collection Care Diaries: A 17 Year Volunteer Project Comes to an End

This week Vicky is looking at a volunteer project with our textiles collection, which after many years and the contributions of many more volunteers, is coming to an end!

The Whitworth has a sizeable collection of printed textiles from the mid to late-twentieth century. Since our current Collections Manager and Textile Conservator, Ann French, joined the Whitworth in 2002, she has led a volunteer project to improve the storage of the rolled textiles. Before I worked for the Whitworth, I volunteered on this project from 2017, and I am very happy to say that it is now, finally, wonderfully and nearly complete.

The textiles in their storage conditions from before the volunteer project began.

Textiles are best stored rolled, as this minimises strain on the fibres and prevents any creasing. However, standard practice at The Whitworth from the latter half of the twentieth century was to turn in and machine hem the sides, and add curtain tape to the top of the fabric before rolling. This was so the fabrics were ready for display. Unfortunately, over time, this added bulk at the sides and the top causes the fabric to distort. The rollers available for the fabric at the time were uncovered cardboard, which will, over time, release an acidic gas as they break down, which can damage the fabrics. We now have Melinex, a polyester archival film, on hand to cover the cardboard rollers, creating a barrier to protect the fabric. The beneficial action to take, for the longevity of the collection, was to unpick all these hems and re-roll the fabrics onto Melinex-covered rollers.

The selvedge, showing the seam that needs to be unpicked. Stalactite, Zandra Rhodes, 1964 (T.11237).

Unpicking the seams of over 2500 pieces of fabric, some many metres long, was slow work. A group of volunteers met, on average, weekly from 2003 until 2020, steadily working away and completing a few pieces each week. Many faces have come and gone over this time, but every contribution has made a lasting change to the collection. Care must be taken not to damage the fabric itself when unpicking the seams. In the above photograph you can see the information printed onto the selvedge of the fabric. Current display preference is to make this information visible, so these seams will not need to be sewn again to put these fabrics on display, a welcome relief for all those who have worked on this project over the years!

Rollers ready for storage.

Once unpicked, the textiles are rolled onto Melinex-covered rollers. Neatly rolling a long textile can take some skill, so it has been a point of pride for many a volunteer when weeks of practice leads to a perfectly rolled textile. Another piece of Melinex is then rolled around the textile to protect from any dust, a label added, and it is ready for storage.

The current storage of the rolled textiles.

The Whitworth’s redevelopment in 2015 included the creation of new object stores, with purpose-built storage inside. The textiles are, most importantly, stored in a way which will not cause them any damage, but they are also much easier and safer to access.

Louise working on a new project.

Louise, who has volunteered on the project since 2017, has found the process of unpicking the textiles to be fascinating and absorbing. The act of unpicking itself can be like meditation, a calming way to channel your thoughts, but it is combined with the excitement of seeing which textiles we would be working on each week. The opportunity to volunteer in a field that is so different from her working life has been a joy for Louise, as it has allowed her to rediscover a love of textiles that she has had from an early age. Her favourite textile to work on, pictured below, was the last she had before volunteering ceased for lockdown in 2020.

Louise’s favourite textile of those she’s worked on: Strawberry Thief, William Morris, 1883 (T.11727.1)

Late last year, our textile care volunteers returned to the gallery with many more projects to work on! The work of collections care is ongoing, there are always improvements to be made, and volunteers are a huge aid in getting this work done.

If you are interested in volunteering at the Whitworth, please register your interest here:

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