Restoration: an 8th Century Egyptian tunic
A V&A conservator undertakes a delicate restoration job
Hi, my name’s Elizabeth-Anne Haldane and I’m a textile conservator here at the Victoria and Albert museum. and I’ve been working on an Egyptian tunic for the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and it’s dated to around the eighth century.
So the tunic has this beautiful applied tapestry decoration, and at this time in the 8th century, they wove it separately and then stitched it on. And you can see the lovely thick cream linen stitches where it’s applied. And because there was quite a bit of damage to the back of the tunic, through the burial conditions, some of the tapestry decoration was lost.
When the museum purchased it, the front of the tunic had two large roundels on it, but there were no roundels on the back, but we know from all the original stichmarks that there should have been roundels there as well. And once I started examining it closely, it became quite obvious that the roundels on the front of the tunic were actually jigsawed together from lots of different pieces. So it looks like some of the roundels actually came from the back of the tunic. So that was something I think that the dealer did to make it much more attractive for sale, so it looked very nice from the front.
This is a photograph of the tunic before it was conserved, and you can see there’s lots of different patches all over the front of the tunic, and some of these patches actually turned out to be pieces of original tunic. So I had to take all of these off, and then I had to find out where they belonged so you can see if we come down to the end of the tunic, that these are some of the patches which I’ve been able to replace. So you can actually see that it was quite a bit longer than what we have here. And the really interesting thing about this patch is that it actually has a selvedge, which is the edge of the fabric, so that helps us to work out the size of the original object.
This photograph was taken in 1922 in the museum for our publication that year, and it’s a really good record of what the tunic looked like. So we can see the large composite roundels on the front, and they’re made from pieces, and you can also see these are the stitch lines visible here, so the tuck had been let down at that point, and the arms are actually just folded in, to fit in the photograph.
So obviously the original tunic is actually quite fragile still, and when it goes on display, it will be in a T-shaped format, a bit like this photograph. And because that’s not how it was worn, we really wanted to show the public how an Egyptian tunic was worn and so some replicas were commissioned by the Learning and Interpretation Department, and visitors will be able to try these on.
Stuart, who works in that deparment, is modelling one for us, and you can really see what a difference there is. And the neck which looks really small, actually fits really well… twirl around… and you see how beautifully it drapes.
Obviously it was a bit expensive to re-weave tapestry, so what we’ve done is we’ve taken photographs, and we’ve had the fabric digitally printed, so you really get an idea of how it looked. And this is particularly nice – the arms – because these big roundels, they just sit like giant shoulder pads. And then the actual sleeve here is really tight and snug, because that was one of the unusual things about the tunic, was that it was stitched in and it looked like it was a really narrow cuff, and we thought ‘is this correct?’, but actually it fits really well, and then this would just drape over it.
And there’s a little bit of breathing space underneath the arm – it’s open. And this is the tuck here, to the correct height. Stuart’s actually not quite tall enough for this tunic, because it should go to about the knee. So the original owner was actually quite a large man – quite tall.
But when it’s actually displayed in a gallery… if you stand with your arms out Stuart… it will actually look a bit more like this. But then when you put your arms down again you can just see what a difference it makes, but also how many folds this involves, and for a fragile tunic it would just be too much stress on the actual textile, which is why we have to display it without the folds.
This fragile 8th century Egyptian tunic was one of the thousands of exhibits to be restored and re-displayed when the V&A's Medieval and Renaissance Galleries opened to in December 2009. Here, Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Textile Conservator at the V&A, describes the conservation challenges involved. The film touches on the tunic’s history including its acquisition in the 1920s. It features a staff member from the V&A looking fetching in a tunic-replica, one of a set commissioned by the museum to give visitors a first-hand understanding of how this ancient textile looked and was made.