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Study tour of Swedish textile conservation studios

As a textile conservator within the Department, I had the opportunity to visit Sweden for a six week tour studying techniques of practical textile conservation and related methods for the care of collections. For much of this time I was working with the conservators at the LSH Textilkonservering studio which serves three collections: Livrustkammaren (the Royal Armoury), Skoklosters Slott and Hallwylska Museet. I also made shorter visits to some twenty other studios and collections.

Perhaps one should not generalise individual studio concepts into national trends, but there are inevitably patterns of thinking which naturally evolve from tradition by close geographical contact through exchange of ideas, shared training, and interchange of staff. The purpose of a study tour is not only to learn about these ways of thinking but to recognise reasons for such trends in one's own country and, by creating an international dialogue, to broaden the resources of ideas and expertise of all concerned.

At the moment in Britain there is a wish to further the professional development of textile conservation and to review many of the treatments currently used. In Sweden I found many of the same questions being asked.

Methods of minimal intervention

The move everywhere is to minimise treatment and where possible to use non-intrusive means. The strong philosophy and practice is that treatment and display methods should be chosen according to the condition of the object concerned.

In the past in Sweden it was common practice to wash most types of textile, often taking the object apart to do so, thus losing original stitching and sometimes dimension and, as a result, information was also lost. For some time, doubts about the overall advantages of wet-cleaning have been felt. Vacuum-cleaning is now regarded as the primary method of cleaning. Humidification is often considered, as the method of laying-out and relaxing a textile, is more sympathetic than washing, which can flatten the surface of the fibre or open up the loose ends of yarn around broken areas.

When wet-cleaning is employed, the selection and reason for choice of type of water and detergent vary. Some Swedish conservators think that deionised water is too aggressive, creating potential movement of dyes. Softened water can be used in its place but for fragile silk distilled water would be considered more gentle. Very often tap water (which is soft in Stockholm and Goteborg, harder in Malmo) is the preferred choice though there is some concern about its unknown and variable composition.

Until recently the non-ionic detergent Synperonic N was used widely in Sweden but it is no longer imported from Britain because of environmental considerations. A range of detergents, non-ionic and anionic, are being tried at many of the studios. These are from Nobel Industries, Sweden (UK Office, 23 Grosvenor Road, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, ALI 3AW). They are biodegradable: care for the environment is a consideration in the choice.

Fabrics and threads chosen for stitched support are of natural fibres. Polyester Stabiltex is the favoured substrate for adhesive laminating and sometimes is chosen as a covering for textile furnishings, taking into consideration the more exposed conditions of open display. Acid and metal-complex dyes are still used on silk and wool but dissatisfaction has long been felt with the wet-fastness and light-fastness of direct dyes on cellulose fibre. Vat and reactive dyes are being tested as alternatives.

In many studios the adhesive technique would not be considered as a method of support but elsewhere it is seen as a valuable alternative and complement to stitching. The adhesive still most used is the thermoplastic poly (vinyl acetate) emulsion Mowilith DMC2, although its continuing use is under review because of the unknown long-term effects of added stabilisers and plasticisers and the possibility of eventual acidity. Interest is being expressed in the acrylic dispersions Lascaux 360HV and 498HV which are water miscible and can be used at temperatures between 40°C and 70°C. Low pressure is employed in the adhesion process; between 40 and 70 millibars gauge, usually 50.

The storage of collections is most often administered and maintained by the conservator with collaboration from the curator. By creating a clean and stable environment, the amount of packaging and wrapping required is reduced and by providing the objects with easily accessible, viewable location and moveable support, the need for handling is minimised to the benefit of textile and conservator alike. Cotton gloves are always worn when handling historic textiles in store and during extensive practical conservation. This prevents transfer of natural oils from the hands to the textile and possible combining of salts present in perspiration causing change in dyestuffs.

The role of the conservator

Only one of the textile studios visited is run totally privately and here the effects of a recession in the Swedish economy are beginning to be felt. Elsewhere funding is far less generous than has been known in the past. At some studios the cost of caring for a particular collection is supplemented by work done for other museums and institutions or private individuals.

The work of the conservator in Sweden today, at institution or private studio alike, encompasses all aspects of practical work and documentation followed through to display and storage. He/she also has a role in the much wider concept of the preservation of cultural heritage of the country. At all the studios and collections visited, daily meetings of staff were held over morning coffee. Discussions about aspects of museology and policies for collections involve all personnel from different departments. Views about conditions of employment can also be aired and openness makes for a better working environment.

The well-being of the conservator is as important as the well-being of the object. The work is part of the day, the day is part of the life. Conservation is a holisticphilosophy.


The tour was funded by the Friends of the V&A Museum, the Swedish Institute, the Conservation Department of the V&A, The British Council, The Conservation Unit and the Swedish Embassy, to all of whom gratitude is due.