by Frances Hartog, Senior Textile Conservator
In the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection there is a core of 124 carpets that were on semi-open display for several decades in the Textile Study galleries. Many have a grey cast of surface soiling commonly found on textiles that have been exhibited uncased for several years and will require cleaning before redisplay. The common characteristics of rugs and carpets can make them daunting objects to wet clean because they are often large in size, measured in metres rather than centimetres, and relatively heavy in weight due to their three-dimensional structure. The knotted weave, composed of a base structure and vertical pile, can be made from both cellulose and protein fibres, sometimes in combination. Commonly they exhibit generations of repairs, often carried out with materials that have unstable dyes.
The condition, size, structure and history of each carpet has to be evaluated before undertaking a cleaning treatment. The most common method of wet cleaning, full immersion, requires significant amounts of space and time for both the washing and drying stages. As the work programme of the Textile Conservation Studio has become more ambitious, the availability of both these essential criteria has reduced. This posed the question of whether full immersion was necessary or even desirable and if not, was there an alternative method.
The V&A was awarded the 2016 Clothworkers’ Fellowship, which enables a senior conservator to pursue a research project that not only develops the conservator’s knowledge but also benefits the wider profession. The author’s one year research project to survey and evaluate the cleaning practices employed in museums and collections around the world on their historic and contemporary carpet collections began in November 2016 (Figure 1). Methods used by commercial restorers and dealers are also being explored. Particular attention will be paid to alternatives to complete immersion in water and to investigating the possibilities that portable cleaning appliances, such as those used for domestic carpets and upholstery, might offer.
The research falls into two parts. The first is to find out what methods are currently in use by contacting Textile conservation colleagues with rugs and carpets in their collections and asking if they wet clean them, and if they do, what methodology they use. Commercial facilities are also being approached and their protocols explored. The results will be evaluated to determine if there are more efficient immersion processes already in use.
The second part of the investigation is to carry out trials of any promising methodologies. Already, some tests have been undertaken using microfibre cloths and portable upholstery cleaning equipment. Where appropriate, trials on rugs in the collection are planned. Other tests will be carried out on non-collection carpets which have been externally sourced for this purpose as these will offer more comparable scale and soiling than ‘pre-soiled’ samples.
The aspiration is to develop practical protocols that can be adopted for future treatments. It is already evident there is no single solution but several possible options. By concentrating on the delivery and removal of the wash solution, it is hoped to settle on methods that are reasonably straightforward to implement. At the end of the Fellowship in November 2017, the findings will be drawn together and evaluated. A concise report of the results will be produced and shared with the textile conservation community.