by Keira Miller, Senior Textile Conservation Display Specialist, and Jo Dickinson, Museum Technician
Most people think of world-renowned Scottish textiles as tweeds, tartans, and knitwear. While each of these are handsomely represented in V&A Dundee’s new Scottish Design Galleries, this article will focus on a somewhat stretchier and slightly more cutting-edge example of Scottish textile innovation, which brought with it a unique display challenge – especially since none of us are experts in the world of elite speed cycling.
Cycling apparel company Endura was established in Scotland in 1993. From their premises in Livingston, this team of cycling devotees now stands among the world leaders in elite, performance-maximising cycling attire. In the Scottish Design Galleries of V&A Dundee, Endura is represented by the pinnacle of their recent achievements: a replica of the skinsuit worn by British cyclist Alex Dowsett during his 2015 attempt to beat the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Hour Record. For the non-cyclists still reading, the aim of the Hour Record is simple – the rider must ride as far as they can in an hour. Travelling a distance of 52.937 kilometres, and beating the previous record of 52.491 kilometres, Dowsett achieved the Hour Record in May 2015. While subsequent attempts at the record have seen bigger distances achieved between new records, Dowsett’s triumph demonstrates that even small advances make a difference in bids for this title. With around 80 percent of aerodynamic drag coming from a cyclist’s body, cycling attire can have extraordinary effects, and at this elite level, every element is subjected to extreme levels of micro-engineering.
In perfecting this high-stretch elastomeric skinsuit, Endura created and tested 57 versions before achieving the aerodynamic efficiency they desired in wind-tunnel tests. As Dowsett’s need to train conflicted with a need to refine the suit, Endura created a three-dimensional scan of his body in his cycling position, facilitating the printing of a three-dimensional figure – leaving the original Dowsett free to train while testing continued1.
Being so intrinsically linked to a specific physique and body position, the garment that emerged from this research and development was unlike any the V&A conservation team had encountered before. Early display discussions hinged on the likelihood of placing a bike in the showcase, ridden by a commercially-sourced cycling mannequin. With three other figures to install in the same case, it soon transpired that there was insufficient space for a bike. Nor was there room for limbs extending beyond the confines of the garment. The brief, therefore, was to create a fully cut-away and light-weight figure that captured the essence of elite speed cycling without reliance on supplementary props or visuals. With a discreet mounting system, it was anticipated that the figure could be positioned as if riding an invisible bike.
Without access to Endura’s handy Dowsett replica, we had to start from scratch to create this bespoke body. Viewing the garment on an upright figure confirmed that standard fashion mannequins lacked the essential qualities of an elite cyclist. It was abundantly clear that the skinsuit’s cut and construction was contoured to follow an aerodynamic cycling posture (Figure 1). In short, we needed to make our own bespoke cyclist, with a pose that conformed to these specific contours without over stretching the elastomeric fabric.
Fosshape, an inert thermoplastic non-woven polyester textile2, has become widely used over the last 10 years, gaining an enthusiastic following in the textile display world and leading to numerous innovations, from suspended cut-away figures3 to spectacularly posed limbs4. Light-weight, mouldable, and easily manipulated, it was the obvious choice for sculpting this new figure. Using the upright mannequin shown in Figure 1 as the basic mould, the curvature of the body and the flexion and extension in the limbs was achieved by assembling multiple overlapping Fosshape casts, each cut to shape, manipulated to attain the pose and fixed with a combination of heavy stitching and hot-melt glue (Figure 2).
While the final pose was determined by reference images of Dowsett’s Hour Record, the sculpting process relied on an element of trial and error. One concern during the process was whether using fragmentary pieces might reduce overall cohesion and stability of the figure. In practice, it was this close lamination of overlapping layers that helped attain the rigidity required. Once the pose had been achieved, the overall firmness of the form was improved through stuffing with polyester wadding without excessively adding to the weight. The smooth finish of the form was achieved by applying a fine layer of polyester wadding to the outer surface, below a layer of smooth stretch nylon.
Discussions about suitable wall mounting systems evolved alongside the production of the Fosshape form. It was necessary to regularly evaluate the strength of the form and its ability to maintain both shape and position without distorting under its own weight. Since additional strengthening elements would increase the weight of the mannequin, and therefore the scale of the mounting system, the aim was to create a sufficiently rigid form that only minimal fixings were required, at the neck and back leg of the figure.
This was achieved using shaped steel bars on the inside surface of the form, aligned to equivalent brass strips positioned on the outer surface. Screwing these plates together through corresponding holes sandwiched the Fosshape wall and prevented it from tearing. A fine steel rod, screwed in position where the steel bar projected from the form, extended away from the figure to sit over a pin projecting from the display wall (Figure 3).
The resulting figure, now on display at V&A Dundee, is unquestionably recognisable as a cyclist on a bike, without a bike (Figure 4). For the team at V&A South Kensington, this project represents a significant advance in Fosshape innovation, alongside an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of elite high-performance textiles.
Our thanks to Andy Monks for the support and expertise he lent to this endeavour, and to the V&A Dundee team for laying down this challenge and watching it evolve.
- Alex Dowsett’, https://stories.endurasport.com/alex-dowsett, accessed June 2019.
- Charlotte Gamper, Dr Ian Gibb and Emma Henni, ‘Keeping in Shape” An Investigation into the Suitability of using Fosshape™ for Costume Storage Mounts at Historic Royal Palaces, Material in Motion 10th NATCC Conservation Conference Postprints, New York, 2015.
- Maggie Dobbie, ‘Another Mannequin-Making Method’, ICON News, Issue 52, 2014, p.30-32.
- Lara Flecker and Rachael Lee, ‘Out on a Limb: the Fosshape revolution’, V&A Conservation Journal, No. 64, 2018, p.8-9.