Shades of Grey

I have to admit that many of the tasks I most enjoy are those which necessitate bringing together a number of museum objects in the same space. Placed together, objects seem to become more ‘alive’ as their various colours and textures draw out and highlight a range of different qualities in each other. So this week I was happy to visit the Conservation studios to discuss fabric swatches in relation to a number of our textile objects.

Textile objects in the galleries will be mounted and displayed in a number of different ways. A large number of them will be stitched to lightly padded fabric covered archival boards for display. This method of mounting provides the textile with good all over support and makes it much safer to handle.  Each of these boards will be covered with a conservation-grade fabric and it was the specific colour of this fabric that we met to discuss. To make accurate and informed decisions on fabric colours, it is of course important for us to view and compare them directly alongside the actual objects.

A selection of textiles which will be mounted on boards for display in the galleries

The presence of this display fabric will not be very prominent, but will be unavoidably visible where the edges of objects meet the boards. We want to anticipate and control the effects that it may have when viewed adjacent to various objects. Crucially we want to avoid the colour of the display fabric having a ‘deadening’ or dulling effect on the colour of any of the objects or to distract visitors’ attention away from the object.

In this session we experimented with swatches in different shades of grey. To retain a sense of unity throughout the galleries, we aim to avoid using numerous different shades of fabric and instead work with a small select palette. We looked to see which shade was the most effective for the majority of the objects and to identify any problems with specific objects.

18th century silk and 21st century swatches

18th century silks and 21st century swatches

For some objects, attention needs to be given to how visible the fabric will be through the object. This applies to textiles which are particularly pale, thin, or have a low thread-count. Most obviously, this includes pieces of lace.

lace on grey

Two swatches viewed through linen canvas

The difference in effect created by two different shades of grey behind the linen canvas of this 18th-century unfinished embroidery panel was more distinct than perhaps expected. The dark swatch (on the right) not only makes the gaps in the weave more obvious, it also makes the inked design on the surface appear more distinct.

Silk containing metallic threads alongside two swatches

The ‘success’ of the darker grey was not universal however. Tarnishing of metallic threads in this 18th-century French silk (above) appeared more apparent when alongside the darker shade. In contrast, the lighter grey helped to draw out the light, reflective qualities of the metallic threads.

In other cases, a preference of shade was not immediately obvious. With its variety of colours and slight discolouring, this handkerchief could work quite comfortably alongside either shade of grey. Although, when viewed as a whole, it was felt that the use of very dark colouring in the centre of the design resulted in the paler grey working more successfully.

Curators and conservators discussing possibilities