When I first discussed potential conservation treatment projects as part of my six-month placement in the Textile Conservation Studio at the V&A, I expressed a desire to work on costume as well as Indian textiles. They have such a rich and diverse place, not only within the V&A collection but textile history more broadly. The seven-piece 19th-century court ensemble from Jodhpur (introduced here) – consisting of a jama (skirted robe), kurta (tunic), paijamas (drawstring trousers), kamarband (waist sash), turban, lapeta (decorative turban band), and beard cloth – certainly fulfilled both of those goals, while posing unique and exciting conservation challenges.
The jama and its accessories came into the textile conservation studio in fair condition, but I immediately knew the spattered dye pattern and the quantity of fabric used in the jama would make its treatment particularly challenging. For example, just measuring the circumference of the jama skirt took approximately five hours: it consists of 352 panels, or gores, and measures 92.2 meters at the hem. For reference, that is about the length of a football field!
All of the pieces were creased from their time in storage. The turban, beard cloth and bodice of the jama, were yellowed and grimy. Additionally, the gota (tinsel ribbon) that was used to decorate the jama, paijamas, kamarband and lapeta was heavily tarnished and frayed.
The conservation treatment began with surface vacuuming. This is a common first step in textile conservation to remove loose surface soiling. Again, the voluminous skirt of the jama and the long lengths of fabric that comprise the kamarband (6 meters) and the turban (3.6 meters) meant that this was not a quick task!
Once surface cleaned, I wet cleaned the wrapping of the turban, the sleeves of the jama, and the beard cloth. While wet cleaning is a high-risk conservation intervention, it was deemed necessary to reduce the disfiguring grime on these elements to make the ensemble suitable for display. However, the construction of the pieces and the sensitivity of the red spattered dye meant I could not submerge them. Instead, I methodically cleaned them on a suction table, which allows for controlled quantities of cleaning solution to be pulled through the textile without causing dye bleed. The suction from the table, combined with the cleaning solution, pulls the surface soiling away from the textile. This cleaning method also allowed for controlled crease removal.
Following cleaning, slight crease reduction, and stitched stabilisation of minor tears in the jama and paijama, I began treating the gota. Working with the museum’s Scientific Analysis Department, we analysed the ribbons, as well as the metal thread embroideries found on the skirt of the jama using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. This technique is nondestructive and allows for rapid identification of metallic elements. The gota was found to be a copper/silver alloy. This combination yields the gold color seen on the jama, but is more flexible, cheaper – and lighter – than real gold. The silver, however, is still prone to tarnishing, which was visible on much of the gota. I reduced it using cosmetic sponges and polyvinyl erasers, both tested and approved for conservation use on metals. I then encased the frayed ribbons with dyed nylon bobbinet, stitched in place. This method is not visually distracting and is easily reversed, but provides much needed support. Due to the extensive damage to the gota and the difficulty of this task (imagine combing tinsel!), this proved to be one of the longest steps in the ensemble’s conservation. In total, I stabilised over 8 meters of gota.
The ensemble was then ready to be mounted! The aim was to display the ensemble in its entirety, with the exception of the kurta. Due to the weight of the jama’s skirt, it is attached to the mannequin using Velcro, and the kurta (which would not be visible anyway) would come between the jama and the Velcro support system. To further support the weight of the skirt, which over time would pull on the bodice of the jama, creating distortions and even tears, I fully lined the bodice using a custom Stabiltex lining. Stabiltex, a nonwoven polyester, is incredibly sheer but strong. I made a pattern of the bodice and then cut the pieces from Stabiltex using a heat tool to prevent fraying. Once assembled, it was stitched to the waistband of the jama.
I then mounted the lined jama on a custom-padded mannequin with the paijamas, the turban and lapeta, and the kamarband. Working with curators and drawing from historic illustrations of similar garments being worn, I wrapped and tied the turban and lapeta and kamarband.
Trying to find the appropriate tension without causing damage to the historic textiles required a careful balance, as well as some hidden supports and magnets. The finished result is incredibly striking! Together, this ensemble is stunning. While we have no images of its original owner wearing it, by having it conserved and mounted, we have a much greater understanding of its impact. I have learned immensely in the process.