Hand wash only: caring for Ayrshire needlework

A 180-year-old Ayrshire christening robe was carefully cleaned by textile conservation experts before its display in our Scottish Design Galleries.

Ayrshire needlework flourished during the first half of the 19th century and saw embroiderers stitch unique designs on a microscopic scale. With designs distinctively derived from nature, Ayrshire christening robes were often preserved as family heirlooms. Other popular items included bonnets and day dresses for babies and were sold across the world.

This beautiful garment is believed to have been made in the 1840s. It features a characteristically intricate hand-embroidered design of trailing stems bearing flowers and leaves and is coming out of storage for the first time in more than 50 years to go on display in our Scottish Design Galleries. It was specially chosen from the V&A’s collection by a collaboration between V&A curators and colleagues from Ayrshire museums, who offered their expert knowledge of Ayrshire embroidery.

Ayrshire needlework is distinguished by intricate needlepoint lace infills, frequently arranged within small, wheel-shaped, floral perforations. The craft was often referred to as ‘floo’erin’. The infills allowed the embroiderer creative freedom on a microscopic scale, with each infill having the uniqueness we might associate with a snowflake.

This craft industry was powered by a female workforce. The women were employed by merchants and worked from their homes, with agents delivering the fabric and then picking it up again when the needlework was finished. Very few gowns can be tied back to their maker and people would often work on a particular section of a garment, like the bodice, sleeves or wings. We don’t know who would have made this particular robe, but it was likely made by several different women.

Since you can’t just pop a 180-year-old needlework in the washing machine with your delicates, the recent cleaning process took several days to complete. The robe was in very good structural condition but over the years had become yellowed, as the cotton aged.

Staff in the V&A’s Textiles Conservation studio in London began by vacuuming the robe, removing dust and loose dirt, while checking for weak areas in the fabric. Then it was washed using deionised water (to prevent issues like limescale) and specially tailored detergents (without perfumes or brighteners found in commercial products). This was carried out in a shallow bath on a special table that can be tipped to drain the water away.

The fine cotton fabric becomes increasingly vulnerable when wet and heavy, so to prevent it from tearing, the robe was sandwiched between large polyester sheets to turn it over in the bath. After a four-hour rinsing process (the gathered fabric is rather good at retaining detergent), the robe was blotted dry and stuffed with soft nylon netting to reshape it before being carefully dried with cold air from hairdryers.

The beautiful Ayrshire christening robe looks even better now; the fine white cotton looks as clean, fresh and crease-free as it would originally have been intended to be for a baby’s christening. We can't wait for you to see it in our Scottish Design Galleries when we open on 15 September!

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