Scotland’s first design museum to celebrate Ayrshire needlework

07 March 2018

A 180-year-old Ayrshire christening robe has been carefully cleaned by textile conservation experts ahead of being displayed in V&A Dundee.

The beautiful garment, believed to have been made in the 1840s, features an 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 for display in V&A Dundee.

It was specially chosen from the V&A’s collection by V&A curators in close collaboration with colleagues from Ayrshire museums who offered their expert knowledge of Ayrshire embroidery.

The cleaning process, which took several days to complete, began with vacuuming the robe to remove dust and loose dirt while checking for weak areas in the fabric. Instead of employing conventional cleaning techniques, staff in the V&A’s Textiles Conservation studio in London washed the garment in a shallow bath constructed on a specially designed table that can be tipped to drain the water away.

Deionised water was used to prevent leaving residues such as limescale and specially tailored detergents without the perfumes or brighteners found in commercial products were used.

To protect the historic muslin textile from tearing, the robe was sandwiched between large clear polyester sheets and turned over in the bath so both sides could be gently sponged to help remove soiling and stains.

After a lengthy rinsing process, it was blotted dry then stuffed with soft nylon netting to reshape it before being carefully dried with cold air from hairdryers.

Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Senior Textile Conservator at the V&A, said: “The robe was in very good structural condition but over the years had become yellowed, as the cotton aged. It was really improved by being washed and the fine white cotton now looks as clean, fresh and crease-free as it would originally have been intended to be for a baby’s christening.

“We are currently preparing a number of wonderful textiles so they are ready to be transported to Dundee and displayed in the Scottish Design Galleries.”

Ayrshire needlework, which saw embroiderers stitch unique designs on a microscopic scale, flourished during the first half of the 19th century.

The craft industry was powered by a female workforce who were employed by merchants and worked from their homes. Agents would deliver fabric and pick it up again when the needlework was complete.

Christening robes were often preserved as family heirlooms. Other popular items, which were sold in places like France, America and London, included bonnets and day dresses for babies.

Linda Fairlie and Bruce Morgan, Museums Officers at East Ayrshire Leisure, travelled to London to help choose which gown from the V&A collections should go on display in Dundee.

Linda Fairlie said: “We went through all of the robes in the V&A collections. We chose the three that best represented Ayrshire needlework and then came back for a second visit because it was quite tricky to decide between them.

“The thing that’s most distinctive about Ayrshire needlework is that the designs all derive from nature, and we chose the robe with the most aspects of this.

“There are very few gowns that can be tied back to the maker and we don’t know who would have made this christening robe. People would often work on a particular section of a garment, like the bodice, sleeves or wings, so it’s quite possible this robe was made by several different women.”

The christening robe will be transported to Dundee this summer before Scotland’s first design museum opens on 15 September.

It will be displayed in the museum’s Scottish Design Galleries which will include around 300 beautiful and innovative objects from the V&A’s collections and other lenders, representing a wide range of design disciplines from the decorative arts – including furniture, textiles, metalwork and ceramics – to fashion, architecture, engineering and digital design.

The galleries, which will be free to enter, will explore what is unique about Scotland’s design landscape, historically and today.