Abstracts - for Embellished Textiles: Interpretation and Care of Fine Needlework in Museums and Historic Houses - 12 June 2013

Abstracts 14.00 - 16.30

Miriam Ali-de-Unzaga, Visiting Scholar at the The Papyrus Museum, Vienna, The Material culture and History of Islamic Embellished Textiles at the Papyrus Museum in Vienna

After decades of research, the field of textiles has developed enormously. However, Islamic textiles and in particular Islamic embroideries remain largely understudied and unknown to the academic circles and the general public alike. Despite that embroidery was a widely spread activity in the Medieval Islamic world (for example, one scholar documented twenty-five different terms to classify embroideries), and that we count with important artistic and historical extant pieces, there are very few articles on the subject and to date only two publications have focused on Islamic embroideries.

A papyrus museum, (and the one of our story is part of the Austrian National Library) is not an obvious place where to go looking for Islamic embroideries, but knowing that the peculiar history of how the beginning of collecting Egyptian textiles (Late Antique and Early Islamic) is linked to that of collecting papyrus would help explaining such unusual textile collection. This paper illustrates the history and historiography of the Islamic embroideries of the Papyrus Museum, it also explores the peculiarities of 12  specific pieces, as well as problematizes the confusion in the sources between, embroideries and brocades.


Melissa Laird, Whitehouse Institute of Design, Australia,

Frailty And Passion:Threadwork for the Musée de Mort

The textile artefact can be linked with historical memory; the ephemera of daily life, or cloth protecting and adorning the fragile and sensuous body. The textile artefact can function in a number of ways; firstly as stimulus for research, then as a model for interpretation through art practice. Writing on the textile artefact, both vestigial and original, this paper articulates an approach to practice-led research through textile fragments of the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) and women’s needlecraft. This paper investigates the significance of the textile fragment read as a landscape, imbued with aesthetic qualities of the material and considerate of the aesthetics of damage, surface and dimension; hand-made markings, blemishes, abrasions and stitches; embellished adornments through threadwork. The fragments are examined for their value as material culture, their connection to time and place, economic histories and provenance. Further the textile fragments have been the source for an original artworks, demonstrated through an exhibition held at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum Sydney, Frailty: Threads (Laird 2009). Adapted to exterior sculpture, and placed in Sydney Necropolis (Rookwood Cemetery) Threads for the Sacred Space (2010) marks the life of Alice Fry, buried in the ‘Pauper’s Portion’ in 1867, Internment 119. Frailty and passion; threadwork for the Musée de Mort.

These artworks are emblematic of gendered work and lives of women. Developed from the fragmentary remains of cloth, lace and embroidery, they are a fusion of ancient symbols and modern methods, rendered as metaphors for love and death. Stitching is the dominant carrier of meaning in the work. Symbols associated with beginning and endings of stitches, the double knot and cross stitch, are subtly embedded in the works. On close inspection, the tails of threads, faintly rendered in gouache, can be seen gently lying in the borders, as if hastily left by the hands of the embroiderer; the page clothed in filigree.

The museum-exhibition spaces of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum and the Sydney Necropolis are considered through this paper as they embody the context and narrative of the textile fragments for a contemporary viewer. Where the quality of the sampler was said to be reminiscent of the hand of the embroider, so too this artwork is indicative of the hand of the printer; the patterns and textures pressed onto paper as an overtly physical presence of the artist’s hand; embroidery “the bearer of women’s soul” (R. Parker, 1996, p. 15).


Elizabeth McMahon,

From Jacobean Jewels to Crowd-Sourced Jackets:  A seventeenth-century luxury object, freed from storage, then reproduced and stored again...

Reproduction furniture has long been used in historic-house settings both as objects to fill in missing originals as well as to help young observers “feel” the impact of cushionless seats.  Walls are repainted, using historic lines of paint, carefully matched to original chips.  Curtains are remade, and replaced with as “true” a weave, color, texture as the budget will allow.  Textiles worn as clothing, however, tend not to be reproduced solely for the purposes of decorating an historic space.  Indeed, at many institutions, textiles and dress are still not considered up to the rigors of scholarly examination as their marble or satinwood brethren.  Reasons for this include the scholarly concern that clothed docents lend an air of “Disneyland” to a serious historic site.  However, the public continues to support museum attempts at translation of historical figures (real and imagined)  into personages standing in front of them.  Here I reference Plimoth Plantation, Williamsburg, and the work of the Tudor Tailor crew at the Historic Royal Palaces organization.  Even Cambridge scholar  David Starkey (or his production team) has made heavy use of reproduced clothes in his documentary The Six Wives of Henry VIII

This paper will examine similar objects highlighted in two case studies: the first, seventeenth-century garment fragments in the Irwin Untermyer collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which were recently highlighted in the Bard Graduate Center exhibition “Twixt Art & Nature: English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700” in early 2009 (New York, NY); and the Plimoth Jacket, which began as an attempt by a living-history museum, Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, MA, USA), to illustrate comparable luxury items across two very different cultures; and ended as a triumph of crowd-sourced labor and reconstructive-archaeology.  The evolution of the exhibitions I discuss  will allow me to touch briefly on three very different types of museums, with their varying points-of-view on the textile object:  The major metropolitan art museum, which sometimes trumpets its textile holdings and other times whispers them; the historic house, which may use them as illustrations to bring an image of the past into more tactile focus; and the living history museum, which depends on them to create the more-interactive sensory experience of recreation.

The embellished jackets produced in the later 16th and early-17th centuries were objects of  luxury that seem to have been available for purchase across a variety of social-class and price points.  Many related textiles reside throughout American collections, but of course, the V&A seems to have the premier collection of these items.  As a scholar involved with both projects,  I will use these objects to illustrate how embellished textiles focus many key museum issues onto their beautiful, “wrought” threads.


Emma Slocombe, National Trust, Knole,

A Grand Repository Reviewed

Knole is a unique piece of cultural heritage, celebrated for the scale and significance of its architecture, interiors and collections, notably the 17th century royal furniture acquired by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset as perquisites of his office as Lord Chamberlain in 1701. Famously described as ‘A grand repository of whatever has been pleasant at all times’ by Edmund Burke in 1791, it has long been regarded as a house where little has changed for centuries, its interiors and furnishings acquiring a melancholic beauty as they gradually fade over time. However, it is also a place facing significant conservation challenges. Leaking roofs, failing windows and poor wiring have all contributed to a place that is losing its battle with the elements. No heating in the showrooms leads to Relative Humidity levels about 80% for much of the year. In many places, patina has been replaced by mould and impacted dust and no where is this more apparent than on the collection of fragile and vulnerable embellished textiles.

Knole is now poised to undergo the most significant transformation in more than 300 years. Inspired by Knole is multimillion pound conservation project, the largest at the National Trust that will secure the future of the house and collections and create an onsite conservation studio and interpretation centre. It brings with it the chance to reappraise the history of textile display at Knole; to review approaches to the presentation of historic show rooms and show the furnishing textile collection in a new display context. The discovery of a previously unknown copy of the 1864 Knole inventory with annotations recording movements, losses and modifications to the upholstered furniture collection has prompted new appraisal of the accepted history of presentation. This paper will examine the level of intervention revealed in the inventory and how, used in conjunction with evidence from historic photographs, this shapes our understanding of 17th century embellished upholstery and its display at Knole, using the embroidery and trimmings of seat furniture and state beds as examples. It will also examine current thinking about the place of retirement and facsimile and creative approaches future preservation and presentation for visitors in the 21st century.


Dr Laura Ugolini

Room MC334

Tel: 01902 321890

Email: L.Ugolini@wlv.ac.uk