Textile conservation is the poor cousin of conservation works, more so in India. Yet, it is of immense importance. Conservation of old and ancient textiles - be it clothing or anything - cannot be achieved by simply putting moth balls and hoping that they will weather the ravages of time. Lack of awareness in India
This type of restoration, like any other, is a precise science. But unlike in the west, in India, it is given little importance. Restoration of historical textiles is specialised science, and is given a lot of importance in the west. There are courses and state-of-the-art studios where these can be done.
But India lacks these. Specialized Textile Conservation Unit (STCU), run by the Indian Council for Conservation Institutes at its Delhi Centre, is one of the few places in the country which has a proper setup to care for and preserve the vast textile heritage of India. It is equipped with specialised gear like infrared and ultraviolet light, magnifying glasses that bring into focus the tiniest detail, surgical needles that can sew the finest silk, pipettes to measure dyes, nebulizers, etc.
STCU conducts intensive workshops for training on how to restore different types of textiles – saris, shawls, textile artefacts, temple hangings, etc. One can also pick up important tips by visiting STCU.
Textile restored by STCU
Some of the basic skills every textile conservator needs are…
• Aptitude for working hands-on with delicate historic materials
• Excellent sewing skills and eyesight (or vision correction)
• Comprehensive understanding of textile structures and techniques
• Interest in textile history, costume history and art history
• At least a basic understanding of organic chemistry
• Clear, descriptive writing skills
• Patience, concentration and curiosity
Poster of the film Guide on cloth restored by STCU
Restoration at Victoria
Hence, the recent initiative by Victoria Memorial to bring in an expert from England to restore its sizeable number of historical textile exhibits and train people in the science deserves kudos.
Janie Lightfoot is a renowned textile conservator who has worked extensively around the world. She has her own studio, Janie Lightfoot Textiles, in London. Her latest project was to restore the textile exhibits at Victoria Memorial. According to Janie, most of the textiles were covered in layers of dust, blackened and almost brittle. It was tough, as, forget a proper studio, most of the materials for conservation are not available here. Also, there was no one who could help her, as this is a completely new thing in this part of the country.
Textile conservator Janie Lightfoot at work (centre, lady with blond hair)
However, the enthusiasm of the volunteers to learn something new made up for the lack of training. The volunteers comprised personnel from different departments of the Victoria Memorial Museum. Innovative thinking got most of the work done. Improvisations were the order of the day. Suitable substitutes for the things which are normally used for conservation were acquired and used.
Among the items restored by Janie and her team were a black suit (achkan
) of Tantia Tope and a turban of Maharaja Nanda Kumar. Learning on the job, the volunteers accomplished the highly specialised work commendably.
Janie was quite impressed by the efforts taken by the Victoria Memorial authorities to bring in experts to restore the not-insubstantial textile collection. She said that reviving any ancient textile from the ravages of climate, light, insects, microorganisms, improper storage and general wear and tear is often a matter of miracle. She also admitted that textile conservation, generally, is often given less importance, unlike other forms of conservation, like of buildings, objects, etc.
Some tips on conserving textiles in your homes:
preserving brocades and silk-saris, avoid naphthalene balls -- they give
out a noxious gas. Use dried neem leaves instead.
should not be displayed without a padded hanger, and the display
cabinets should not be padded with foam since that too releases a
- Pashmina should not be put under the sun for a
whole day since ultraviolet rays will bleach the delicate threads of
silk and wool and decolourise the garment.
Restoration of Thangka painting on at the renowned The Field Museum in Chicago