Putting the bling back together: a recipe for conservation
Crafted by artisans, this lavish coatee was worn by Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister. Passed down to Barton’s granddaughter and then through her family, the coatee arrived at the museum in 2014, one hundred and two years after its creation. The coatee was in fragile condition and underwent a conservation treatment, and is now on display in the exhibition Dress Code: Empire. Gain an insight into the fascinating conservation process by following the conservator’s seven steps below.
One: Yes, it’s a mess!
The coatee was not in good condition. Particularly on the inside. Look at it: the silk lining is shattered, there’s losses at the centre back, and someone’s spilt their bottle of red ink … what a panicked moment that would have been! We don’t know exactly when the ink was splashed, but Barton would have used red ink to make amendments to various documents in his position as prime minister and in his role as a High Court justice.
After acquiring the coatee, collections staff quickly determined that conservation work was required to prevent further deterioration. Enter: a huge dose of TLC by an expert textile ‘doctor’, conservator Deb Spoehr.
Conservators undertake treatments that preserve significance, and ensure long-term preservation. Conservation work can also help unravel some of the stories bound up in the materiality of the object.
The coatee is somewhat like an archeological site, holding layers of clues (and some secrets) which can be gently unraveled through careful observation and research.
Two: Planning treatment
How to treat such a fragile garment? Gently of course … but seriously, to make the garment safe to handle, exhibit, and store, hours of work were required. The conservation approach selected for the coatee is called sewn encasement. This technique does not require the conservator to dismantle the garment, and is well suited to garments with a layered construction, like the coatee. The coatee is held together with a combination of interfacing stiffeners (linen, wool and cotton), cotton flock padding and animal glue on hessian.
Deb’s first step was to unpick the edges of the shattered silk lining to gain access to both sides of the silk. A layer of fine silk tulle was placed on either side of the damaged silk lining and the silk was gently manipulated into position and pinned in place between the two layers of tulle.
You’ll notice the pins in use are not typical dressmaker’s tools – they are entomological pins (used by insect collectors). The pins are used for their very fine point, which minimizes the incision in the fabric, and are made of high quality stainless steel so they don’t corrode.
Three: Skilled stitching, on repeat
Once pinned in place the painstaking process of stitch, stitch, stitching began. Many hours were spent manipulating the shattered lining into place, pinning, and then hand sewing around each fragment (not through it). Interestingly the damage to the lining was likely to have been a delayed result of the bleach used in the fabric manufacturing process. The silk was bleached to achieve the desired off-white colour. Wear and tear from use almost certainly contributed to the deterioration. In particular, the split at the centre back was likely to have been caused by ill-fit. Perhaps the coat was a little tight for Barton, who was not a small man.
Four: A form emerging
Slowly the lining is pieced back together and the garment begins to take shape. The tulle securely holds all of the original fabric in place while strengthening the overall lining and it is visually subtle – the tiny perforated holes of the tulle are somewhat like a spider web and almost invisible!
Five: Let’s consider aesthetics
The bling on the outside of the coatee shouts: Power! Prestige! Authority! Looking great is a central part of the message of the coatee. Conserving the jacket involved keeping the shattered silk, but also revealing just how splendid the lining originally appeared.
Enter: The humble cuppa (sans milk). Deb used different types and concentrations of tea to dye swatches of silk, which she then matched against the buttery off-white colour of the original lining.
Six: The perfect formula
Having obtained a perfect match, Deb dyed a large batch of silk and laid it neatly underneath the tulle-silk sandwich. The effect was dramatic. The torn lining was disguised against the tea-stained silk, and the coatee began to look itself again.
Seven: Final steps
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Next step: centre back and sleeves. Deb drafted a pattern piece for the centre back and dyed, cut, and sewed the new silk lining into place with the tulle encased original fragments. This technique was also used for the sleeves. In addition to working on the lining, Deb hand stitched the seams, reattached the gold work on the outside of the jacket where it was required, and surface cleaned the entire garment using a vacuum to remove dust and fibre debris.
The process of working closely with the garment prompted many questions, and provided some marvelous nuggets of information about Barton. One delightful find was the discovery of a hidden pocket in the tail of the coatee. You can imagine our excitement when Deb pulled out a tiny place card and a handkerchief from the pocket!
A dazzling success
You can see the coatee on display in the current exhibition Dress Code: Empire where other discoveries uncovered during the conservation treatment are revealed. The exhibition traces the drama of Barton’s rushed trip to London in1902 to attend King Edward VII’s coronation, and reflects upon the changing nature of Australia’s relationship with Britain in the early years of Federation. The coatee at the centre of the narrative is now safely conserved for the future.
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