Reception of an Embassy – Bulletin 4

Continuing on from earlier posts about the conservation work we undertook on the Reception of an Embassy tapestry from Powis Castle here is the fourth in a series of bulletins we sent to the property. This bulletin dates from June 2014.

The relative silence from the Studio has been due to us tackling the challenging vertical cut that ran through the whole length of the tapestry.  This cut had been crudely re-stitched and was coming apart so conservation was necessary for aesthetic and structural reasons.

I have just calculated that based on 5½ warps per cm and a total height of 370cm that we inserted over 2,000 warps.  This section took us 360 hours to stitch, by far the longest in the whole tapestry.

All the new warps inserted across the long vertical cut which runs the full height of the tapestry © National Trust Textile Conservation Studio

All the new warps inserted across the long vertical cut which runs the full height of the tapestry.

Once all the new warps were in place we could begin to stitch them in place with brick couching in stranded cottons and wools to match the missing weft.  In some areas there was loose original weft still remaining.  In these areas the warps were woven in and out of the weft to mimic the original weaving technique. 007

Detail showing the failed stitching along the vertical cut.  


Detail showing the warps inserted across the vertical cut.

The vertical cut went through the Latin inscription ‘EX FERRO/FI(V)NT/QVE/DVRATVRA/PER EVVM’, which translates as ‘out of iron come things that will last forever’, on the banner over the striped doorway and a letter was missing.  This was the letter ‘V’ in FIVNT.  In order to replace the letter a tracing was taken of another letter ‘V’ in the inscription onto Melinex, a clear polyester sheet.  This tracing was used to determine the positioning of the couching stitches that would make up the missing letter.IMG_1573

 New warps have been inserted across the vertical cut and a tracing of existing letters made to fill in the missing letters.


 Part way through couching with cream and dark brown wool to recreate the missing letters. IMG_2586 The missing letters filled in.

The other major challenge that we have faced in the second half of the tapestry has been some of the crude re-weaving that has been carried out in the dark brown wool areas.

The dark brown wool weft is particularly vulnerable to degradation due to the iron salts that were used to mordant (fix) the dyes originally.  These iron salts accelerate the degradation of the wool fibres with the result that the dark brown wools are often lost.

In the Powis tapestry the re-weaving has been crudely executed in a yarn which is black rather than dark brown to match the original.  A small sample of the re-weaving yarn was taken from the reverse of the tapestry and examined under a microscope to determine what type of fibre it was – it proved to be 100% acrylic!  Having said this the re-weaving was very extensive, so in areas where it had been reasonably well executed the decision was made to leave it in place, blending in any further weak areas with new brick couching in wool.  In the areas where it was very crude, causing distortions and the black colour was visually disturbing the decision was made to remove it.  The decision as to which areas to leave and which to remove was made at the outset of the treatment with the whole tapestry laid out so that specific areas could be examined against the overall effect.

The striped archway once the crude acrylic re-weaving had been removed and replaced with dark brown wool brick couching.

 The final five sections of the tapestry are in better condition, so we are feeling like we are on the homeward straight now.  The next job is to order the weaving of some new brown galloons with which to edge the tapestry.  When the tapestry was taken down for conservation it had a blue linen fabric edging all four sides, when this was removed the original dark brown galloons were revealed on the two side edges.  The decision was made to have new galloons woven for all four sides to give a crisp outline to the whole tapestry.  The original side galloons will be protected beneath the new replacement ones.

The tapestry will then be lined with down proof cotton cambric to protect the conservation stitching and to reduce the movement of air through the tapestry and consequently the soiling.  We currently propose to re-use the popper tape to re-hang the tapestry from as it is in good condition.

Reception of an Embassy – Bulletin 3

Continuing on from earlier posts about the conservation work we undertook on the Reception of an Embassy tapestry from Powis Castle here is the third in a series of bulletins we sent to the property. This bulletin dates from January 2014.Tapestry being worked on in the studio © National Trust Textile Conservation Studio

The tapestry is mounted onto a frame and stitched onto a support of linen scrim. The conservation stitching provides a combination of strength and support by evenly attaching the tapestry to the linen support fabric and an aesthetic reintegration of missing areas of design.

An area of previous crude repair which was unpicked, new warps were inserted and then couched down with coloured wools to match the missing wefts. By removing these visually distracting repairs the original weaving can be read more readily.

The shoulder and face of this figure have had a previous repair which has been crudely executed in unsympathetic yarns and colours. The repair was removed, new warps were inserted across the hole, then couched down through to the linen support fabric with wool and stranded cottons in the correct colours. This conservation stitching gives a more accurate impression of the original design. The aim with tapestry conservation is that when the tapestry is viewed overall the original design should be harmonious and able to be read, but when the tapestry is viewed close to it should be possible to see which elements of the weaving are original and those that are repairs. The spaced couching over one warp and under the next uses the same principle as the original weaving, but is carried out through a support fabric so that it is possible to easily identify it as a repair.

The work on the tapestry is progressing well and we have completed ten out of 26 sections. As well as dealing with the inherent weaknesses in the tapestry, for example failing horizontal slits and degrading dark brown wool and cream silk at some point in its history the tapestry has been cut up into quarters and then re-joined. The top left hand quarter has obviously been exposed to more agents of deterioration during its life as it has several bleached stains and completely missing areas. It is not known what has caused this damage, but in the bleached areas the wool warps and weft are very brittle and there are completely missing areas. In some of the missing areas it is not possible to know exactly was the missing design was so the decision was made to in-fill the hole with a dyed fabric patch. A specially woven ribbed fabric was used to imitate the tapestry weave to give the correct texture.

The next few sections of tapestry that we are moving onto are less damaged and their conservation will be more straight-forward; before we face the challenge of the vertical cut that runs the whole width of the tapestry.

Reception of an Embassy – Bulletin 2

Continuing on from an earlier post about the conservation work we undertook on the Reception of an Embassy tapestry from Powis Castle here is the second in a series of bulletins we sent to the property. This post dates from October 2013.

While the tapestry is at the De Wit workshops for wet cleaning there is also the opportunity to take high resolution photographs of the front and reverse after wet cleaning using the workshop’s photographic studio.

The front of the Powis Castle 'Embassy' tapestry. ©National Trust/Rachel LangleyReverse side of a tapestry depicting the reception of an embassy, wool and silk, southern Netherlands or northern France, c. 1545, at Powis Castle, inv. no. 1181082.The contrast between the faded front and the original colours on the reverse enables one to imagine how rich and colourful the tapestry would have been when first woven. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to restore the original colours as the dye molecules have been permanently altered by exposure to light. This is why the National Trust limits the levels of light to which their sensitive collections are exposed.

What the wet cleaning has been able to do is to lessen the harsh staining and make the whole tapestry visually more harmonious. Before cleaning, the upper left-hand quarter was significantly more soiled and stained than the rest of the tapestry.

The conservation treatment will involve applying a backing of linen scrim to the reverse of the tapestry and the conservation stitching, which will support and re-integrate missing areas of design, is carried out through this linen backing.

Once the cleaned tapestry was delivered back to the Studio it was mounted onto a wooden frame with three rollers to allow the attachment of the linen support. The linen support is rolled on the middle roller and is attached to the tapestry every 21cm across its width.

For estimating purposes the tapestry was marked into 21cm sections. As we work through the tapestry we can keep track of the actual time taken versus the estimated time.

During the weaving process where there is a change in colour and to create design features, slits are formed in the weaving. These are originally stitched together using linen threads. Over time this linen thread degrades and fails. In some areas the linen slit stitches have been replaced with crude stitching in unsympathetic colours. Where the slit stitches are original they are reinforced by stitching over them with a cotton covered polyester thread. Where there are unsightly repairs these are removed and replaced with the cotton covered polyester thread in a toning colour.

Before starting work on the tapestry it was necessary to dye some yarns. Wherever possible we will use commercially dyed yarns if the colour and the light fastness are suitable, however, one supplier has stopped producing one of the yarns that we used to use. Sometimes it is just not possible to find the correct colour and thickness so yarns have to be specially dyed in house.

In the Studio we use Ciba Giegy chemical dyes, even though the dyes used in the original tapestry are natural dyes. The reason for this is that the original natural dyes have already done the majority of their fading, as can be seen from the comparison of the front and the reverse, and we will match the faded colour with a stable chemical dye. If we were to use natural dyes for the repair yarns these would fade and more rapidly than the original faded natural dyes and cease to blend in.

IMG_3454aAs mentioned previously the dark brown wool weft is particularly vulnerable to degradation due to the iron salts used to mordant the dye. As a consequence large areas of the dark brown wool are missing and sparse. Some of the missing areas have been rewoven. This has been done rather crudely and with an unsympathetic yarn which, when a fibre sample was examined under the microscope was found to be acrylic. As this reweaving is so extensive it will not be possible to remove all of it, but discrete areas where it is practical will be removed and replaced with brick couching over the warps in dark brown wool. The photographs below show one of the faces where the definition has been re-introduced by couching in the pupils of the eyes and other features and some of the especially crude re-weaving in his hat has been removed and replaced.

In areas where the silk weft is missing or weak we couch the exposed warps using commercially available stranded cottons. The cotton has a lustre that is comparable with that of aged silk and it is available in a wide range of colours that can be blended to match the subtleties of the original silk weft.

The conservation stitching is progressing well and we are almost a quarter of the way through the tapestry.


We’re on the Map!

Over the last year and a half the Studio has had the privilege of conserving a wonderful tapestry map owned by the Oxford University Bodleian Library. We can now report that it was finally installed last week, and now hangs in pride of place at the Blackwell Hall in the newly opened Weston Building where it can be viewed by the visiting public.


Depicting the county of Worcestershire, the tapestry is in three fragments. It was woven in England c1590, for Ralph Sheldon to hang in his house in Long Compton, Warwickshire, as part of a set of four tapestries depicting different counties. It is one of a set of three map tapestries, (Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, also in fragments) owned by University of Oxford and a fourth tapestry (Warwickshire) in the set owned by Warwickshire Museum Service.

The designs for the maps are from the Christopher Saxton county surveys, published as an Atlas in 1579. A number of the Saxton maps would have been used for each of the tapestry maps and extra details were also added to the tapestries in the scaling up process.

Not only is the Worcestershire tapestry in three pieces but it is incomplete. The whole of the top and right borders and about a quarter of the map on the right side are missing. It is estimated that the original size could have been approx 430cm h x 680cm w. However despite these losses, the brightness of the colours and the sheer skill of the weavers really shine through and make it a joy to behold.

Conservation work on the Worcestershire tapestry began in July 2013 at the Textile Conservation Studio. Here it was examined, documented and prepared for wet cleaning before sending to De Wit Manufacturers, Mechelen, Belgium for washing.

Before conservation the three large fragments of Worcestershire had previously been stitched to a backing fabric of beige, coarse woven, linen. Most of this was removed before washing. The tapestry was surface cleaned front and back using adjustable suction museum vacuum cleaners.

Thread samples were taken for dye analysis, the results of which will be known later.

After initial Studio work the tapestry was rolled and packed for delivery to De Wit Manufacturers where it was wet cleaned.

The wet cleaning process went extremely well with excellent results.

The tapestry appeared much brighter and stronger to the touch after cleaning.

While the colours on the front of the tapestry are good, the unfaded colours on the reverse were found to be even more vibrant.

In many ways the conservation treatment was not at all a usual one for a large scale tapestry. This is primarily because the tapestry is not a whole piece and there are large missing areas.

During the time spent documenting and becoming familiar with the object it became apparent that an alternative approach needed to be considered.

A meeting was held with Bodleian staff where all options were discussed and decisions were made about the treatment approach.

After careful consideration it was decided that the tapestry be mounted directly onto the mounting fabric and not as is usual, first onto a linen scrim. In this way only one layer of new material would be added, and the method would mean only one set of stitches would be placed through the object and the mounting fabric.

In consultation a mount fabric was chosen, looking at fabric samples in different lighting set ups, viewed from a height and in both flat and hanging positions. A green colour provided a sympathetic background tone that allowed the map fragments to come to the fore. The green was also preferred because it referred to green fields rather than desert lands that the previous beige/brown colour of the backing suggested!

A ready dyed, green, ribbed fabric from Baumann’s (Indiana II) was chosen. After discussion with the Bodleian staff, it was decided that the fabric should be used with horizontal seams. In this way no seams would be visible across the large missing area between the top and lower fragment. The rib effect however would not be running with the weave of the tapestry, but the decision taken was an agreed compromise which avoided having the seams run in a vertical direction.

Working on the Studio’s two tiered table tops, the seamed mounting fabric was laid face up. The tapestry fragments were then unrolled and positioned on top. After placing tacking lines through the fragments only, following a warp, the position of each fragment on the backing fabric was fine tuned.

The central horizontal split through the large tapestry fragment, was felt to need adjustment in order to allow for the missing warps.

After tacking the fragments in place the tapestry was attached to a frame roller and then set up on a frame.

Once on the frame the tapestry was put in a slung position rather than under any tension as the mount fabric had been applied flat. Conservation stitching was worked in 20cm sections. All the grid stitches in these sections were worked through a template that had been created. These grid stitches will give an overall structural support to the tapestry. Long or broken slit stitches were also restitched using a cotton covered polyester thread.

Some of the place names were incomplete. It was agreed with the Bodleian Map Librarian, Nick Millea, which place names were to be reinstated and which were to be left incomplete.

Using laid warps over dyed wool patches the place names were completed. The original Saxton maps were referred to and tracings of other letters in the tapestry used as templates to replace missing letters. It was also agreed that lettering elsewhere on the map was to be stitched with dark brown wool where original weft threads were broken or loose ensuring that the lettering could be clearly read.


Long and short stitches or laid and couched threads using a fine cotton covered polyester thread were worked around all the damaged edges of the tapestry fragments, providing localised support.


 Before and after oversewing and laid couching the fragmented edges.

 After all stitching had been completed the tapestry was taken off the frame before lining and attaching Velcro™ on cotton webbing tape to the reverse at the top and side edges.

An additional length of Velcro™ was stitched to the top of the central fragment to help keep the tension in the green support fabric and prevent any stretching.


Finally, last week, the tapestry was installed in its new case in front of a watching crowd including press and film crews. No pressure then!

If you want to see the tapestry in the flesh and under new lighting then we urge you to visit the Weston Library.

Bodleian Library Sheldon maps