Studying the Fabrics


As textile conservators we had the opportunity and the honor to prepare these fabulous Chinese textiles from the Acton Collection, for a temporary display project within the house museum.

The robes are made of materials of exquisite craftsmanship. The fabrics are of very fine silk and the weave is so compact that one can scarcely see the joining threads between ground and design.

All the garments are embroidered with finest polychrome silk floss and golden metal threads and with stitches such as Chain, Knot, Satin, Stem, Long and Short, Couched-twist and counted canvas stitches. Here you see details of sleeve bands that are the embellished cuffs of Chinese robes. The Peony in the detail above is only four centimeters large.

The stitches are so finely executed that it is almost impossible to identify the single threads or tell with the naked eye whether it is the knot or a loop stitch.

The knot stitch in China is frequently referred to as the “forbidden” stitch, so called, because of the high number of women going blind from doing it, the government passed a law forbidding any further needlework of this type.

Knot stitches are the most intricate and beautiful among the types of embroidery that originated in China.

The satin stitch, which is used very often also on the Acton Mitchell robes, is to amplify the brilliance and clarity of the colors with exquisite combinations.

The green summer robe and the dragon robe for example, are made of gauze also known as leno weave. This weft twill technique serves to give firmness to the weave and at the same time a lacelike effect. The counted canvas stitch, much similar to the Florentine and petit-point stitches, requires this background of gauze. These stitches are quite simple, but need very much patience in execution.

A detail below shows the embroidery with couched thread gold. To create couched-twist embroidery, two tightly twisted silk threads are used to gain the effect of a very fine knobby braid. These threads are then couched down, sometimes in designs and sometimes as outlining for designs embroidered in other kind of stitches.

The Hun skirt, a double apron, comprised of a pair of wide pleated panels worn facing front and back with additional narrow panels connecting them. The front and back panels are identical and edged with embroidered black ribbon.

The orange silk ground is embroidered with patterns of dragon motives, phoenixes, bats, clouds, and waves, embroidered with couched thread gold, sometimes faintly outlined with black silk.

See below the details of the very fine execution of the couched thread gold and the couched twist embroidery that forms the lines of the knobby thread.

The cut and voided silk velvets of the light blue robe are created with extraordinary weaving skills.

The materials used for the chair cover, made of silk tapestry weave called kesi, are polychrome silk and Kinran paper strips (gold leaf on paper) wrapped around a cream-colored silk thread.

The Callot Soeurs dresses that were chosen to show their Asian influences, are made of fine silk fabrics, embroidered in polychrome silk floss and metal threads with satin stitches, running stitches, long and short stitches, and couching stitches by taking example from the Chinese embroidery techniques.

The pink satin dress with a particular shape, a triangular pointed hem, shows Polychrome silk floss embroidery, horizontal long and short spaced satin stitch.

The three-piece black and blue satin dress, composed by a skirt, a tunic, and an under bodice with bat-wing sleeves, is extensively embroidered with Polychrome silk floss, metal thread and glass beads.  The stiches that you can see are Vertical long and short spaced satin stitches.

Like Paul Poiret, Callot Soeurs introduced a new design by shifting emphasis away from the skills of tailoring to that of draping. The House of Callot Soeurs was famous for the use of delicate and flowing exotic fabrics, antique laces, lavish beading, and delicate embroideries. It was particularly recognized for their Asian inspirations.

The fabric of the green silk dress with black silk lace bat-wing sleeves shows an Asian pattern with bamboo leafs.

The Callot Soeurs dresses reflected the tradition of great luxury and quality in fashion, using the finest silks, velvets and satins with scalloped hemlines, and embroidery encrusted with beads.

The Black satin skirt and blouse are decorated with pink and blue trim overlade embroidered with Chain stitches with gold metal thread and strings of glass beads.

To match the Callot Soeur dresses we have chosen shoes labeled Hellstern and Sons and Andrè Perugia.

Five small Chinese rugs were selected from the deposits to match the robes, they were chosen also because of the variety of their decorative motifs so typical of Chinese culture: the multicolored wave border, the Buddists symbols, the dragon, the mountains, the bats and the reversed swastika.

All of them, except one that is made entirely in silk, are knotted in wool on cotton warps.

Chinese Rugs

Conservation work

Before beginning to prepare textiles for a display we must consider many factors among which are the conditions of the objects, the display conditions, the possible consolidation treatments, and the mounting. Stabilizing the object so that it will not deteriorate while it is exposed to the public is the most important goal. Textiles are very fragile items, especially garments because of their three-dimensional shape, their weight and their very different fabrics and other associated materials, like metal threads, sequins, glass beads and rhinestones. Because of light exposure and wear and tear, the fabrics can become very weak and degraded.

The first steps of the conservation process are fundamental, and in some way moments of privilege in which the conservator carefully observes a work of art doing the photographical and written documentation of the object, the historical research, the study of the assembly techniques, the examination of the condition and the analysis of the materials. These steps are very important because the condition of an object will affect its suitability for a display.

For textiles on an open display like, the setting in house museums, it is necessary to provide a complete or full support of conservation quality materials and the environmental conditions must be appropriate. At Villa La Pietra, we have taken steps to eliminate ultra-violet light sources and are keeping visible light levels and the duration of exposure to a minimum. A centralized climate controlled system is keeping relative humidity and temperature stable. Furthermore all the items are covered with light tissue paper between one visit and another.

Before the treatment the right materials have to be chosen and custom dyed. Here some materials and tools used in costume conservation, light silk fabrics, silk crepeline, silk yarns and fine surgical needles.

During the consolidation stage through a minimal treatment, we focused on the fabric’s mechanical fragility. This slide is showing a minimal treatment that we adopted to treat the dresses and the robes for a safe display. We had to do some stitching of open seams. To provide additional strength we used couching stitches with very fine silk thread on fragile areas and stabilized a loss in the satin ground by inserting a custom dyed satin fabric to fill in the missing area.

The French dresses are supported by a mannequin to communicate with its silhouette the accurate information about fashion and customs of its period. To achieve support, the mannequin was padded to shape.

The carpets were also in good conditions so the treatment was mainly focused on the thorough vacuuming and refreshing the pile using an ultrasonic humidifier with a gentle brush. Some stitching was necessary to secure loose threads and to consolidate areas of broken warps and wefts on to localized supportive linen patches.

By controlled and directed moisture, using an ultrasonic humidifier, we regained volume and released creases in the fabrics, and we were able to regain brilliance in the colors of the fibers. Here a detail of the three-piece black and blue satin day dress that shows the released creases.

The last but not the least step is the photography after the treatment, important for the documentation of each garment.

To display the Chinese garments instead, we preferred the traditional mounting method on a rod. A black wooden rod was fixed by fishing ropes to the ceiling of the room. To this rod were attached then four single bamboo rods, one for each Chinese robe, covered with Mylar.

This method is very suitable for these lightweight garments, not only because of the possibility to show the full range of colors and details, but also because it creates less stress on the textile structure. On a mannequin it would put stress on the sleeve seams so that tears could easily develop in those areas.

In order to safely display the carpets we prepared a fabric covered slanting soft board.

See the picture below showing the installation of the Chinese Robes and the French designer dresses in the Sala da Ballo.

When all the precautions and actions were taken and the object fitted perfectly on the support, the last photo was taken and our mission was accomplished. When the display period will be finished, the objects will need to be checked and carefully cleaned through low suction vacuuming, before they go back in storage into their archival boxes.

Preventive conservation is our priority. Garments are considered extremely vulnerable due their very fragile and different materials and therefore must be stored and monitored regularly. The costumes are stored horizontally in Acid-free costume boxes. Packing garments in boxes means to pad the garments. Acid-free tissue is used along all the folds in the garment and on the side seams, shoulders, and sleeves so that creases and folds are well padded, this to minimize stress on the fabric. We use plenty of tissue paper underneath between and on top. Here the setting of two dresses in front of the Chinese Coromandel screen.


Chinese Hanging Conservation - A previous treatment

In 2017 a very important piece of Chinese textile was treated in the conservation lab. The images below show the poor condition of this painted silk satin hanging and how it brought back to almost to its original beauty.

For more information on this hanging follow the link to the flyer

The Conservation Treatment process

As precious as gold: Hortense Acton's Chinese ornaments made of kingfisher feathers

In 2016, on occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Sir Harold Acton, passionate cultivator of Chinese art and literature and admirer of the entire Chinese cultural tradition, a small and temporary exhibition was set up in Harold’s antechamber. The exhibition displayed the recovered ornaments, along with the complete headpiece which has also been preserved and is mounted upon the 1920s mannequin.

In the Acton collection there are 5 sets of Chinese kingfisher ornaments, all of them have now been treated for conservation including service cleaning and consolidation.

For more information on the conservation work done on the Kinfisher ornaments follow the link to the flyer

The Conservation Treatment process