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Why preparation is key in Conservation

In this blog post, we take you behind the scenes of our Conservation department, where preparation is always key! Lauren McGhee, Conservator at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, shows us the work that goes into preparing a 16th-century English Jack of Plate (opens in new website) for treatment.

The preparation process

No conservation treatment can be started without a considerable amount of decision making. As Ellie explained in her blog post Horsing around in the Conservation lab, it is essential to keep in mind what your intended aim is. What is in the best interest of the object? What are the needs of its constituent materials? Is your approach ethically sound? For many more routine treatments, much of the initial questioning and decision making goes on inside my head or is thrashed out through conversations with my colleagues. Some of it is intuitive: the result of knowledge and experience. But every so often something comes along that presents more of a challenge — where the process of preparing the object for treatment takes almost as long as the treatment itself.

Lady measuring a garment dressed on a mannequin in a laboratory

Measuring the Jack. Photo credit Charlotte Graham.

The Jack of Plate

One such object is III.1278, an English Jack of Plate dated from 1580. A jack of plate or ‘jack’ is a type of armour worn by the common soldier in which small ferrous plates were sewn between layers of coarse canvas. This construction means that it would have been lighter, but also cheaper than plate armour.

The canvas jack dressed on a torso mannequin with tissue stuffing visible around the arm holes

The Jack on its old mannequin with tissue stuffing.

Close up of the jack, showing tufts of green silk in the canvas

Detail showing tufts of green silk

III.1278 is made in the form of a doublet with a high waist at the back and a deep peascod at the front, reflecting the fashion of contemporary civilian male dress. The plates are pierced and are secured to the canvas fabric using a trellis pattern of cords which are knotted at the surface. It is still possible to see traces of the green silk tufts that covered these knots. The interior of the jack is also lined with a layer of fine canvas.

The overall condition of the jack is very poor. Many of the plates are exposed or missing and much of the cord has been lost. Indeed, it has never been weighed owing to its fragility. Textiles are particularly vulnerable to degradation caused by a combination of physical, biological, and chemical agents: exposure to light causes irreversible fading and the weakening of fibres; they are sensitive to fluctuating- and extreme levels of relative humidity as well as to high temperatures which will catalyse many other chemical reactions; they can be affected by pollutants, dust, insects, mould and mildew. Pre-existing damage can also be exacerbated by poor handling in the museum context. The jack has the additional problem that it contains metal plates which have corroded, staining and weakening the already degraded cellulosic textile.

The jack had been stored on an inappropriate mannequin for some time and desperately needed a more bespoke figure in order to fully support the fragile garment and to improve its visual interpretation. However, body shapes (or at least the forms of costume designed to fit them) have changed in the last few centuries meaning that modern fashion mannequins are rarely suitable for historical costume without further adaptation. I took careful measurements and decided to order a mannequin that was smaller than required so that padding could be added to customise the figure. From a conservation perspective, it is also important that the mannequin is made from materials that will not have a detrimental effect on the object. By working closely with the manufacturer we have been able to test the padding, adhesives and overlying fabric to ensure their suitability.

Due to the fragility of the jack, I wanted to minimise handling and movement but how could I check the form of the mannequin during its adaptation? I decided to make a toile, a basic copy of the original object that could act as a ‘stand-in’. I measured and traced around the individual sections of the jack in order to create a paper pattern and then cut the pieces out of Fosshape™, a non-woven breathable fabric with a thickness similar to that of the original armour. Once sewn together I had a working substitute for the next stage in the preparatory process!

Three pattern pieces of the toile laid out on a table in a laboratory

The pattern pieces for the toile laid on a layer of FosshapeTM.

How, then should the jack appear? How much should the skirt project? How should the front of the garment be padded? Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, contemporary painted representations of jacks, probably because they were worn by the common soldier. However, as discussed, we can look to depictions of contemporary men’s fashions. A good example is the doublet and leather jerkin in the painting of Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel (University of Oxford Collections). This clearly shows how these garments were designed to highlight the narrow waist and broad shoulders whilst creating a slightly distended lower belly. Based on such images and further guided by curatorial advice I have begun to adapt the mannequin using layers of thermally bonded polyester wadding covered with black Baumann fabric to tone in with the rest of the mannequin. The base of the figure has been trimmed so that it will not be visible beneath the jack. Working with our technicians, I also hope to produce a Perspex support for the skirt section.

The jack, and the mannequin wearing the toil

The toile on the mannequin before adaptation.

Oil portrait of man wearing canvas jack of plate

Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel (The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, LP 50).

So after the toile has been used to adapt the mannequin is it time for the actual conservation treatment to begin? Well, almost…

Broadly speaking, my treatment will involve encasing the jack in a fine layer of conservation-grade nylon net which needs to be dyed in order to tone in with the original fabric. Where appropriate I will also use colour-matched linen as a supportive backing. It is not my intention to hide the exposed metal plates as these give us information about the internal structure. Rather, the aim is to stabilise the object and reduce further deterioration. The net will support the armour whilst leaving the details of its construction visible.

Four side my side images of the mannequin being padded with polyester wadding to create a belly

Mannequin being padded with polyester wadding.

Once the mannequin adaptations are finished and the fabrics dyed the original jack can be moved into position…and then the work really begins!

To find out more about the important work our conservation department do, read our series of behind the scenes blog posts.

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