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Historic Royal Palaces Textile Conservation Studio

Hampton Court Palace


ABOVE: Conservators practice their handiwork on tapestries from Hampton Court Palace.

One of the most impressive sections of Hampton Court Palace is off-limits to the public: It's the Textile Conservation Studio, which is under the direction of Kate Frame, the Canadian-born Head of Conservation and Collections Care for Historic Royal Palaces since 1998.

The studio was founded at the turn of the 20th Century and incorporated into William Morris's decorating and textiles firm, Morris & Co., in 1912.

The studio's official history explains the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years:

"When the William Morris Company managed the studio, the traditional practice of restoration was strictly a craft. It entailed the complete replacement of any weak areas of textile with an approximate copy of the original. However, by 1970 this was being criticized by academics for the irrevocable losses it incurred.

"In the case of tapestry, this was especially significant since the image is woven into the fabric. Any losses among the thousands of different colored weft threads caused both the image and weave to disintegrate.

"Restoration could skillfully fill these losses with conjectured replicas of the original. However, by inserting new strong weave, further strain was put on the surrounding woven structure. The rate of loss and replacement thus gathered speed. Evntually, nothing of the original would have remained had the approach not been changed."

In 1976, the Textile Conservation Studio shifted its approach from restoration to conservation--i.e., from replacing worn sections of textiles to preserving what is left. The studio explains: "Generally, no attempt at replication is undertaken, and all conservation work is reversible and visible to the discerning eye only."

How the work is done:


ABOVE: Conservators work in the Textile Conservation Studio's laboratory.

The Textile Conservation Studio's most basic rule is similar to that of the medical profession: "First, do no harm."

I saw how this philosophy was applied as I watched a conservator working with a silk brocade covering from one of the state beds at Hampton Court Palace. The floral motif was nearly unrecognizable on the section of fabric that I first saw; the raised motifs had crumbled into pieces and lifted off the tightly woven background, despite attempts to glue them into place during the 20th Century.

The conservator was repairing the damage by sewing the broken pieces onto the background with a fine, specially dyed nylon thread and using a fine dyed nylon netting to add further strength and protection. When she lifted a sheet off the section of the bed covering that she'd already repaired, I was amazed: The brocade pattern was clearly discernible, and the repairs were invisible unless I leaned forward to examine the fabric at close range.

A young conservator was treating a 17th Century close stool (a portable toilet seat and chamber pot disguised as a trunk) that normally is on display in King Charles II's stoolroom. She used a curved surgical needle to sew down worn pieces of fabric, and dyed nylon netting was stretched across the face of the box to add structural support while preventing further damage.

In another room, a conservator in her late 20s or early 30s had the Nithsdale Cloak spread out on a large table while she worked on a plan for its conservation. The cloak, worn by the Earl of Nithsdale during an escape from the Tower of London in 1716, had been borrowed from descendants of the famous escapee for a "Prisoner of the Towers" exhibition. (See Lord Nithsdale's Escape.)

In yet another room, a young female conservator was repairing a large silk-covered section of a state bed.

The largest room in the main studio was devoted to repairing Hampton Court Palace's tapestries. (See Collections Care: Tapestries at Hampton Court Palace.) Three women were carefully sewing worn sections of tapestries from the time of Henry VIII, using methods that were designed to strengthen the weakened material without damage to the priceless 500-year-old work of Flemish weavers.

Textiles and conservation services:


ABOVE: Conservators from HRP's Textile Conservation Studio use wet cleaning to remove dirt from a royal tapestry.

The Textile Conservation Studio at Hampton Court Palace cares for a variety of textiles, including:

  • State beds and canopies for Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and other historic houses or museums in Britain and abroad.

  • Furnishing textiles, which can include upholstered furniture, wall panels, quilts, and cushions.

  • Costume, including the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection and the dresses of Diana, Princess of Wales that are on display at Kensington Palace. The studio's conservators recently worked on the Queen Elizabeth II Wedding Dresses and Hats and Handbags exhibitions at Kensington Palace and did minor conservation work on the Queen's coronation dress.

  • Tapestries. The Textile Conservation Studio reports that "work on the extensive tapestry collection at the palaces includes researching and preparing condition reports, taking down, packing, transportation, wet cleaning, conservation, rehanging, and ongoing aftercare."

    During my visit, tapestries under conservation included several of the Abraham Tapestries (commissioned by Henry VIII to hang in the Great Hall) and the 16th Century Romance Tapestry that usually hangs in the Holy Day Closet of the Chapel Royal.

  • Wet cleaning. The Textile Conservation Studio can clean everything from tiny archaeological specimens to large pile carpets. Objects are washed in trays, on a specially built washing table, or in a web-cleaning facility that can handle carpets and tapestries up to 30 x 20 feet in size.

The studio explains:

"In each process, the amount of handling and physical manipulation is kept to a minimum. Aggressive and energetic cleaning processes have been avoided; instead, we use gentle agitation and diffusion for the removal of soiling.

"There is as much emphasis on the chemical stabilization of objects as on cleaning. The aim is to treat the largest carpet with the same care and attention as the most vulnerable archaeological fragment."


The laboratory offers scientific advice backed up by testing with a variety of tools, including high-performance liquid chromotography for dye analysis and microscopes for fiber identication.

Also see:
Hampton Court Palace
HRP Collections Care: Facts & Figures