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Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

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The unknown soldier

Jennifer Barsby, 27 February 2014

As part of Amgueddfa Cymru’s First World War centenary programme the collections relating to this period will be conserved, digitised and made available online. My role at the museum is Textile Conservator so I am responsible for the practical care of the textile collections across all seven sites. There are many WW1 objects in the textile collection; most take the form of commemorative or souvenir pieces while others are costumes and accessories.

One of the objects recently conserved for the project is an embroidered panel measuring 43.5cm x 53.5cm maker unknown, it is made from a single piece of royal blue silk satin embroidered with flags and text which reads ‘VICTORY FOR THE ALLIES MALTA PRESENT’ in yellow silk thread using stem stitch. It also features a photograph of a Welsh soldier printed onto a postcard which is slipped inside a frame made from card and covered in painted silk. The frame is tacked to the satin along the bottom and sides with the top edge left open. The flags are made with lines of silk floss which have been laid down to form the coloured sections and secured in a criss-cross, net like fashion and couched using a very fine thread. Thicker, cotton threads are used to define the sections of colour, the flags and poles are made from a coiled paper thread with a cotton core.

When it came to the conservation studio the panel was in a fair condition with some light surface soiling all over and creasing across the silk from being folded around the frame at some point, probably before it came to the museum. It is possible that the panel once had an adhesive backing as the embroidery threads on the reverse appear stiff and flattened. There is also some abrasion to the surface of the embroidery threads and satin floating yarns. The top and bottom edges are frayed and there are several splits in the ground fabric where it has been stitched through.

The conservation treatment began with a surface clean using a micro vacuum to pick up dust and fluff. It was then humidified to remove the creases; we cannot iron historic textiles because the heat and pressure of conventional irons can cause further damage. Instead we use gentle techniques with cold water vapour or in this case, a combination of materials layered up to introduce moisture gradually to the textile giving it time to penetrate the fibres. Once the fibres were relaxed, glass weights were used to hold them in position whilst drying. The photograph was removed during the humidification process to avoid any damage. The next stage was to support the splits in the satin which affect the stability of the textile. Fine silk crepeline was chosen to do this because it is gives a light support but is almost transparent, so even though it covers the reverse you can still see the threads; it was dyed blue to match the colour of the satin. The crepeline was fixed to the textile using a very fine layer of thermoplastic adhesive, which was applied to the dyed crepeline and allowed to dry. The adhesive was then re-activated to bond it to the reverse of the panel using a heated spatula, the bond created is enough to support the textile but not so strong that it cannot be removed in the future if required. The frayed edges were then laid out and secured though to the backing by working a blanket stitch along the edge using a fine polyester thread.

The textile is now back in store but will soon be available to view online and may one day go on display at St Fagans. Keep checking the blog for more updates as the project progresses!

The Soldier in the photograph is yet to be identified if you recognise him please contact the museum via Elen Philips Principal Curator: Contemporary & Community History Tel: 029 2057 3432 or on Twitter: @StFagansTextile

The textile before conservation.
Dye pots
Detail of the photograph showing the unknown soldier
The textile after conservation
The reverse of the textile after conservation.

The Participatory Forums

Penny Tomkins, 25 February 2014

The Informal Learning Forum

Informal Learning in this context refers to learning outside of the school curriculum. The group consists of representatives from organizations across Wales that facilitate adult and family learning. Most members had previous knowledge of the project having participated in workshops during the planning stage. This group have agreed a remit of work which includes; helping to develop a programme of activities that appeals to people of varied background and ability and reviewing gallery content to ensure we provide appropriate interpretive methods for these audiences.

As a result of this Forum a group of adult learners from the Workers Educational Association (WEA) participated in interpretation workshops in July. The workshops provided an opportunity for the group to give their views on items intended for the ‘Wales is’ gallery. Objects studied at close hand included a tailors quilt and artefacts dating from the First World War. The sessions were facilitated by curators working directly with the objects – ensuring that the feedback gleaned has a direct impact on their work.

The tailors quilt
Interpretation workshop

St Dwynwen's Day Cards and a Mocktail

Sian Lile-Pastore, 27 January 2014

Last saturday (25th) was St Dwynwen's Day! I hope you all had cards and treats... we had a family drop-in card making session here in St Fagans National History Museum and we also did a bit of sewing too.

We will be doing something pretty similar for Valentine's Day on 8th and 9th of February.

And the mocktail?

That was for reading group! We were discussing 'Rules of Civility' by Amor Towles which is set in 1930s New York and therefore we had suitably 30s type refreshments - Shirley Temples and kit kats all round! (the kit-kat was introduced in 1937). Our next reading group meet up will be on 22 February where we'll be discussing Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Stranger's Child'. It's a big book, so you'd better start now.

Crochet

Sian Lile-Pastore, 27 January 2014

At the beginning of January we had a crochet session where myself and Anna Phillips attempted to turn everyone into crochet queens. Anna made up a great little easy pattern to crochet circles which could then be turned into a garland, or maybe a coaster if you stopped at just making one. We will be having another crochet meet up on March 15 so come along to that one, and because everyone seems keen I'll try and add more dates to the rest of the year.

As Steve said in his last blog posted in December, we’ve started work on growing the thatch for our new Iron Age farm. Alongside this work we’ve also been giving a lot of thought to the objects that will go inside the houses.  Far from being primitive, these replica objects will reflect the high level of knowledge and skill possessed by people who lived in Bryn Eryr over 2000 years ago. One of the first tasks is to furnish the round houses with all those essential objects that no self-respecting Iron Age household could do without, such as plates, bowls, utensils, buckets , storage containers, shelves, barrels, weaving looms, beds, just to name a few.

In this period all these items were made from wood, but we have a problem, wood deteriorates quickly in the ground so objects made from this material rarely survive.  However, we think we can find out more about the wooden objects they would have had by studying the carpentry tools available at this time. These were made from iron and because of this have survived in greater abundance. Ancient iron-work is often much underrated as it doesn’t look very attractive, but when trying to recreate everyday life the information domestic ironwork objects can provide is invaluable.

The first stage of making the replicas was to search the archaeological collections for any original Iron Age carpentry tools.  Much to my delight we had quite a lot of material and could virtually recreate a whole tool kit from examples found throughout Wales. Our Bryn Eryr tool kit will therefore consist of an axe, adze-hammer, gouge, chisels, files, drill bits and numerous wedges from small to large.  Timber in the Iron Age was divided up by splitting with wedges rather than cutting with a saw.  Saws did exist, but were small, similar to modern pruning saws today.

An Iron Age household would be equipped with a wide range of tools for a variety of purposes. Some of these objects appear strange to us today, but others are quite familiar. A 2,000 year old chisel found in the Roman fort of Brecon Gaer and a gouge from the Hill Fort at Castell Henllys wouldn’t look out of place in a carpenter’s tool kit today.

Once our tool kit had been compiled from the examples in the collection, the next step was to make working replicas that could be used by our craftspeople to recreate the objects for Bryn Eryr.

Careful conservation of the original tools had preserved some of the original surfaces. Marks on these surfaces enabled our blacksmith 2000 years later to work out how they were made and reproduce the replicas as accurately as possible.  The replicas are recreated in wrought iron like the originals, which is much softer than the steel used today, so it will be interesting to see how these tools perform? Will we be able to produce a decent cutting edge, how quickly will this edge dull and how often will it need to be sharpened?

Making the tool heads is only half the story, these tools can’t be used without handles!  None of the originals survive and from the shape of some tools we just can’t pop modern handles on them.  We know our tools once had wooden handles, because in some cases the deteriorating iron around the socket  had made a cast of the wood surface before the handle disappeared.  Using a combination of this information and some surviving material from elsewhere, plus the expertise of our own carpenters and estate workers, we managed to reproduce handles to complete the tools.

Now all we have to do is see if they work! More importantly have we still got the expertise to use these tools properly? Hopefully by using them we’ll gain an insight into the skill of our Iron Age carpenters.  I’m sure they would be laughing themselves silly if they could see our efforts today, but we have to start somewhere!

So, how did our tools perform? Its early days, but everyone including our craftspeople are impressed. They appear to be performing well, we even managed to split a large piece of timber with our wedges.  It probably explains why so many of these wedges end up in our collection, they tend to get lost inside the timber during splitting and fall to the ground where they are difficult to spot!

We hope to undertake more experimental work to assess the performance of these tools, so keep watching this space, but in the mean time we have to crack on, there’s the contents of a roundhouse to make!

An Iron Age Axe from Dinorben Hillfort, one of the original objects from the collection used to base our replicas for Bryn Eryr on.
All the original carpentry tools in the Archaeology ollection have been laid out in the lab for our blacksmith to examine. He is working out how to reproduce them as accurately as possible using wrought iron.
Probably getting too excited here! But the archeaology collectons turned out to contain far more examples of ancient carpentry tools than expected. We often had more than one example of a type to examine.
The blacksmith at St.Fagans starts work on the replica Carpentry tools.
The Blacksmith is starting to recreate one of the sockets for a replica chisel
The chisel socket is almost complete
All the replica carpentry tool-heads straight from the forge at St.Fagans
Comparing the original carpentry gouge from Castell Henllys Hillfort with the replica. The original is showing signs of much use as the working edge has almost worn back to the socket.
The replica chisels along-side images of the original Iron Age and Roman-British carpentry tools.
The tools in the carpentry workshop waiting to have their handles attached.
Once the tools were hafted we could try them out. One of the small axes being used to remove bark from a piece of timber
First attempt at splitting a piece of timber using replica wedges based on originals in the archeaology collection. Working so far!
Success! the timber has split in a straight line. Hopefully not beginners luck! Marks, left by the wedges, can be seen along the edge of the timber