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Conservation cleaning a 1911 embroidered banner and its display box, February 2017

The beautifully embroidered flowers on this 1911 Primrose League banner had lost their spring-like brilliance after years of unprotected exposure to a dusty, tobacco-laden environment.

In 1979, the banner had a glazed box made for it. And what a protective blessing that box proved to be when, during its more recent history, the banner was exposed to sooty dust from a serious fire. Both box and banner needed cleaning.

Our first task was to investigate it carefully to see whether the condition was such that we could clean it safely – and then to carry out dust test patches to ascertain the extent of conservation cleaning that was appropriate for different areas.

Dust test patches are carried out by placing muslin between the vacuum head and the bag so it is possible to see exactly how much dust has been collected after a defined period of time and in a specific location. This also enables us to check that we are only collecting dust and that there are no fibres coming loose from the historic fabric that is being cleaned.

Using the results of the tests to guide us, we cleaned it systematically with a low suction vacuum through a protective filament. The most important thing was to lift off the sooty dust rather than rubbing it in – and to know when to stop. The decorative ropes and tassels were all cleaned individually and, as with the banner, there was an immediate and visible improvement.

Because all the weight of the banner was being taken on the tabs at the top, we devised a secondary support system to take the strain off them, and also added a breathable protective backing to go between the banner and the wooden box.

One of the more challenging tasks was cleaning the badly corroded finials, which could not be detached.

The box and glazing were, unsurprisingly, grimy. It was a delight to see the dirt coming off the exterior and to coax it out of all the corners and crevices inside. That’s the sort of thing that makes our day! During the course of cleaning the interior we found the mark of craftsman James Dent, at one time an apprentice in the workshop of Stanley Webb Davis before he set up his own workshop.

As happens so often, there were paint spatters and smears along the top and we were glad to be able to remove those without affecting the wooden surface. Just the right amount of wax on the wood and some proper elbow grease on the glazing left this lovely piece of craftsmanship well protected and fit for displaying the banner again.

It was a pleasure to work at close quarters on this lovely object and to contemplate the skill of the people who created it. It may have been persistently dank and rainy outside but, for us, spring was in the air for the duration of this project.


Main header image: detail of embroidered primrose motif

Main page from top: tassels during conservation cleaning, left hand tassel cleaned; glazed box showing sooty dirt; detail of banner in box before cleaning; cleaning the interior of the glazed display box; some of the dirt removed from the display box; investigating the finial attachment; corrosion on finial; finial during cleaning (two images); cleaning of the finial in progress; visible dirt on rope knot; ropes during conservation cleaning, with dust test patches; tassels after bottom left hand one had been cleaned with low suction vacuum cleaner; dust test patches from front of banner, used to ascertain appropriate level of cleaning; cleaning rope loops with low suction vacuum cleaner; cleaning front of banner with low suction vacuum cleaner through protective filament; attaching new supporting loops to sit within original ones and take weight; breathable tyvek backing; 3 images of banner post conservation cleaning

All images by Hog & Fitch, courtesy of private collector