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Special Exhibition 2017 Material Traces – Conserving and Exploring Textiles, 30 April to 12 November 2017

The conservation and restoration of textiles have been a key mission of the Abegg-Stiftung ever since its founding fifty years ago. Elaborate measures are often required before historical textiles can be durably preserved and their beauty fully appreciated when they go on show. The paramount goal is always to conserve what is there, even if that means leaving alterations and signs of age and wear clearly legible.
The Abegg-Stiftung’s special exhibition 2017 is dedicated to methods of analysing and treating textile works of art and explains what these can tell us about the production, function and history of such works. At the heart of the exhibition are medieval textiles from Central Asia and China, here presented to the public for the first time. Media release

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The conservation and restoration of a historical fabric generally entails a preliminary assessment followed by its cleaning and consolidation, its preparation for proper storage or display, and finally the writing of a report detailing the action taken. The work required is often very time-consuming. │Conservation of a silk fabric by stitching.

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Before the best approach to the conservation and restoration of a specific piece can be decided, the materials and manufacturing techniques first have to be analysed and the source of any damage ascertained. This work often yields unexpected insights into historical manufacturing methods. │ Heel of a twined shoe prior to conservation. Central Asia  (Xinjiang), 5th to 6th century, inv. no. 5649b

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While some historical dyes are extremely stable, others are very sensitive to light, water and climatic changes. The same holds true for aged raw materials. The cleaning method selected must take account of such factors, as must any other treatment applied. │ Camel. Detail of a large-format hanging with animals in medallions. Central Asia, 8th to mid-9th century, inv. no. 5682

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Tears and holes can be optically closed by carefully aligning the threads along the grain of the weave. Intervention in such cases is generally confined to measures used to prevent further fraying. The preferred method is to underlay the damaged area of the textile with a matching backing fabric and to stitch it in place with fine silk thread.│ Silk with cattle. Central Asia, 1st half 7th century, inv. no. 5686a

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Analysing historical textiles is a good way of learning about how they were actually used. It might be possible to reconstruct the original form of a robe, for example, or to reunite long since separated pieces of the same garment or fabric. │ Fragment of a robe decorated with embroidery. Central Asia, 5th to 6th century, inv. no. 5582b

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Dust-proof and light-proof storage under stable climatic conditions is essential to the long-term preservation of textile works of art. Tailor-made mounts and figurines are the best form of support. Exhibitions of historical textiles have the lowest level of lightening possible. │ Child’s upper garment made of wool. Eastern. Central Asia, 4th to 2nd century B.C., inv. no. 5567

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The Master of Arts in Conservation-Restoration (specialisation textiles) offered by the Abegg-Stiftung and Bern University of Applied Sciences is a five-year programme. With its theoretical modules and emphasis on hands-on work, the programme prepares students for the very varied work of a textile conservator. │ Silk with suckling lionesses in medallions. Central Asia, 8th to mid-9th century, inv. no. 5687