Collection Care blog

19 February 2015

Discovering textiles at the British Library

Meet Liz Rose, our newly appointed textile conservator!

I am Liz Rose and am the newly appointed textile conservator at the British Library. My role is to find and identify textiles within the diverse collections at the BL. I will build an asset register of textiles which will record the composition, size, condition and propose a treatment strategy or storage solution as well as compiling a glossary of terms to describe these objects.

In my first month I have been lucky enough to find a great many textiles within the collections. I have met with 16 specialist curators from the Asian and African; Contemporary British; Western Heritage and European and American collections. In total I have identified, condition checked, measured and photographed 53 culturally diverse objects. Here are some of the most memorable objects from January 2015:

  • From the Burmese Collections I was shown a 20th century silk, talismanic shirt and trousers (1) and a palm leaf manuscript dated 1856 which is wrapped in cotton (2).


A folded silk textile. The silk is a cream colour. Near the top of the fold there are three animals resembling dogs with pointy ears. Near the bottom is a table with numerous symbols.
(1) OMS Or 15674


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A manuscript wrapped in cotton. There is a patterned yellow fabric covering the manuscript with a swirling, floral motif. Around that is a strip of white and red fabric.
(2) OMS Or 12645



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  • From the Thai, Lao and Cambodia Collection, I was shown a 19th century talismanic shirt (3) from Shan community in Burma. This is highly decorated in black ink with mantras, number and yantra designs.


The talismanic shirt is on a light brown fabric, with black ink depicting animals, charts, and figures.
 (3) OMS Or 15085


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  • I was shown an escape map of Berlin made from waterproofed silk (4) (on the reverse a map of Germany). These maps would have been folded and sewn into the linings of uniforms.
  • I also looked at a cotton ‘map of man’ (5) dated 1780 which displays ‘an allegorical map of human experience’, the border illustrating proverbs and instruction. It is quite large 732mm (w) x 685mm (h), printed in black and presumably engraved. Both these objects came from the Map Collections.
The map of Berlin, with land in white and outlines of read, and the North Sea at the top of the page.
(4) Maps CC 5a 151

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The Map of Man is on a tan fabric. It shows a circle at the centre with circles and other shapes emanating from that. Small text is written around all four edges.
(5) Maps CC 6 a 27

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  • In the Printed Heritage Collections of Western Heritage, I found handbills dating from 1849 in natural silk (6) and pink silk dating from 1862 and 1867 (7) advertising theatre in Exeter. Some of these handbills are extremely fragile and discoloured from adhesive deposits whilst others look reasonably robust and remarkably clear.
The playbill in a natural silk. It advertises a Second Grand Amateur performance at the Theatre Royal, Exeter of the show De Bazan.
(6) 74/L.R.412.e.4


The playbill in pink silk, advertising a Comedy and Burlesque Company show at the Theatre Royal called Mr. R. Barker.
(7) 74/L.R.412.e.4

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  • I also came across a pamphlet called ‘Uniform Rules and Regulations for the Cyclists’ Touring Club’. It contains illustrations of mens’ and womens’ cycling uniforms and two pages of textile samples: ‘Warranted Pure Wool’ (7) in three different weights for formal cycling wear and two weights of ‘Pure Sanitary Undyed Natural Wool for under-wear’.
Two pages of textile samples: small strips of dark-coloured wool are adhered three to a page with information about the textile typed below.
(7) C.194.a.1105

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  • In the Radford Archive there is an embroidery by Frieda Lawrence (8), designed by D. H. Lawrence as a gift to their friends Maitland and Muriel Radford.
A circular embroidery showing a man resting in a boat, with dolphins swimming around him and above him is a grape tree.
 (8) Add MS 89029/2/12

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  • From Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts I was shown an 18th century embroidered binding (9) for the Birch-Yorke Letters (Vol. III). This is a bound collection of letters to Thomas Birch from some members of the Yorke family.
  • I was also shown an illuminated manuscript, Yates, Thompson MS 31 (10), a large bound book in peach silk with lavish silver metal thread embroidery. This book dates from the last quarter of 14th century, the binding from 16th century and the embroidery from 18th century.
An intricately embroidered book cover. The cover is red, and the embroidery has a three-dimensional quality in mainly silver and gold threads. At the top of the book cover is am embroidered eye, with a cloud below. Twisting threads surround a sword which is held by two hands.
(9) Harley MS 4325

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An embroidered book cover on coral-coloured cloth. The embroidery has a three-dimensional quality. At the centre is a crest-like design, with swirling filigree around the edges. The book cover is protected with a plastic covering.
 (10) Yates, Thompson MS 31

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I have only just started my research into textiles at the BL and have been overwhelmed by the quantity, quality and diversity of the textile objects within the collections. It should be remembered that the BL is a reference library and many of these wonderful objects can be viewed in the library Reading Rooms. However, a few of the examples included in this blog have limited or supervised access.

Liz Rose, Textile Conservator


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