By Alison Cooper, Curator of Decorative Art

The costume and textile store is just one area of the Museum which has to be decanted to MASS as we prepare for the building of the Plymouth History Centre. The costume and textile collection holds nearly 10,000 items including male and female dress from the 17th through to the 20th century, as well as many examples of domestic textiles, lace and crochet, haberdashery and costume accessories.

This collection is one particularly close to my heart as I started work at Plymouth Museum as a project assistant working with this collection back in 2006.


Fans in storage

Historic textiles have a number of issues to consider when caring for them as they are particularly fragile and susceptible to light and environmental damage, not to mention pests!  So before the collection is moved, the items have to be examined and packed accordingly so that nothing gets damaged whilst moving. Everything is packed in acid free boxes and buffered with acid free tissue paper. Some collections are extra delicate so they may need extra packing. Very delicate silk for example is packed with a fine ‘spider tissue.’

Here is a box of fans in the collection. They have been individually packed on plastazote and secured with cotton tape. This means that they are secured and won’t roll around in the box, potentially bumping into each other and breaking. They look very pretty too!

Another factor to consider is documentation. We need to keep tabs on all of the items in the collection as they are moved – so double checking and updating package numbers for locations on our digital database is absolutely necessary. When the costume boxes eventually move, we can log them in to MASS when they arrive which means that we don’t lose track of anything.

Not many of our costumes have been photographed so having the opportunity to look back through this collection has reminded me of some stunning examples that we have. I now have a much better short list of items that we might be able to put on display in the History Centre in 2020.

Some of the oldest items in the collection date to the Georgian period. The open robe dress above was probably made in around 1760. It has a fitted bodice and a full skirt which would have been worn over a quilted skirt and crinoline – a type of hooped cage that helped the skirt stand out.

Below is another open robed dress in the collection dating to about 1760. The waist is so tiny that we don’t currently have a mannequin small enough to mount it! The silk used is probably Spitalfields Silk purchased in London. It is beautifully decorated with flowers and metallic gold embroidery. The robe would again have been worn over a crinoline and underskirt. A separate piece of material called the stomacher, would have been fitted at the centre front. The brocade and ruffles on the sleeves are beautifully hand stitched. Looking more closely inside the sleeves, circular weights are sewn in to enable the lighter silk to be held down so as not to spoil the look of the dress.

Varied carpet beetles, and their young known as ‘woolly bears’ are real dangers to costume collections as are clothes moths. I am inspecting the items carefully whilst packing to make sure there are no signs of active insect damage which could spread to the wider collection. No sign of pests so far I’m happy to report! If we identify any sign of pests, the item would be quarantined and then frozen. This is a simple way of treating pest infestations without having to use any chemicals which might affect the collections. When the boxes are safely in the off-site store, we will spot check them regularly to make sure that no other insects have found their way in.

Here is a photo of the store. It looks a bit of a mess but with 170 boxes packed so far, we are certainly getting there.