University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Conserving Lotus Shoes and Maori Rain-Cloaks

Charlotte Owen, Textile Conservator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, provides an update on the Museum or Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) Textile Project.

Following the move into the new storage and workspace, work has been progressing through the 235 boxes and drawers that were relocated. A main focus of the project has been to look at how the objects are packed and how this can be improved.

Many of the items had been stored in wooden drawers that can, over time, release acids that can accelerate deterioration of fabrics. Following on from previous projects, objects are being removed from the drawers, processed by conservators Conor Tulloch and Charlotte and repacked by Collections Assistant Remke van de Velden in archival quality textile storage boxes.

The boxes are available in several different sizes but sometimes this isn’t quite what is required for individual objects. Conor and Charlotte have recently constructed some individual boxes to house different objects.

Remke packing miniature Malaysian robes into a larger textile box

Remke packing miniature Malaysian robes into a larger textile box

So why would we need to make our own boxes?

Quite simply because we can be very specific about the way in which an object is stored. We can ensure that there are no risks of creasing or crushing sometimes caused to fragile materials by being placed in a box with other items. Placing an object in its own, custom made box also means that the risks caused by abrasion can be significantly reduced. If an item is frequently accessed for research and is stored in a box with other items, all the items in that box will be at risk of damage from the frequent movement and handling of the box.

Two of the items discussed below form two distinctly different categories, but are by no means any more or less fragile than each other.

_MG_0477The objects Charlotte has been working on are Chinese shoes, more specifically Lotus shoes for bound feet.

Foot binding was a practise carried out by women in China from about 10th century until the Peoples Revolution in the early 20th century. This wasn’t practised by all Chinese women and was most notably found among by the Han population.

The binding of the foot started when girls were aged between 4-7 and would be carried out by either a female family member or experienced village female. The procedure was to take strips of woven cotton, previously soaked in water, wrap these around the toes and then the foot. The idea was to draw the four smaller toes under the foot so that the big (great) toe provided the point of the foot. The idea was to then draw the arch of the foot upwards, breaking the bones and constricting the foot to the ideal 3inches (76mm). The bindings were soaked first so that as they dried they shrunk slightly thus increasing the tension of the binding.

Much research has been published over the years, as there are still a large number of tiny Lotus Shoes available for study. In fact the research carried out for this project indicated that the last factory producing shoes for bound feet only closed its doors in the late 1990s.

_MG_0516So what can we tell you about our Lotus shoes?

Well, thankfully for the wearer the few pairs with custom-made boxes measured about 130mm long (approx. 5inches) by 43mm wide – so not the ‘ideal’ size, but still very tiny. They are all made from woven silk and are decorated with embroidery worked in coloured silks, gilt metallic thread and tiny braid. Some have embroidery on their heels and several have silk soles.

The objective of Charlotte’s project was:

  • to ensure the shoes could be studied without unnecessary handling
  • that the shoes could be protected from crushing as some of the clothing in similar parts of the collection can be large and bulky
  • that the surfaces were protected from further abrasion if access was needed due to the fragile nature of the silk

So it was decided to create boxes for the individual items and slightly larger boxes with separate compartments for the paired shoes.

_MG_0504The shoes have been given a Plastazote (a polyethylene foam) support layer with shaped indent which can be lifted out of the box by cotton loops ensuring that the shoes don’t need to be handled. The shoes have also been given a securing loop to ensure that should the box be knocked or tipped, the object won’t move around. Packing by this method also ensures that no other materials need to touch the surface of the silk thereby reducing the risk of abrasion.

If anyone is interested in looking more closely at a Lotus shoe MAA has one on display on the first floor in the Maudslay Gallery.

Included in the textile collections are several traditional Māori rain-cloaks. These are constructed from plant-fibres (largely New Zealand flax, Phormium Tenax), with thick warp threads, twined together with comparatively thin wefts and thatched on the outside. Unfortunately, some of these were not in a very happy state.

A folded, unsupported Māori rain-cloak

A folded, unsupported Māori rain-cloak

Having been stored in drawers too narrow, they had been folded over on themselves to fit, crushing fibres and causing the outer grass thatching to become tangled. Each had been slid into a plastic bag without any solid base, making them very difficult to handle carefully. As a result, considerable damage had occurred, with further losses to the already large amounts of detached plant-fibres, each cloak having its own accompanying ‘bag of bits’ to add to.

A ‘bag of bits’ with more recent losses

A ‘bag of bits’ with more recent losses

To prevent further damage of this sort, it was decided to make custom storage boxes with appropriate support. Large padded boards were made, a sturdy base of corrugated plastic, padded with polyester wadding, and covered with calico. Using Velcro, the cloaks were then attached to these soft bases, keeping them from sliding about. Measured to fit, shallow boxes were then constructed from corrugated plastic and the padded boards placed inside with cotton handles, allowing them to be easily removed.

Charlotte Owen, Textile Conservator, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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