The Clothworkers' Centre

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK has a wealth of objects on display in its galleries, but these are only the tip of the iceberg and the majority of the collection is in storage. Thanks to a grant from the Clothworkers’ Foundation and other donors, a textile study centre has been set up at Blythe House in Olympia, London, to allow researchers and members of the public to see the textiles collection. I’d been wanting to visit for some time, but hadn’t had the chance until the beginning of July this year.

The team handling security are understandably strict and will remind you many times that you can take in “NO BAGS NO PENS NO DRINKS”. I had to show my driver’s license as proof of identity and signed forms to show that I understood the terms and conditions of my visit and that I wasn’t to publish any of my photos, including on social media. You will also be reminded that you can’t touch the objects, so if you need something turned over, a curator wearing special gloves is the only one who can do it. I took in a folder with my note paper, multiple propelling pencils, an eraser, a batch of record sheet pages (I made a large table with boxes for everything I could think of that might be good to note down and pre-filled them with what I could find out about each object ahead of time) and a ruler. I’ve heard of people being asked to turn out their pockets in case of contraband, so I treated it pretty much like airport security, only without the taking off your shoes part.

Visits to the Clothworkers’ Centre are only by prior appointment and you will be asked which of up to 6 objects you would like to see. Mine was a 2 hour afternoon appointment, but they have 2 hour morning sessions too. Not all of the objects I wanted to see were available, so I had to swap a few of them out for things lower on my wish-list. There are hundreds of objects in the V&A collection that I’d like to get up close to, with good light and a magnifying glass, so it was pretty difficult to narrow it down. In the end I saw these:

I’ve been poring over pictures of this stole for quite some time, trying to chart the pattern that runs down the centre panel. I thought it was made using the technique 3/1 broken twill double-face, but it turns out that it isn’t. The motifs are the silk threads of the ground fabric, with brocade that strongly resembles twill around them. I also came to the realisation that the two narrow bands were woven separately from the main piece, then sewn on.

This band is mentioned by Peter Collingwood in his book The Techniques of Tablet Weaving and definitely *is* 3/1 broken twill double-face, at least in the centre section. What most interested me was the sections along the edges of the main pattern. They consist of diagonal lines in a black, white, red, white sequence, with areas of gold brocade. Collingwood gives a section of this pattern in his book, but on closer inspection, I think his solution isn’t correct. It’s going to take a fair amount of work to pin down exactly what the pattern actually is, particularly because at some point the band was cut and reassembled any old how, but I’m looking forward to it.

This is a brocaded stole with lozenge motifs, widening at each end. The widening is caused by spacing out the threads from each tablet and allowing more of the ground weft to show through. Definitely something to try for myself. The motifs were interesting, not least of which because some of them had mistakes in them. I plan to give those a try too in various weave structures, just not the lozenge that comprises of a large swastika with a mini swastika on the end of each leg.

There’s little information to be found on this object, but I have reason to believe that it, or a similar fragment, may have been the band described by Grace M. Crowfoot in 1924 in an article entitled “A Tabletwoven Band from Qau el Kebir” in the journal “Ancient Egypt and the Near East”. The description she gives strongly resembles a band I saw at The Whitworth Gallery (catalogue number T.1995.14) in Manchester a few years ago. It turns out that the two bands are indeed very similar, but have different colours for the outermost stripe along their edges. 

When viewed close up, the main section of this stole is brocaded plain weave, rather than tablet weaving. It has a trapezium-shaped section at each end and these have two different scraps of very worn brocaded tablet woven bands. I suspect that these were originally part of larger objects and gained the status of relics after long use and were preserved in this way after the textiles they were associated with disintegrated.

I’ve made a reconstruction in the past to help me to understand this band, but it turns out that I was wrong in some of my assumptions. Closer examination showed me that it was woven as two separate pieces, then sewn together, not as a single piece as I had previously thought. It also has some rather odd brocade on one of the sections which will need some test weaving to get my head around.

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