Conservation of "Death of Dido" Tapestry

Hannah Riley

This interview between Curator Gloria Williams Sander and textile conservator Hannah Riley was first published in the Museum’s Spring 2019 Newsletter.

In preparation for the exhibition  Once Upon a Tapestry: Woven Tales of Helen and Dido (December 7, 2018 – May 27, 2019), textile conservator Hannah Riley undertook the conservation of a Flemish tapestry based on the cartoons of Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. It depicts the Death of Dido and was woven in the third quarter of the 17th century. Curator Gloria Williams Sander, who organized the exhibition, interviewed Riley about the condition of the weaving and her role in repairing and stabilizing it for exhibition.   

Death of Dido tapestry

Death of Dido cartoon

Top: Death of Dido tapestry; bottom: Death of Dido cartoon

Gloria Williams Sander: To initiate your conservation work on this weaving, you had to fabricate a custom-made loom. Was that necessitated by the scale of the tapestry, which measures 13 feet, 2 inches by 18 feet, 8 inches, and how did you attach the tapestry to the loom? 

Hannah Riley: Yes, unfortunately the Dido tapestry turned out to be 3 inches too tall for the equipment I had available to me. Perhaps I should clarify first: the custom piece of equipment we built for Dido is not a loom in the traditional sense but rather a heavy-duty framework that supports four rigid, 14-foot aluminum rollers. This frame allows me to work in measured sections from one side of the tapestry to the other. 

Tapestry frame

Custom tapestry frame

Our design is the first tapestry frame I know of to be built from off-the-shelf components more commonly found in physics or an engineering lab setting. It was this innovative approach that resulted in an open source design that can be easily reproduced and customized by other conservators.

To attach the tapestry to the frame, I used a pair of cotton leader-aprons, which I hand-stitched to the sides while the tapestry was laid out flat. It requires great care to ensure the aprons are precisely parallel at this stage because this ensures an even distribution of weave tension once the tapestry is mounted on the frame.

GWS: How do you start the treatment of a tapestry? Do you treat the areas in greatest need first, or do you systematically proceed from one side to the other, addressing major and minor problems as you advance?

HR: At the outset, the tapestry was rolled out completely and assessed. Areas of weakness, damage and previous repair were mapped graphically on a large-format photo. The resulting conservation map was divided into sections called turns,” each one 7.5 inches by 13 feet, 2 inches (29 turns in all). Conservation stitch work proceeded systematically from one turn to the next. The photo guide was invaluable for recording progress and anticipating problems ahead.

GWS: Is the size of your turns the same as what the original weavers would have worked?

HR: No, a tapestry weaver’s working area would have been much larger, owing to the fact that they worked exclusively from above the rollers on the weaving loom. My working area is dictated by the need to comfortably work above and below the rollers simultaneously. With a 7.5-inch turn, I can easily reach and check underneath the tapestry, making sure that both the grain of the support linen and the rows of stitching maintain their alignment.

Hannah RileyGWS: Can you explain the support fabric’s function and its mounting of the verso of the weaving? Does that mean you conducted your work—support stitching and couching, for instance—from the back of the tapestry?

HR: A full linen support transfers the hanging weight of a tapestry so that any weaknesses within the weave structure are prevented from deteriorating further. The support fabric is attached to the tapestry by rows of running stitch every 7.5 inches, the width of one turn. A small amount of ease in the linen ensures it is not too tightly applied against the back of the tapestry. All support stitching is carried out from the face of the tapestry through to the back.

Tapestry conservation detail

Tapestry conservation detail

GWS: What is couching?

HR: Couching is stitching in uniform rows, similar to running stitch. The density of the stitching can vary according to conservation needs. The most intensive stitch work has a stitch length of one-eighth of an inch, and rows one-eighth of an inch apart; this closely resembles reweaving from a viewing distance. With general overall support stitching, with a stitch length of half an inchone could see rows one-half to three-quarters of an inch apart.

GWS: What was the most demanding aspect with regard to this project?

HRMaintaining perspective...two perspectives actually. I tried to simultaneously maintain both the bird’s eye view of how the tapestry would cohere visually as a whole and the worm’s eye view needed to achieve this at the individual stitch level.

Tapestry detail

Tapestry detail

GWS: Were there any surprises along the way in your work?

HR: Though the face of the tapestry has many strong reds, oranges, blues and greens, the real surprise came when we rolled it out to expose the reverse. The colors were stunning, and even included purples and pinks!

GWS: Visitors to the exhibition have been wowed by the vibrancy of the colors. Nevertheless, some colors have faded over the centuries. Are certain colors traditionally more fugitive, and did you discover that to be the case here?

HR: I agree that the tapestry is very vibrant, but there is general overall fading when compared to the reverse. Natural dyes consist of many color components, which react differently to external sources such as light, temperature, relative humidity and soiling. The longer a tapestry’s exposure, the more it will fade. For Dido, the most dramatic color difference was in the purple and pink areas of the design. Orchil, a lichen-based dye, may have been used, which has extremely poor lightfast qualities.  

Tapestry detail

Tapestry detail

GWS: We know that tapestry weaving was a time-consuming process. How many months do you imagine a tapestry like this took to weave?

HR: Tapestry weaving was never a solo endeavor. It employed a team of craftsmen who had expertise in different aspects of the design. The fineness of the weave and quality of materials also played a part in how long a tapestry took to weave. Dido is a finely woven tapestry at 20 warps/inch, using both wool and silk weft. It would probably have taken a team of four to five weavers approximately 12 months to complete.

This was, coincidentally, the same amount of time required to conserve it.