The difference between a tack and a nail…

…is one of things Emma, Siobhan and I learnt this month.  We were participating in an upholstery conservation training day, organised by the NT textile advisor and led by Heather Porter and Lesley Wilson.  The day was split in to a morning session that focused on the background and history of upholstery styles, structures and technologies, and terminology; then a practical afternoon session in the show rooms.

It was fascinating to learn more about the structure of upholstery and the materials used.  So often focus is only paid to the decorative show cover and not what is underneath.

Straw was commonly used as one of the stuffing layers for padding.

Straw and horse hair were common materials used for the stuffing layer.  Tail and mane hair of the horse would be used as it was long.  The hair was then steamed and in a sense permed to make it tightly coiled and twisted, as the image shows below.

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Horsehair treated to be used for the stuffing layer or padding of a seat.

To give support to the padding and other structural layers, webbing was attached to the seat frame.  English webbing would most commonly be a  herringbone weave made of black and white or natural coloured linens . The end of the webbing would be folded over and tacked in to the wooden seat frame.

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A sample of English herringbone weave webbing.

Webbing on English-made furniture tended to be narrow and attached widely spread apart.  Whereas the French used a wider webbing and had each strap positioned closer together.

19th C French tub seat webbing

An example of French webbing from a 19th century French tub seat.

One of the developments of structure in seat upholstery was the introduction of the roll-edge in the eighteenth century.  A seat rail with rounded edges will likely have an edge roll.  The roll is formed with densely packed sturffing materials (straw, horse hair, other dried grasses) and encased in narrow strips of linen.  The roll is then tacked to the edge of the frame under tension.  Stitching is also often used to help build up the structure of the roll edge.  The roll edge then helped to shape the seat padding overall and give a good structural support at the front of the seat.

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An example of a roll edge.

The nineteenth century brought in the use of coiled springs.  Individual springs used in groups were lashed together at the top and bottom, attached to the stuffing layer base cloth at the top and the webbing straps at the bottom.  Early springs were hand-made from iron.

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The spring on the left is hand-made spring of iron, and the right is a modern spring made from steel.

The webbing straps were originally attached to the top of the seat rail, but to accommodate the springs, the webbing straps moved to being attached to the bottom of the seat frame.

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An example of how springs would be positioned and tied or lashed together.

Double click on the image below.  Two chairs from the Knole collection have been annotated to explain some of the structural names given to different parts of a chair.

chair terminology

For the afternoon session, in small groups, we had to complete object condition assessments of selected upholstered items of furniture.  Including the X-framed chair from Hampton Court Palace that now resides in the Leicester Gallery…

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…and red velvet winged elbow chair made c. 1680 on display in the Brown Gallery.

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The assessment included taking the maximum dimensions of the item, recording the materials it is constructed of (as far as we could identify them) and a summary description of the piece.  The next stage was to record the general condition of the item and apply a condition code (excellent, good, fair or poor); stability code (stable, potentially unstable, unstable / steady deterioration, highly unstable) and treatment priority code (no treatment required, treatment desirable, treatment necessary, treatment urgent).  These codes are now the standard used by all conservators who assess collections for the National Trust.

For those of you wondering, in the world of upholstery a tack was made of iron (modern tacks are made from steel) and would have a square head.  Nails were made of brass and were solid cast, with a rounded head.

Thanks to Lesley and Heather for a very informative and fun day, and for Ksynia for organising it all.

Emily, Siobhan and Emma

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