A Stitch in Time

Summer is here and the conservation team has been hard at work making a start on the textile cleaning.

If you walk around the showrooms at Knole, you may notice that we have rather a lot of furniture. In fact, Knole is home to the largest collection of Royal Stuart furniture in the world. It is internationally significant. Much of this vast collection of chairs, footstools and sofas, as well as two state beds, was acquired at the end of 17th century by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl as one of the perks of his office as Lord Chamberlain under William and Mary.


A stamp on the underside of one of our pieces of furniture, showing that it came from Hampton Court Palace.

By bringing this collection back to Knole, the 6th Earl was not only underlining his connections and influence at court. He was also acquiring pieces that, while they were no longer required by the monarch, were real status symbols. To be seated was a sign of authority in the 17th century, an honour only accorded to the most important person. Footstools were also often used, not only because of the imposing size of the chairs, but also because raising the feet of the ground was in itself, a symbol of wealth and status.

10 Leicester P 200

Portrait of James I, seated in a Chair of State, from the Leicester Gallery

Furniture, now mostly mass produced, has lost the intense association with wealth and status it once had. But 400 years ago, the pieces of furniture at Knole were expensive luxury objects. They were the result of thousands of artisan hours, made using the finest woods and the most expensive fabrics, drawn from across the known world.

These items of furniture may not have the same significance as they once did. Their magnificence has also dulled with the passing of time. The fabric is now extremely fragile due to the damage caused by light and relative humidity. Today, as readers will already know from previous blogs, we constantly monitor the environment in the showrooms and our storerooms, so we can keep an eye on the relative humidity and the amount of light the textiles are exposed to. Part of the huge conservation project currently taking place at Knole is to install special conservation heating and lighting in the showrooms, so we can control the environmental conditions in the house.

We also clean each item. As well as dusting the frame to remove dust and cobwebs, the textile is cleaned with a conservation vacuum on low suction with a soft brush attachment. Although the frames get dusted regularly, the amount of attention each textile receives depends on its fragility. While some are cleaned annually, other more delicate pieces are cleaned less frequently, every 3, 5, 10, or in some cases, every 20 years.


The Brown Gallery at Knole.

But if you look closely at the surface of most of the upholstered chairs we have in our collection here at Knole, you may notice some of the conservation techniques that have been used to look after these unique objects.

On some items, areas of the upholstery have been carefully stitched to secure and stabilise the original fabric. Many of pieces have netting applied to the surface of all or part of the textile. The net is a mono filament nylon, dyed beforehand to match the colour of the original material. It temporarily stablises areas of weakness, preventing loose fibres and threads from coming away with a minimum of intervention. It also helps prevent further degradation or damage to the fabric, prolonging the display life of a textile.


An example of netting on one of our stools.

This means our magnificent collection of furniture can continue to be enjoyed for many generations to come.


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