Conservation Blog

A tale of a smock

March 2016

Oiled smock NWHCM: 1991.63.1, this is a farm workers smock dating from around the start of the 20thC. It belonged to the donor’s Great Granny Gaze who took it with her from her parents farm at Upton Hall, Upton when she moved to her husband’s farm at Aldeby in 1904. The smock is made from dark brown cotton fabric, which was treated with linseed oil (probably) for waterproofing, it fastens with three bone buttons at the centre back.

It has been requested as part of the new Voices From the Workhouse displays at Gressenhall F&W. When it came into the conservation lab and the first thing that was obvious were the hard creases down the front of the shoulders.

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This was caused by the smock slumping forwards on its padded hanger, and the combination of the weight of the smock and the weight of the pads in the sleeves has caused the problem.

The second problem was that the smock was solid. When you tapped on the fabric it sounded like a knock on the door. This is probably a combination of the linseed oil deteriorating when crosslinking happens between the oil molecules, and a previous conservation treatment carried out in the early 1990s which has also now failed.

The conservation treatment consisted of humidifying the smock to ease out strong creases and then painting it with a substance called PEG (polyethylene glycol). PEG is usually used on archaeological textiles, it is used to consolidate a friable surface, to add moisture and softness to a degraded textile so that it does not dry out and become brittle.

Unfortunately the combination of these two treatments which have both aged and degraded has resulted in a very stiff piece of fabric.

Following on from a lot of research, and tests to the fabric, it was decided to warm the smock gently and ease it off the hanger and put it instead onto a specially padded mannequin.

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Further localised heating was done with a low powered warm air blower to ease out creases and try to reshape the skirt of the smock.

The pleasing results of this minimally interventive treatment can be seen when the Workhouse Project opens in May.

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