Conservation Stories: Dragon Panel

The Scripps College collection of Asian textiles consists of more than 1,000 objects. Working directly with the textiles allows students to explore the material’s design and purpose. Students learn about the history of textiles, which informs modern understandings of the time and place from whence they came. Whether functional or decorative, each textile in the College’s teaching collection puts the fabric of Asia’s historic, cultural, economic, and social life within the students’ grasp.

Through Scripps College’s teaching collection, undergraduate students from various disciplines handle precious textiles—an opportunity rarely found at other schools. In one popular seminar taught by Professor Bruce Coats, “Arts of Late Imperial China,” class members collaborate and draw from the

Prof. Bruce Coats teaches, using works from the collection.

collection to prepare an exhibition. Scripps students may also create exhibitions for the Clark Humanities Museum independently. For example, in the spring of 2013,

Johnson Research Award recipient Tara Contractor (SCR ’13) organized an exhibition entitled Pashmina: A Hundred Year Journey. The Gallery’s many student interns also work closely with the textile collection. Over the years, Getty, Turk, and Wilson interns have helped staff clean, organize, photograph, and electronically catalog a wide variety of objects, from elaborate Jifu imperial robes to the most delicate of silk slippers.

Ongoing conservation efforts are essential to preserving these culturally and aesthetically significant works. Many of the collection’s magnificent Chinese garments, dating from between 1550 and 1900, need professional cleaning and repair to return them to a condition acceptable for use in classes and exhibitions. In spring 2013, the Williamson Gallery received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to treat some of the highest-priority textiles in the collection—one of which is highlighted here.

Kesi Panel with Dragon (1590-1640)

Kesi Panel with Dragon (1590-1640). During the Ming dynasty, the five-clawed dragon was used solely by the emperor, empress, and their sons.

Kesi Panel with Dragon (1590-1640). During the Ming dynasty, the five-clawed dragon was used solely by the emperor, empress, and their sons.

This large, silk tapestry, dating from the late Ming dynasty, is comprised of three differently colored parts. The cream-colored main section features a five-clawed, forward-facing imperial dragon among multi-colored clouds, rocks, and waves. Above the scene is a strip of newer, navy fabric with a gold pattern of dragons and clouds. Stylized foliage on a black background forms a contrasting border, and the entire panel is backed by maroon damask. As Professor Bruce Coats notes, “The image is rendered in kesi-style tapestry weave…the piece was probably hung on an altar as part of a ceremonial arrangement.”

Kesi, or “cut silk,” is an ancient silk weaving technique employing cut designs that resemble carved artwork. Due to the nature of the kesi weaving process, a single damaged thread will cause the entire section of the same color to unravel; the difficulty of the technique meant that in ancient China, an inch of kesi was worth an ounce of gold.

Central panel before treatment. Oily incense smoke or dye-bleed from previous water damage may have caused the discoloration above the dragon’s head.

Unfortunately, surface abrasion caused significant loss of thread and splitting in the tapestry. Several of the inherent slits formed during the weaving process were gaping, and the top edge had started to separate from the damask lining. The cream background of the center panel was discolored, possibly by incense smoke or dye-bleed related to previous water damage.

The NEA conservation grant awarded to Scripps in 2012 provided funds for the treatment of this tapestry by textile conservator Yadin Larochette. According to her report, the first steps consisted of temporarily removing the maroon lining and reducing the discoloration with various solutions, blotting paper, and water. When the lining was removed, repair patches from a previous conservation effort were discovered. Some of these patches appeared to have come from old kesi weavings and had been adhered with starch paste. Ineffective patches were removed at Ms. Larochette’s direction and replaced by new cotton support fabric. When necessary, these cotton supports were painted to match the original material.

Ms. Larochette examines the large holes that were revealed after removing patches from a previous conservation effort.

Fragile, gold-wrapped threads decorating the borders were stabilized on both sides with an overlay of sheer polyester gauze and an underlay of black, lightweight cotton. Dampened muslin, weights, and a breathable Gore-Tex membrane reduced creases and undulations in the tapestry. A paper label and adhesive residue were removed with distilled water and a fine-tipped brush. The frayed top edge of the tapestry was stabilized with commercially available lightweight silk. Finally, the maroon damask backing was cleaned and reattached via hand stitching with cotton thread.

After months of work, the piece was returned to the College on June 28, 2013. Ms. Larochette’s work has improved its structural integrity and reduced the risk of further damage during handling and display. The dragon tapestry is an important teaching tool: in comparison with dragon paintings and robes of later dates already in the College’s collection, it illuminates stylistic changes in the rendering of mythological beasts.

Instead of using commercially dyed fabric, Ms. Larochette chose to carefully paint the new support fabric. This method resulted in a better match between new and existing material, especially in detailed areas like the dragon’s head.