CCI Newsletter, No. 16, September 1995

A Tablet-Woven Treasure: The Gondar Hanging

by Ela Keyserlingk, Senior Conservator, and Jan Vuori, Conservator, Textiles Section

The Gondar Hanging arrived at the Textile Section of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) in June 1993. The late seventeenth/early eighteenth-century Gondar Hanging originally hung in one of Ethiopia's Christian churches, and is the largest known tablet-woven textile in the world. Measuring 5.22 m by 2.18 m, it is made of spun heavy silk and consists of three vertical panels (see Figure 1). Woven into each panel is a series of motifs with iconography relating to the Ethiopian church and royal family. CCI conservators were asked by its owner, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), to stabilize the hanging's condition so that it could be exhibited and viewed on both sides.

In tablet weaving, warps are threaded through tablets that, when rotated, create sheds where wefts are inserted. This is a very old technique, but is usually used only for narrow bands such as belts and trimmings. In this case, approximately 350 tablets were required to weave each of the hanging's three vertical panels. Patterns and images are identical on both sides of the hanging; only the colours are reversed.

When the Gondar Hanging was received at CCI, it was very dirty and the silk fibres were weak and powdering. Loss of warps, particularly the original white warps used only in the central panel, disrupted the images. These losses also exposed underlying wefts, which had subsequently become broken and tangled. The hanging's top and bottom were frayed and uneven, and there was a large hole near the top of one panel.

In order to gain a better understanding of how the hanging was constructed, a detailed weave analysis was conducted by textile specialist Mary Frame. Ms. Frame's report was a great help in interpreting the lost design elements in the central panel. Her report included a set of unique semi-transparent drawings that followed yarns through both sides of the weave at once, thereby helping conservators to visualize how various methods of repair might affect the structure of the hanging.

Preliminary analyses were done at CCI. Scientists from the Analytical Research Services Division undertook polarized light microscopy, which revealed that the six colours of warp yarns were all cultivated silk (Bombyx mori) fibres. Dye analysis identified madder (red), indigo (blue), indigo and weld (blue-green and yellow-green), unripe buckthorn berries (yellow), and a soluble redwood that was probably brazilwood yellow-brown, formerly red). Thermal analysis recorded physical evidence of the fibre deterioration. An overall, very detailed photographic record was produced to chronicle the condition of the hanging as accompaniment to the written descriptions (see Figure 2).

In September 1993, CCI hosted a day-long meeting to provide a forum in which the team of textile conservators who would treat the hanging could get input and advice from art historians, curators, and scientists. Through slide lectures and informal discussions, University of Toronto Professor Michael Gervers, a ROM research associate, provided a wealth of information about the hanging's history and about the significance of the imagery portrayed on it. Dr. Adrienne Hood, ROM Assistant Curator-in-Charge, outlined the museum's curatorial wishes and the physical limitations of storage and display within the museum building. Art historian Professor Stanislaw Chojnacki, who has lived in and regularly visits Ethiopia, shared his knowledge and appreciation of the country's art. Dr. David Jarzen and Susan A. Jarzen, from the Canadian Museum of Nature, presented a pollen analysis that confirmed the Gondar Hanging's origin in Northern Ethiopia, and provided evidence about the origin of Ethiopian silk.

At the same meeting, textile conservators from other institutions who have experience in dealing with flat oversized textiles were invited to share their expertise. Nabuko Kajitani from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; Linda Eaton from the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware; and Eva Burnham of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal, were able to examine the hanging at length and generously offered their advice. After much discussion, these experts agreed in general with preliminary tests that indicated the hanging would benefit from washing.

In order to perform wet cleaning safely, a particularly difficult challenge had to be overcome: keeping the hanging immobile and fully supported while the various wash baths were applied and removed. To this end, a vacuum wash table large enough to hold the hanging was designed and constructed on site by Stefan Michalski of CCI's Environment and Deterioration Research Division.

Before washing, weak areas of the hanging were covered with a soft synthetic net, and pH and colorimetry readings were taken. The washing procedure took 12 hours and was divided into nine steps: wetting out, first application of anionic detergent solution, rinsing, second application of anionic detergent solution, rinsing, realignment, final rinsing, blotting, and drying (see Figure 3). Especially thrilling was the moment during the wetting out when the air in the lab suddenly became filled with the sweet aroma of ancient incense emanating from the wet hanging. This odour was final proof that the hanging had come from a church and not an imperial palace.

The result of the washing was gratifying. The silk yarns regained much of their original lustre, the colours were significantly more vivid, and many of the discolorations were either removed or reduced in intensity. In addition, washing enabled the hanging to be relaxed and realigned, thereby removing creases, folds, and distortions.

The next phase of the treatment involved physically stabilizing the weak, tangled, or otherwise damaged areas of the hanging. A minimalist approach was taken. The hanging was made physically secure for display, transportation, and storage with the least amount of interference to its structure. Both sides of the hanging were treated so that either side could be displayed. Exposed wefts were aligned and couched in place with hairsilk, and weak areas were reinforced by stitching with suitably coloured silk threads. The area surrounding a large hole was stitched between two patches of silk crepeline that had been dyed with Ciba Geigy Irgalan dyes to match the underlying colours of the hanging. The patches physically stabilize the area without obscuring either side of the textile. For display purposes, a life-size photograph of a sound area of the hanging can be placed under the hole to visually compensate for the area of loss.

When the hanging arrived at CCI for treatment, it had four tabs: two were stitched to the top edge with modern linen thread and two were detached. A curatorial decision was made to remove the tabs for separate treatment because their original locations could not be determined conclusively. Mounts for the tabs were designed by CCI Paper Conservator David Hannington to facilitate their use as study pieces.

For storing, transporting, and displaying the hanging, two aluminum tubes were covered with needle-felted polyester and custom-dyed silk fabric. The stored hanging is rolled on one tube. The second tube is used to display portions of the hanging in a scroll-like fashion on a solid support when there is insufficient space to display the entire textile.

In January 1995, the Gondar Hanging was returned to the ROM. It was one of the largest single conservation treatments ever undertaken at CCI. It tested the ability of CCI staff to cooperate on a broad scale to bring a large and complex project to a successful conclusion on schedule. CCI team members included conservators, scientists, photographers, and support staff, each of whom was touched by the magic beauty of the Gondar Hanging and all of whom collaborated in its preservation.

Thanks to the kind permission of CCI we can post this article on our web site. All of CCI's newsletter articles, including this one, will eventually be back on the web site in the Conservation Information Database.

Back to the Ethiopian Tabletwoven Curtains.

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May 11, 2000
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