Leather conservation training – by Zoe Wolstenholme, curatorial intern

Early leather fenders in the Windermere Jetty collection
Early leather fenders in the Windermere Jetty collection

As we took our seats at Brockhole, ready to receive head conservator at The Leather Conservation Centre Yvette Fletcher’s expert instruction, an array of colourful skins lay across the table in front of her. The skins and furs, ranging from kid and crocodile to shark and even chicken foot leather, illustrated Yvette’s point that “leather” is more diverse than many of us might first suppose. She showed us slides of Egyptian murals where hieroglyphic figures tanned and worked ancient leathers and we discussed how roman leather sandals, if properly cared for, could last into the modern day. We learned how leather “has been described as man’s first manufacturing process”.

Day one provided us with a solid theoretical grounding in the composition of leather and the principles of caring for it. We learnt about the triple helix structure of leather and the different – and varyingly gruesome – methods of tanning. That is, Yvette’s revelation that leathers may be tanned with an animal’s brain sent a shudder around the room. We were invited to touch The Leather Conservation Centre’s handling collection and as we moved and passed the pieces between us the unmistakable scent of charity shop filled the air. I was transported to second hand thrift store back rooms filled with old leather handbags. I had never noticed leather had a scent before. Each skin felt different, some (often brain-tanned) were very soft whilst others were scaly or rigid.

Getting familiar with a range of types of leather
Getting familiar with a range of types of leather


Learning about different kinds of damage
Learning about different kinds of damage

Next we turned our focus to historic leather deterioration and preservation. Yvette talked us through physical, environmental and biological damage. She emphasised how changes to objects through wear or use can be thought of as part of the object’s history. This means that we would not want to reverse this kind of “damage”, which we might be reluctant to even call “damage” at all. Indeed, a misshapen leather glove gives an impression of its owners hand; it tells the story of the object’s life. We also covered times when it is imperative to intervene in object deterioration. It is important to prevent further damage to objects once they are within a museum collection. Thus, although you could argue pests are part of an object’s history they clearly cannot be allowed to establish their permanent home in a fine pair of leather gloves!

Yvette examined some hedging mittens from the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry collection on the day, showing how one pair had been “overfed” oils over the course of their life and were now “spewing” it back out. The idea that you could overfeed leather was a revelation to me and made me worry about the amount of polish I have been applying to shoes before job interviews. Another pair of gloves were creased and she talked about how a conservator could reverse this by gradually raising the humidity of the object before gently flattening out the fold.

Yvette also spoke about a particular project that The Leather Conservation Centre are working on in preparation for the opening of Windermere Jetty in 2017. This project focuses on the conservation of original leather covered seat cushions from the elegant teak steam launch “Branksome” (1896). Made by Brockbanks of Windermere, this boat was the height of luxurious design, an aspirational statement piece. This session discussed how decisions had been made to restore the cushions rather than create replicas.

SL Branksome, 1896, as displayed in the former Windermere Steamboat Museum. Note the leather bow cushions in position.
SL Branksome, 1896, as displayed in the former Windermere Steamboat Museum. Note the leather bow cushions in position.
Yvette showing us pictures of the interior of Branksome's leather stern seat cushions
Yvette showing us pictures of the interior of Branksome’s leather stern seat cushions

Our second day saw us undertaking conservation cleaning on the collection under Yvette’s strict supervision. We were given bridles and belts from the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry collection which had been well used in their lifetimes, perhaps on working horses galloping across Lakeland fields with the tall undulating mountains behind them. We pulled aprons over our clothes and sat down to covered tables ready to examine and start cleaning our objects. We started dry cleaning using brushes to sweep dust and dirt into vacuums before moving on to microfibre cloths and smoke sponges. We also tried groomstick, a strong smelling substance like a stickier more solid version of whitetack, rolled onto cocktail sticks to get into hard to reach places.

Looking at options for cleaning the leather on some of our oars
Looking at options for cleaning the leather on some of our oars

A full and very interesting two days of theoretical learning and practical cleaning produced some very keen museum volunteers and staff and some much cleaner leather objects. A productive end to the week – thank you Yvette!

Aprons on and poised to start work under Yvette's supervision
Aprons on and poised to start work under Yvette’s supervision

Yvette will also be writing about her ongoing work on Branksome’s seat cushions, so stay tuned for an expert’s analysis of some of the most important leather pieces in our collection.

New Expressions: Kendal Skies

We’ve had a bonus week of sky exploring, making cloudy labels, finding accidental clouds and drawing golden eagles in flight. Geoff drew his eagle in great confidence with oil pastel and then layered it over his painted cliffside. Kenneth used chalk pastels to create an atmposheric sky.


During preparations for the workshop, a little bunch of pristine white labels had been dropped into a tray of ink! A happy accident! This was the inspiration for utilisng the paper that we had used to protect the floor from paint when we were painting the parasol. This was covered in drips and puddles of lovely paint and created a feeling of clouds! And so the group cut out ‘accidental’ clouds, printed weather inspired words on inky labels and continued to use paint to capture the swirling feeling of cloudy skies.


Pat created the word ‘smog’ remembering her early life in London and Joyce selected areas of dripped paint to create an accidental cloud. Annette scumbled and blended sky and cloud with paint. John drew an image of the sky with language written into the swirling shapes.


John loves the cloud book, and this led us outside to look at the skies. And back inside, the words to Somewhere Over the Rainbow filled the rooms and Annette and Pat painted rainbows.


New Expressions Week 3 in Kendal

Unsettled outside today, but inside Unit 31, such a buzz of creative activity!

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Pat was very taken with the parasol sky and although she finds it very difficult to hold paintbrushes at the moment, she thoroughly enjoyed getting as close as possible and reaching out to feel the fabric. We covered her in plastic sheeting as the sky painters were very expressive with their paintwork today!


Meanwhile, the printing, collaging and stitching into cloud sections continued. Mary had found some songs inspired by the weather, so the afternoon was punctuated by joyful bursts of Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head, I’m Singin’ in the Rain, and Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

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Harriet and Ruth were folding lengths of dyed fabric to be used to carry lines of poetry into the canopy. A new word – cloud-folding! And a lovely connection with the first poem to be created by the group this summer – it’s title – ‘Unfolding a Sky Map.

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They spent time looking again at the map….


…..before the weather itself drew us outside. What a sky! Enormous. Tumultous. Glorious!

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And the sky, never before so beautiful, seeps into our hearts to hold them like dreams….