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.
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.
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.
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!
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.