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.

Sails: are they as robust as they look?

Sails…aren’t they tough as old boots, used to rain, wind and sun, designed to withstand unbelievably strong forces? Yes, they are – but it is because of the rugged life that they’ve led in Windermere weather that we have to take special care of them now if we want to extend their lifespan well beyond their original makers’ expectations.

Fine craftsmanship on Dawn's 1934 2nd foresail
Fine craftsmanship on Dawn’s 1934 2nd foresail – and evidence of wear

Our oldest sail in the collection belongs to 1934 17ft Windermere yacht Dawn. It dates from the year of her launch and still has its original sailbag. Other absolute beauties also survive from the 1930s – all made by prestigious sailmakers Ratsey and Lapthorn of Cowes.

Ratsey and Lapthorn stamp on Dawn's 2nd foresail 1934
The Ratsey and Lapthorn stamp on Dawn’s 1934 2nd foresail

Now we are taking a museum approach to their preservation, bearing in mind their greatly increased fragility due to years of exposure to light, moisture and dirt.  We called on accredited textile conservator Michelle Harper to advise us, knowing that she’s worked on HMS Victory’s sails, so is used to challenges on a grand scale. Michelle ran a sail surface cleaning workshop in our space at Brockhole Visitor Centre and kept a very close eye on us while we laboured under her tuition. We were really pleased with the results which will help us move on with a ‘deeper’ clean of more of the sails in the collection but struck just the right balance between removing more recent soiling while keeping evidence of historic use.

Training from Michelle in how to use a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt
Carefully supervised training from Michelle in how to use a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt
A successful tissue paper sausage can be a dangerous weapon...
We also practised the best packing methods for sails and sail bags. A successful tissue paper sausage can be a dangerous weapon…

We used ‘smoke sponges’ and old fashioned elbow grease rather than water, but will also be sending Dawn’s classy 1949 sails away to Michelle for tests in preparation for a specialist conservation wet clean. The 1949 set will then be on display in our new exhibition space in rotation with the 1930s set to avoid excessive light exposure.

Michelle and Dorothy working on Dawn's 2nd foresail from 1934
Conservator Michelle and Volunteer Dorothy working on Dawn’s 2nd foresail from 1934 in the display space at Brockhole

Right now, our newly trained staff and volunteer team can’t wait to try out new skills and clean the rest of the sail collection. It may be rewarding, but cleaning with the smoke sponge is also really hard physical work, so we’re not even going to try to calculate the total sail area that still needs our attention!

Astrid working on one of Dawn's 1930s sailbags
Volunteer Astrid working methodically on Dawn’s 1949 sailbag

More progress with SL Osprey

Lifting SL Osprey's Sissons of Gloucester compound engine into position
Lifting SL Osprey’s Sissons of Gloucester compound engine into position

It was an exciting moment for everyone on the Windermere Jetty conservation team as Sissons engine no 591 was lifted into position in SL Osprey, after careful restoration for operational use by our staff and volunteers.

This beautiful little compound launch engine has always been one for showing off. It was considered such an important example of design and efficiency that it was exhibited at the Wolverhampton Arts and Industry exhibition – and then at the V&A in 1902. It’s no surprise that it soon found its way to Windermere, where vessel owners wanted only the very best to complement their elegantly built vessels.

This engine powered Mrs Ainsworth’s steam launch Water Viper until the Second World War, when, like so many others, it was replaced by a petrol engine. Fortunately it was saved by a private collector and in due course returned to Windermere and to the Windermere Jetty collection.

How lovely to think that, by the time the museum reopens, 1902 SL Osprey will be gliding across Windermere with the help of this historic little engine and bringing the same pleasure to visitors that it did to its private owners over a century ago.

The persistence, consideration and time that goes into a project like the restoration of SL Osprey cannot be estimated in hours alone. We owe a big thank you to all our volunteers and supporters who have helped us get to this point.

Adrian Stone and Matt Foot fitting the engine into position
Adrian Stone and Matt Foot fitting the engine into position
Engine and boiler in position
Engine and boiler in position


A fragile piece of history

We’re working on the smaller objects that will be shown with the boats in the new Windermere Jetty museum. It’s about thinking and seeking advice first – then working carefully, stopping, assessing, and thinking some more before continuing.
Volunteer Mel has been cleaning a fragile seat from Sir Henry Segrave’s boMIss England II card signed by Segraveat, Miss England II which capsized and sank during his water speed record attempt of 1930. Segrave and his crew achieved an average of 98.76 mph before the disaster in which he and engineer Victor Halliwell were killed. The boat was salvaged by Windermere boatbuilders and pursued further records but no longer exists.

The seat was preserved and used by surviving engineer Michael Willcocks. It is an emotive remnant from an iconic and tragic vessel. Pictures and film show the unbelievably lightweight seat perched in Segrave’s so-called  ‘bomb in an eggshell’. Behind it, the twin Rolls Royce R type V-12 engines, barely contained in 5 tonnes of boat, are ready to roar into action.
The chair was dull and grey all over with a thick coating of dust. Over time, this would attract moisture andMel cleaning Miss England II seat cause further damage, as well as detracting from the appearance. Mel methodically removed the loose dirt with a brush and low suction vacuum cleaner then worked slowly over the surface with a smoke sponge.
The hardest thing was to know when to stop. Cleaning can become addictive but we only want to remove dirt, rather than bits of the object or historic evidence attached to it.
Here’s the finished result, ready for our Segrave display in the new museum. Working on something like this, you really are aware of the heavy weight of history and human experience behind it.
It is a moving and sobering experience and we approach it with caution and respect.

A seasonal rustle of acid free tissue paper…


Christmas wrapping is on many minds at the moment. As I wielded ribbon and paper this weekend, I contemplated some of the wonderful and moving things we’ve packed and unpacked at the Windermere Steamboat Museum this year.


Recently we inspected parts from a logboat found in Kentmere. What a feeling to be (carefully…) handling objects from around 1300- 1320! Better still, we know that the unknown person who made this was at the absolute cutting edge of boat design; while just hollowing out a log to create a floating vessel was already tried and tested, this builder was pursuing innovation by inserting ribs and building up the sides to give greater freeboard and stability. It’s a first- hand insight into the very beginning of a design process lasting for centuries and reaching a pinnacle in the elegant perfection of our nineteenth century Windermere steam launches.

T0249 Undine plaque (1)

This beautiful gilded plaque commemorates the Windermere involvement in the adoption of Fleet Destroyer, HMS Undine in 1942. The Windermere passenger steamer, Tern, was also renamed Undine during the Second World War, when she was put to a new use as a cadet training vessel. It’s a poignant reminder of how leisure activity on Windermere was transformed by war and ordinary family lives disrupted.

Sunderland sea plane model

Here’s further evidence of that change; this little model of a Sunderland flying boat was made by a worker at the Short Sunderland factory at White Cross Bay, where many local people were employed during the war. The full size Sunderland flying boats that they produced would have momentarily dwarfed all other Windermere vessels, before taking off for military service around the world. This tiny chap is about 200 times smaller than the real thing.

P1230478palissy regatta blue bowl

For those with seasonal amounts of food and drink on the mind, what about these? I can’t decide whether I’d rather unwrap Colonel Ridehalgh’s chunky, personalised dinner service from his 1879 steam yacht Britannia, or this stylish Palissy ‘blue regatta’ tea set from some 70 years later. Which would you rather find under the tree on Christmas morning?