Interviewed: 5 March 2002
Left: Sue Stanton working on the conservation of the Reigate doublet
Sue Stanton is a textile conservator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. She worked on a doublet that had been found concealed during the final year of her Textile Conservation diploma, at The Textile Conservation Centre, in 1990. The doublet was found by Mr Stoneman in Reigate, Surrey.
What follows is a summary of an interview conducted on 5 March 2002, with Sue Stanton.
How did you first hear about the Reigate doublet?
“Whilst studying at The Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) a really interesting object was brought into the workroom next door. We all went through and had a look at it and thought this looked like an interesting thing.
It had been redirected to the TCC from the Museum of London. It was all boxed up in tissue paper and when you opened it up you saw what some unsympathetic person would describe as a crumpled old bit of brown rag. However, when you look at it closely, you get an odd glimpse of a construction detail, a buttonhole or a button and this fascinated me. As soon as I saw it, I thought about choosing it for my third year detailed project as this was the sort of thing I really wanted to work on for a long project.”
What exactly is the Reigate doublet? Could you give a brief description of where, when it was found?
“The Reigate doublet, as I saw it that first day, looked like a bit of old sack. A sort of coarsely woven fabric, all crumpled up and covered in dust and grit and of a brownish colour. However, you could tell that it must be several hundred years old and you could see that there was a lot more information to be gained from it if you looked at it and studied it in more detail. So, it was just this really enticing thing.”
What made you realise that it was a garment?
“You could see details of the collar structure with two long stemmed hand made buttons. The buttons were almost a bead at the end that had been wrapped around with thread and with twisted thread coming out of the bottom to create the stem of the button. So there were these really finely constructed buttons you could see peaking out from between the creases and crumples. You could also see a lacing strip on the lining of the doublet, which gave you an indication that it was quite a historic garment because the lacing strip was a 17th century feature, which was used for lacing the doublet to the hose.”
So it was quite unique?
“Not many garments of that period exist simply due to the time that has gone by. What also makes the Reigate doublet unique is that it appeared to be an item of working dress. A lot of things that have survived from that period have survived because they were very special and high status and people treasured them. On the whole everyday costume only seems to survive by accident. As a result something like this is quite rare and it also appeared to be made of coarsely woven linen. A high proportion of working dress that survives is made of wool because it has been preserved in wet conditions, such as bogs. In those conditions the protein fibres such as wool and silk survive but all the cellulosic fibres disappear, whereas this is an entire garment made out of linen, a cellulosic fibre.”
Where was the doublet found and under what conditions?
“It was found in a historic property in Reigate which is currently a stonemasons. During a shop refit in 1990, they were knocking through at about ceiling height on the ground floor above a big old fireplace and they saw the object, which turned out to be the doublet. Someone thankfully spotted the buttons and recognised it as a garment, put it a plastic bag and started the process by which it came to the TCC.”
How did the opportunity to work on the doublet come about?
“I requested the project after having seen the doublet as my third year investigation project. Even at that early stage I felt that I did not want to do a lot of practical interventive conservation on the piece but realised there was a lot of information to be gathered and documented and it could provide a real resource.”
Did you contact the people who found the doublet and discuss issues with the owners?
“I went down and visited the premises in Reigate. They showed me the building where it had been found and I met the people who had been working on the shop refurbishment. Early on they were not terribly excited but thankfully they had enough interest in it to get it to the Museum of London.”
Did they have any specific wishes in what they wanted you to do with the doublet and if so how important was their imput on your decisions?
“They did not have any firm views about what they wanted done to the doublet. They wanted it to come back to Reigate and be used as a facility to the local community but they were not sure in what form exactly this would happen. This had quite a large impact on how I went about the treatment because I did not know the exact long-term future role of the object. I did not want to do anything irreversible. The way you treat an object is influenced by what its final destination is going to be. If an object is going to a design or costume museum then the priority of the information you want from it is the construction of the garment and the look of the garment. Therefore you might want to flatten it all out and make it look as much like a garment as you possibly can. Whereas, if the object would be going to an archaeological museum it might be that people wanted to study exactly in what form it was retrieved from the wall and what evidence of its past use was still contained within it. I did not want to go down any of those paths without knowing that it was the right path. As a result it was quite a dilemma of how to satisfy the finders requirements but not block off any of these future possible roles at the same time.”
What did you finally decide to do?
“In the end I decided that I would leave the actual original doublet in almost the same state in which it was found. Only lifting off some of the loose debris to prevent it from getting into the weave of the piece and creating abrasion and accelerating its deterioration. I left most of the creasing because you could still see that it was a garment. I was able to take a pattern and made a replica of the garment which I could display on a form next to the original piece, so that people could interpret what they were looking at and not regard it as a crumpled piece of cloth.”
Where there any major difficulties?
“I would say that the most challenging bit was actually to get an accurate pattern from this soiled and crumpled garment, because precisely this problem had never been tackled before. I developed a very time consuming technique where I would get a piece of thread and actually pin it along the threads in the weave at roughly one-cm long intervals. The thread was flexible so it could go in and out of all the creases and follow along the same line as the weave. It would go from one seam to the next seam and then I took that thread off, measured it and plotted that onto graph paper. Then I did the same with the next cm and so on. Moving up the graph paper I got a profile of the pattern piece. I did that with the whole doublet and was able to get a pattern. It was fortuitous that although the doublet was not complete (a lot of the left front was missing and parts of the back and one sleeve nearly completely missing). At least one half of each pattern piece was there. So where the left front was missing you could create a mirror image from the right front piece available. The missing pieces also helped because they exposed the internal construction – so you could recreate that quite accurately as well. For example, the collar area had quite a lot of layers of padding to keep its shape. If the garment had been complete you would not have had the access to see these construction details.”
With hindsight would you proceed in the same manner in solving the problem?
“I feel quite confident that it was the right treatment to implement and I do not think I would have done it any differently because it was non-interventive with the actual physical object. One of things I am doing currently, is recreating the doublet replica, just using my report to see if that data is sufficient even after five years. As the doublet was made of course linen it is still possible to buy almost exactly the same material today. That is one reason why it is such a satisfying replica because one is not distracted by an almost too synthetic and new looking velvet. Though it is low key it is very accurate.”
What should be done with the original doublet in your opinion?
“I do not see any point in the doublet being put back where it was found. In my opinion it was not necessarily put there for any great ritual significance. After studying the piece I felt that it was a heavily used garment, worn almost until it died. My personal scenario, which I made up to go with it, is that it had been worn by a youth (it is only a small doublet with a 32-inch chest) who had been working with the builders. His jacket was gradually getting beaten up and falling off his back and they bundled it up and put it into the wall after having torn away part of the front to use as a cleaning rag or similar. Though it was found with an inkbottle I see no reason for a superstitious connection in any way. I think it would be best on display in Reigate, to inspire people about their local history.”