Curators’ Colloquium Q&A

Compiled by Roslyn Chapman

The colloquium prompted several questions which the speakers were unable to answer on the day. These questions were sent to the speakers, and we are very grateful to them for taking the time to provide such detailed and lengthy answers.

Please see our event listing for the full programme and speaker profiles.

Carol Christiansen

Curator & Community Museums Officer, Shetland Museum and Archives

Yes, we continue to work with Shetland College’s Textile Department to use our collection as inspiration or design influence for fabrics (knit and tweed), patterning, style and shaping of garments. I have presented lectures there on particular types of fabric construction such as pile weaves and on the history of Shetland textiles. We have an art piece on permanent display in the textile gallery linking lace design to the Truck system of barter that knitters were forced to operate within in the past. The piece was developed by a textile artist working with one of our local lace knitters.

Yes, we have a large bank of oral history sound recordings in the Shetland Archives’ collection. We have recently accepted some recorded oral histories as part of a donation and had them digitised for safe storage. These will be researched more thoroughly in the next 18 months to see how they can be made more accessible to the public, whilst adhering to copyright and GDPR guidance. We usually perform a brief oral history interview with donors of knitwear in particular, asking specific questions about the lives of garments. These are not recorded but the information is kept in our records about the objects.

The fragments of knitting found archaeologically are from the excavations at The Biggings, Papa Stour, and can be found in that excavation volume by Barbara Crawford and Beverley Ballin Smith. They were not excavated in such a way at the time to allow for accurate dating. We can only say that they date from c.1600-1900.

Thank you for your question, this is something we grapple with and deserves more discussion. As a museum we wish to collect as much information as we can about objects in our collection but some of that information must be treated carefully by us. If the information is already in the public domain – genealogical website, family Facebook page, other published works, then we do not need to obtain permission to use it publicly, such as in a presentation, exhibition, publication.

If the donor provides us with information, we will record this in our collections catalogue, but before we use or share it, we sometimes contact the donor again, or the family if the donor is no longer alive. This is to explain what we wish to use and how we want to use it, and to obtain permission from them. In some cases, this is simply a courtesy, but it is important nonetheless, especially in a small community such as Shetland. We want our donors to be pleased with how their donation is portrayed.

Other times we consider ways we can make the same point without having to use names, dates, home croft, personal information. But historical research can bring forth much personal information, especially for the last 100 to 200 years, since people began to be documented in birth, marriage and death certificates, the census, business records, in newspapers, etc. It is possible by careful study of a genealogical website, for example, to consider whether a couple were married before the conception of their first child, or if a spouse conceived a child by another person while they were still married.

By looking at records for merchant seamen and comparing to census records it is possible to get an idea how much time a woman spent without her husband in raising children, managing a croft, etc. In other words, it is sometimes possible to understand how complicated people’s lives were and this has a bearing when examining their creativity or output as a knitter, for example. But it must be done with sensitivity to the people in question.

As an example, I curated a show about weddings a few years ago. In researching one recently donated late 19th century dress through a genealogical website I realised that the woman married in it was five months pregnant at the time. The family had kindly donated the wedding photograph and it was possible to see a small bump at the front, although her hands were crossed over her abdomen. I wanted to display this dress as an example of the reality of some women’s lives, which had been highlighted in a recent book published about Shetland women who went to court to ensure they received compensation from men who impregnated but refused to marry them.

The younger generation of the donating family were okay with my proposal but the older generation was not, and so I felt I could not put this dress on display in this way. We have included this information within our collections catalogue but when we have a public interface to our catalogue it will not be readily evident. It is still possible to work out from the genealogical website. In the end it is about balance in reporting historical information while respecting the community within which we work, so that relationship of mutual support and respect continues.

Unfortunately, we have had considerable administrative changes in the last 5 years, which has led to continual changing management priorities, delaying any progress on a publicly accessible catalogue. Curatorial staff continue to digitise new and existing objects in the collection and update the catalogue for the time when this will be possible. It is a high priority within the organisation.

Yes, we must ensure that certain pieces of information are kept secure, or only accessible through contact with a curator. It may be important to identify individuals at times, and in those cases I contact the donor or family if this is possible. Otherwise we do not divulge this information. However, knit designers who wish to copy knits from our collection for pattern publication are advised that the original designer of the piece needs to be acknowledged in print as the original designer whenever possible.

The terminology of knits is very problematic. Jumper usually does mean no opening but can also be used to mean in a general sense, a knitted garment worn on the torso by men, women and children, usually over other garments such as a shirt. This can also describe a pullover. A jumper once could be sleeved or no sleeves, but today a no sleeve jumper would be considered a sleeveless pullover.

Cardigan usually referred to a man’s knitted garment, with or without sleeves, worn over another garment. It had a front opening, originally V-neck. The neck shaping is now not specifically V-shaped and a cardigan today is expected to have sleeves. A sleeveless cardigan today is a waistcoat. In addition to these terms, there is lumber, meaning a cardigan-like garment but slightly heavier and with a central opening to the neck, either buttoned or zipped. This term may only be used in Shetland, or other areas of Scotland. It is quite common in Shetland, although I have only ever heard it refer to women’s or children’s garments. I may have used jumper in the general sense during my talk to refer to a buttoned front knit to avoid having to go into whether it is a cardigan or a lumber.

Helen Wyld

Senior Curator, National Museums of Scotland

Many colleagues at NMS are also keen knitters. A former colleague made a replica of the Alexander Crum Brown three-layer knitting. I am planning a jumper inspired by the Stanley Cursiter Fair Isle jumper, and also experimenting with Shepherd’s Knitting (‘cleekit’) following the publication of the Scottish bootees by Cary Karp (see PieceWork magazine, winter 2020).

Yes, oral histories have been collected as part of the Scottish Life Archive and this also includes written transcripts or summaries of oral histories; and we look after oral history collected by others, for example the Salt of the Earth collection. Much of our oral history collection is being digitised by the National Library of Scotland: (see:

The Arnish Moor and Gunnister bodies were found in peat bogs, which deprived them of oxygen so saved them from decomposing; wool also survives well in acidic environments which also applies to peat bogs. The conditions in Egypt are warm and dry which is excellent for the preservation of textiles, leading to the survival of many ancient textiles there – including much older ones than the Coptic sock that we have.

In addition to the answer provided by Helen Wyld, the following comments came from the Chat on the day:

If it was buried in Egypt, it was very dry in the sand, so it wouldn’t discompose.

If the burial environment excludes oxygen, it can slow decay tremendously.

Sometimes objects come buried in an anaerobic environment which delays decomposition. This is similar to the phenomenon of the bog people, found both in Scotland and the mountains of Peru.

The caps date to the sixteenth century and were found in London; as far as I know they have not been published though similar ones have been.

The two complete bodies are published and catalogued, and date from the late 17th/early 18th century:

You can also find images by searching for ‘Gunnister’ and ‘Arnish Moor’ at

For many early Scottish textiles natural fleece colours were used as well as locally produced natural dyes. Research on early tartans shows that imported dyes were being used far earlier than previously thought. I don’t know of any detailed research on the dyes used in Fair Isle knitting.

At NMS we keep all our textiles in a purpose built store where humidity and temperature are kept within strict limits; they are also kept in the dark. Objects are not washed as a matter of course, if it is necessary we would use a mild conservation grade detergent; we would not block textiles but allow them to dry flat.

See answer to Q6; we also have active pest management in our store and all objects are quarantined (which in most cases frozen) before the enter the store to avoid importing pests.

For the Arnish Moor body, the article cited above mentions that the bonnet was found to be dyed with indigo, but analysis on the red dye for the decorative band was inconclusive.

There has been dye analysis on some early Scottish tartans which revealed surprising results, summarised here:

See Stella Ruhe, ‘Dutch Traditional Ganseys’.

Slightly related: the Rijksmuseum has a number of colourful knitted caps worn by Dutch whalers who died at Spitsbergen in the 17th/18th centuries.

[These and other resources are listed at the end of our blog about the Colloquium.]

Frances Lennard

Professor of Textile Conservation (History of Art), University of Glasgow

Traditional restoration aims to make objects look whole again (or to continue to function) and to make repairs invisible. The aim of conservation is different: to stabilise objects for the long term, and also to help them to be interpreted and understood, by museum visitors for example. Conservators don’t want to mislead the viewer so any intervention should be obvious, at least on close inspection, so that you can see the extent of the original object. This means we don’t lose any information about it or its history.

The fabric is selected for each individual project, so that it blends with the original object visually and is unobtrusive. Jo Hackett is right that a smooth fabric gives the best results for printing.

Comment in the Chat on the day from J. Hackett : Yes, the fabric chosen for the digital patch depends on the fabric being supported with the patch. A relatively smooth fabric is usually needed for successful printing.

I’m sorry that this work is not published.

But for those who have access to Academic journals, the following may be of interest:

Lennard, F., Baldursdóttir, T. and Loosemore, V. 2008. Using digital and hand printing techniques to compensate for loss: re-establishing colour and texture in historic textiles. The Conservator, 31, 57-67, doi:10.1080/01410096.2008.9995232.

The answer to these two questions is really the same. We generally want our treatments to be unobtrusive, when an object is on display, for example. So the aim is for an object to look whole on initial view. But when you look closely, it should be possible to distinguish the original object from later treatments. There is a spectrum of treatments however, based on the object’s history and the context within which it is being treated. So it may sometimes be appropriate for the treatment to be more visible – if there is a tapestry or embroidery with a large area missing, for example, we may just support this area with a plain-coloured patch, so it doesn’t draw your attention, but it’s clearly an addition.

We would normally use the same fibre type, so that it has the same properties as the original, and responds similarly to environmental conditions, and we would match the colour pretty closely, so it is unobtrusive. But we would want the new yarn to look slightly different, in thickness or twist perhaps, so that it can be distinguished from the original.

The MPhil Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow is accessible to disabled students and students with mobility difficulties, and I’m sure this is the case for other conservation programmes too. Please do get in touch to discuss particular requirements. Textile conservation students come from a range of backgrounds – you need a good first-degree (2:1 or equivalent) but this can be in any subject. Conservation is a very interdisciplinary subject so textiles, art, history, chemistry, museum studies or conservation, among others, are all good first degree subjects. For more information, see:

No, usually not. We use synthetic dyes to dye our support fabrics, because they are more easily matched to the original colour of an object than natural dyes would be. They also need to meet high light-fastness and wash-fastness standards.

We are fortunate to have our own extensive reference collection of historic textiles, with typical forms of damage, which students work on when they first begin to carry out treatments. They soon move on to work on objects which belong to museums and other clients, under supervision of course. We carefully select projects for individual students to give them appropriate experience according to their needs, and to ensure they encounter a wide range of treatment and object types through the course of the programme. It’s important to get that real experience of working on historic objects.

Lisa Mason

Assistant Curator (Modern & Contemporary Design), National Museum of Scotland

Not yet but we hope to work with Glasgow University on just such a project so watch this space.

There are tentative plans for the exhibition to travel to UK and Scandinavian venues but nothing is confirmed just yet.

Yes, my colleagues at the Bernat Klein Foundation are currently working on a contract with a publisher. Please subscribe to the Bernat Klein Foundation mailing list for future updates:

A complex question, the Museum has an acquisitions budget and strict criteria for acquisitions in line with our collecting policy, all acquisitions are considered in relation to the existing collection and the Museum’s mission statement. As curators we also have to consider very practical things such as conservation requirements and the space within our object stores. Often the Museum is approached with generous offers of donations and this allows us to keep adding to the collection at no cost. In instances where a collection is internationally significant and in line with our collecting policy, as was the case with the Bernat Klein collection, we will make a decision to purchase. Independent appraisals and valuations were sought prior to acquiring this collection.

The garments were constructed in Hong Kong but I am not sure exactly where.

Klein did not invent space-dyeing but he was the first person to use this technique on mohair for industrially produced (as opposed to handwoven) cloth. Klein was influenced by colour theory and post-impressionist art, particularly the pointillist works of George Seurat, and used brushed, space-dyed mohair to achieve pointillist effects in woven cloth. If you are interested in this side of Klein’s work I would highly recommend his 1965 autobiography Eye for Colour.

Jen Gordon and Federica Papiccio

Assistant Curators, Scottish Fisheries Museum

Several years ago we held an event called “Spinning Yarns” in partnership with a young designer who was at that time working for Johnstons of Elgin and then designed for Brora, now Joules. Gillian Henny led a workshop through the day where participants sketched around the museum then translated the sketches into designs on knitting machines and in the evening we had a fashion show of some of her work inspired by our collections and the maritime environment.

We’ve held knitting workshops for children with Esther Rutter and for adults with Di Gilpin and Sheila Greenwell and at the moment we are collecting knitted herring and bunting featuring gansey stitches from individual members of the public for our exhibition “Shoal” available to see on our Knitting the Herring project website

We do, we have a small oral history archive from times at the museum when we had resources/capacity to specifically allocate to actively collecting oral histories but we also informally collect information from visitors to the museum, attendees of exhibitions and events, invited guest speakers and donors of artefacts etc. then add it to our information and library files or object/photograph records. We are increasingly conscious that the authentic voice of the fishing community coming through in our interpretation is important and appreciated.

Over the winter of 2017-2018 the Scottish Fisheries Museum had the unique privilege of being the only Scottish location (and one of only two UK venues) to host the European tour of Dutch textile expert, Stella Ruhe’s, exquisitely recreated traditional fishermen’s sweaters or Visserstruien.

We displayed 40 of the 150 recreated ganseys, and visitors were able to get a distinct impression of the diversity and complexity of the patterns and the skill required to produce these garments.

Stella travelled around the coastal villages of the Netherlands identifying multiple, distinct patterns incorporated into Dutch fishermen’s jumpers from photographs then recruited volunteers to help recreate 150 of them using modern yarn and the traditional knitting methods. The resulting exhibition, illustrated with archive photography showing Dutch fishermen wearing the original designs, makes for a compelling insight into this cultural folk phenomenon and female craft heritage which spans not only the entire coastline of the British Isles but also, as only relatively recently discovered, down the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands.

Stella came to Anstruther and presented a talk about her research in which she spoke about the shared North Sea Gansey tradition – it was very much her hope that a collaborative exhibition of Dutch and British ganseys could be created and toured. We sadly had to postpone an exhibition of her Dutch Children’s Ganseys due to be finishing around now… Hopefully it will go ahead later this year, (the ganseys are down in Sheringham Museum at the moment) but a touring, collaborative exhibition feels rather ambitious at the moment in light of both Brexit and the Pandemic!!

A proposed gansey festival hosted by Di Gilpin in the East Neuk has also been put on hold but it was envisaged that the international links forged by the gansey tradition would have been a topic for discussion at that. I have a copy of Henriette van der Klift-Tellegen’s “Knitting from the Netherlands” book on my desk but I must admit it’s a topic that could be explored further by us … a subject for the Knitting the Herring website blog perhaps if you know anyone who would like to write about the connection for us?!

To create a 3D model of our Eriskay gansey we used a digital SLR camera, a mannequin with removable arms, a turntable to rotate and capture the object in small increments (for our project, we used a common Lazy Susan!), a tripod to hold the camera steady, a couple of studio lights and a softbox photography tent.

First, we displayed the garment on the mannequin and on the turntable, and placed it against a dark plain background, while ensuring that the object was evenly lit. We took overlapping high-res photographs of the item – the goal was taking images that were equidistant from each other and equidistant from the object, so that about 30% of each of the photographs overlapped with the previous one. In doing so, by rotating the turntable, we covered the object in circuits and took photographs of the item at multiple angles, thus creating a dome of images around the object.

Lastly, we turned the object upside down and captured the underside. Due to the complex shape of the garment, the process required us to capture about 120 high-res images to ensure the creation of a detailed 3D model. We then manipulated the images on Photoshop and removed background noise; subsequently, we processed the images using Agisoft Metashape (the software we selected for 3D modelling), where we aligned and masked the photographs, and built mesh and photo texture. Finally, we exported the model by using the program – and obtained our very first 3D visual representation of a gansey!

For the purposes of the database, we are approaching organisations and private collectors to obtain information pertaining to physical items exclusively. However, we have an extensive selection of historic photographs of fishermen wearing ganseys featured on our project’s website (, and we welcome any type of audio or visual material that would help us enrich this digital repository of Scottish gansey heritage. So if anyone has any audio or visual material featuring ganseys, then it would be great to hear from them – please email if you are happy to contribute any gansey-related material.

When documenting gansey material, we aim to capture as much information pertaining to these garments as we can. The database doesn’t feature a specific field in which to capture dye information, however we tend to use the ‘Notes’ tab to record this sort of detail (whenever available). Therefore, if we know that a gansey has been knitted using commercially dyed yarn as opposed to wool dyed with natural material (or vice-versa), then we would make a note of this on the database – the more information we can record, the merrier!