Conserving a Tibetan Headdress

Conservator Karen Horton spent two weeks and two days in February this year repairing the elaborate and rare Tibetan woman’s headdress – complete with gorgeous turqoise and coral stones – for the Himalayan Fashion exhibition at Lotherton.

The headdress, called a pagor, is made from rolls of cotton, covered in red wool cloth, studded with silver mounted turquoise jewels and smaller turquoise and coral stones. The top most length or hoop is usually reinforced with cane. This pagor came to Leeds Museums as part of the University of Leeds collection transferred in 2013. The University acquired it in the late 1940’s from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London, who were dispersing their material around the UK. We do not know exactly when the headdress left Tibet, but it was probably in the early 1920’s, when the pharmacist Henry Wellcome had specialists purchasing world items at auction in London, Paris and Amsterdam. When the current Leeds World Cultures Curator, Antonia Lovelace, saw the pagor in the late 1990’s it was in bits.

The Tibetan headdress before conservation.
The Tibetan headdress before conservation.

One red wool roll had been completely destroyed by moth attack and the moth larvae had also chewed at the remaining two rolls, weakening them so much that the stones were all loose, and were kept in separate bags. In Spring 2017 when the idea of the Himalayan Fashion exhibition was approved, we put a call out for conservators to quote for a full repair. Karen Horton was chosen because of her expertise in Tibetan art and because of her skill working with Fosshape™ (a 2-strand thermally heat activated polyester – a mouldable imitation felt material) and magnets.

Karen came to work on the headdress in the research room at Leeds Discovery Centre on 5 February, setting up a dedicated work station for her stay.  Before this she had undertaken extensive research on similar headdresses, so we knew that the only similar one in UK collections was at the National Museum of Scotland. The Curator at NMS shared with us a full description of their headdress, and its own conservation story.  Gradually Karen firmed up the interior of the surviving red wool covered structures.

The areas of moth damage loss were infilled using a conservation dyed red silk stitched support, encased in a layer of fine red net, fixed in with very delicate, almost invisible stitching.  Karen moulded a replacement for the missing third roll using Fosshape, realising that this one should have an up-curve, to go over the front of any wearer’s head.  The up-curve was supported by a cloth covered mount. All the silver or white metal mounted turquoise jewels received a gentle swabbing surface clean, as did the multi-strands of tiny pearl like stones. The mounted jewels are now fastened to the rear vertical central cloth support with magnets. All the individual turquoise and coral stones were then cleaned and their piercing checked before they could be sewn down on the front roll to make the headdress complete.

The work took two more days than anticipated but it was worth it! The headdress now looks fabulous.

By Karen Horton, Conservator.

Himalayan Fashion is now open in the Lotherton Fashion Galleries. Find out more about the exhibition.

Discover more about our World Cultures collection over on our website.

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