Outside the scientific community, knowledge and understanding of synthetic textile fibres in museum collections tends to be diffuse and limited. As a result, garments made from these synthetic fibres are liable to be neglected. This guide addresses this knowledge gap. Its aims are to:
- bring together in one document, key information to support the curation of semi-synthetic and synthetic garments of all types.
- increase confidence nationally in the curation of semi-synthetic and synthetic garments: their history, interpretation, care and identification.
- improve the ability of museums to engage the public with these parts of their collections whatever the focus of the museum.
We hope this guide will be useful to curators and researchers at all levels of knowledge, but it has been written principally to increase understanding of these object types among curators and other collection care professionals without specialist expertise in textiles and fashion or scientific knowledge of semi-synthetic and synthetic materials. It also endeavours to address the needs of those without access to sophisticated technology and in-house conservators. Its contents are designed to be applicable not only to museums where garments are central to their subject but also to those with a different focus, for example sport, warfare, or firefighting, where garments may be a small part of the narrative but often those in which synthetic fibres are widely used.
Many of the issues that synthetic garments present are shared by garments made of traditional materials. In the interest of brevity, this guide focuses specifically on the issues that are peculiar to garments made of semi and fully synthetic materials.
We have taken a selective approach based on the materials used in the Documented garment exemplars. The collections which supported this project offered these garments as exemplars. The collections have many materials in common and we have featured these alongside some seemingly more unusual materials and others which represent fibre innovations that may be commonly used in the future. The latter include Polylactide (PLA) which we decided to include as an example of a bio-based fibre even though none of the collections with whom we worked has an example of a garment made using this technology yet.
These are limited to items that are worn but exclude shoes as DATS intends to create a separate resource on footwear. Accessories are limited to those found on garments such as belts, buckles and buttons. The clothes featured in the toolkit range from made-to-measure outfits to street style and protective wear alongside a core group of ordinary, everyday clothes. All were made for adult wearers.
Ways of making
Most of the garments were manufactured commercially. Some were home-made.
We have tried to survey the fullest possible range of semi and fully synthetic materials from their invention in the nineteenth century up to the present. We regret that we have been unable to include documented exemplars of some of the very earliest semi-synthetic materials, for example Chardonnet silk and more examples of regenerated protein fibres.
Up to the middle of the twentieth century, most of the featured garments and the fabrics from which they are made, originate in Western Europe and the USA. Thereafter, there is a wider range of countries of origin, reflecting the increasing globalisation of production. However, it is important to remember that manufacturing semi-synthetic fibres before the World War Two was not limited to the USA and Western Europe. By the 1930s Japan, for instance, was among the world’s leading producers of viscose rayon.