The project in detail
We recently treated three panels of embroidery that once formed part of some 19th Century Kiswa made for the holy Ka’ba at Mecca. Each year a new Kiswa is embroidered in the traditional manner and often the old one is divided up and the pieces distributed as holy relics. Our panels date from the 1870’s and came to us for treatment from the Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority Collection in the UEA.
The larger panels are from the door curtain known as the sitara or burqu and the smaller panel (kardashiya) comes from the decorative belt (hizam) of the Kiswa. Having only seen images of the Kiswa panels prior to their arrival from Dubai we were initially amazed at the reality of both their design and construction. The immediate challenge for us was their size combined with their non-rollable construction and their enormous weight. Vast amounts of metal threads and wires are embroidered and wrapped over heavy cotton padding that is worked through coloured silk to heavy linen backing cloths. We had to make large polycarbonate handling boards to lie the embroideries on that took six of us to lift and move around the studio. Safely turning each textile over lifting rollers and using Melinex to prevent the spikey metal thread from dragging against the silk was challenging too.
Each Kiswa spends a year outside covering the Ka’ba in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram. This means that they become very soiled from being exposed to the dusty, sandy environment withstanding extremes of temperature and fluctuating humidities. There may even have been some rain. The embroideries therefore needed a really thorough surface clean; layers of cemented dust had to be carefully scraped from the reverse of the cloths and dust from the surface of the silks and metal threads had to be gently suctioned away. The metal elements were left very tarnished and so after extensive testing we found that Mircro Sponge gave the most effective and least damaging cleaning result. The many small holes in the coloured silk areas were supported onto custom dyed patches of silk that we inserted and stitched into position.
Once cleaned and conserved, we had to find a satisfactory solution not only to their safe transportation but also their long-term storage and display. Again the weight and construction of the embroideries dictated a mount that was both immensely strong and as light as possible. We therefore designed aluminium honeycomb boards with a grid of squares cut out to reduce their weight and we faced these with polycarbonate sheet. To this we added inert padding and a top cover of silk chosen to compliment the richness of the Kiswa panels. We attached a system of (Velcro ™) fastener to both the boards and the hangings and then tensioned them over. Finally their silk borders were stitched to mount fabric and the boards finished with a protective edging of aluminium angle. Three more of these extraordinary embroideries will be coming from the Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority Collection later in the year.