Slippers

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Slippers. Cotton, leather, metal, glass. India (?). Late 19th – early 20th century. Cyfarthfa Castle.

Treatment summary

Cleaned to remove dust, stabilized and removed tarnish from decorative elements, and created supportive inserts so slippers could be included in exhibit.

Background

Based on stylistically similar examples, these slippers were likely made in the late 19th to early 20th century in India.  Though the decorative scheme is ornate, the materials used show that the slippers were less-costly imitations of very expensive shoes.  The signs of wear on the velvet insoles of the slippers, but not the leather soles, show that they were only worn inside and were well taken-care of.  They were donated to Cyfarthfa Castle by a collector at the beginning of the twentieth century and have been in storage ever since.

Object description

The slippers are constructed with leather and have red velvet insoles.  The uppers are covered with woven textile, to which are sewn glass beads and metal decorations.  There are four types of metal decorations:

  • Purl wire (coiled) beads, which make up the primary pattern on the slippers.  They form leaf shapes and are used to frame the glass beads.
  • Rococo thread, which fills the spaces between the purl wire beads.  It is made of very thin strips of metal wrapped around a thread core.
  • Twisted bands, which frame the decorations and edges of the slippers.
  • Sequins, used underneath the purl wire beads as highlights.

The leather edging on the slipper uppers shows traces of metallic paint, although this is primarily worn away.

Condition

After almost 100 years in storage, the slippers had lost their shape, the uppers collapsed in.  Small spots of gray mold were apparent on the interior leather, while the velvet insoles had become frayed.  The metal had become heavily tarnished, obscuring the decorative scheme.  The cotton thread used to sew the decorations to the woven textile had become brittle and snapped in many places, causing their active loss almost every time the slippers were handled.  Overall, the slippers were very dusty, although there was only minimal soiling.

Analysis

Detailed analysis was undertaken of the slippers as part of a research project for coursework.  The aim was to identify the materials used to make the slippers in order to better understand their history.

The blue and white beads fluoresced a bright, icy blue under shortwave ultraviolet radiation, possibly indicating the presence of a leaded opacifier.

The x-radiographs show that the soles of the slippers are constructed of several strips of leather from the heel to just under the ball of the foot, while the heel consists of leather strips attached perpendicularly to the sole with small nails. In the low-energy image long stitches can be seen along the instep.

SEM/EDX analysis showed that the rococo wire is brass, 83% copper and 17% zinc.  A cross section of the purl wire revealed that it is composed of a pure copper core coated with silver.

FT-IR spectra of fiber samples taken from the red velvet insole, the orange thread from the rococo thread and the tan sewing thread showed that they were all cotton.

Treatment process

First, the mold and dust were removed by vacuuming the slippers through a screen, using a soft brush and cotton swabs to loosen dirt.  Dirt deeper in the velvet pile was gently removed with a cosmetic sponge.

The decorative elements were cleaned using IMS and deionized water with a small amount of Dehypon LS45 detergent and cotton swabs.

The loose decorations were sewn back into place using a curved needle and Ultrafyne 100% polyester thread.

The purl wire beads on the outer half of the left slipper were cleaned using a poultice of methyl cellulose and Biox Conservation Liquid to remove tarnish.  While this was effective, the methyl cellulose was difficult to remove from inside the beads.  The remainder of the purl wire beads were cleaned using very small amounts of 33% ammonium hydroxide in water on cotton swabs, then rinsed with deionized water.

5% methyl cellulose was used to tack the loose edges of the velvet insoles and the leather edging.

Finally, custom supportive inserts were made to ensure that the slippers would retain their shape.

Conclusion

After treatment, the slippers are much more stable and aesthetically pleasing.  Sewing the loose elements had the dual effect of stabilizing the slippers and neatening their appearance.  Removing the tarnish from the purl wire beads returned them to their original silver finish, and highlighted the floral design.  The inserts are visually unobtrusive (and cannot be seen from most angles) and provide structural support to the leather.

Additional

The slippers were the subject of a paper presented at the ICON Christmas Conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Truly Bad or Merely Sad? ICON Archaeology Group Christmas Conference. 13 December, 2013, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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