Donald Brothers: Working to Conserve Textile Heritage

Who: Donald Brothers Collection
Job: Conservator
Where: Galashiels
When: 2011
Archive: Heriot-Watt University Heritage and Information Governance

Heritage and Information Governance at Heriot-Watt University has just completed the first stage of a large project to conserve, rehouse and photograph the large fabric samples from Dundee firm Donald Brothers.

Coopersdale Design Sample

Coopersdale Design Sample designed by Eva Crofts in 1936.

Donald Brothers was one of the leading Scottish firms designing and manufacturing furnishing fabrics in the 20th century. Growing out of the jute industry the firm initially produced canvases for sacks and sails but by the 1890s had moved into making textured canvases and figured linens for furnishings. The firm’s success was initially linked to the Arts and Crafts movement in both Britain and the United States and in the 20th century started producing printed as well as woven designs. The firm was highly regarded for the quality of their fabric and used leading designers such as Marion Dorn, Robert Stewart, Eva Crofts and Marian Mahler. The growth of design as a major industry in the 20th century was supported by various government initiatives to attract artists to move into commercial production.

The collection is held as part of the Textile Collection at the Scottish Borders Campus at Galashiels and includes pattern books, woven and printed fabric samples, photographs and publicity material from 1896-2010. The large loose fabric samples had been stored folded on open shelves for many years and as a result had deeply embedded dirt and creases. In the long term this would have damaged the fabric and affected the look of the design.

Recently, £54,300 in grant funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Trust and Museums and Galleries Scotland has allowed over half the 700 samples to be cleaned and flattened by a conservator. The purchase of a custom built case from Conservation by Design has also allowed the samples to be stored flat and conserved samples have been professionally photographed to improve access and searching by attaching images to the on-line catalogue. Future funding will hopefully allow the purchase of a second case, conservation of all the samples and further outreach such as exhibitions.

Custom Built Case

Custom built case to house textile samples

The removal of the creases has greatly improved the appearance of the designs which enhances the use of the samples for research. Donald Brothers is one of the most heavily used collections by both students and external researchers. The samples show a great range of genre such as Arts and Crafts, modern, futuristic and traditional designs.

Chandos Design Sample

Chandos Design Sample designed by Silver Studios in 1906

In addition to providing students with design inspiration, they are learning how to use scale, repeat, colour and texture as well as motifs for the commercial application of design. The company sold internationally, in particular to the eastern United States, and the research significance of their designs is reflected in the inclusion in publications on design history by leading authors such as Lesley Jackson and Mary Schoeser.

The Textile Collection held by Heritage and Information Governance at Heriot-Watt University also includes the largest collection of Scottish Borders tweed mill business records and pattern books from the 1830s to 1990s. As well as Bernat Klein, tartan, the archive of the Scottish College of Textiles, knitting and dress patterns, costume and Paisley shawls.

The collections can be viewed in the on-line catalogue and are available for research at the Scottish Borders Campus by appointment. E-mail heritage@hw.ac.uk or call 0131 451 3218.

You can also keep up to date with them on Facebook at their two pages Heriot- Watt University Archive and Heriot-Watt University Textile Collection

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