Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Tongan Skirt

In the last few weeks, I've been working on a Tongan skirt from the Forster Collection (1886.1.1177). The skirt is no.55a in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities', and is described as 'a matt with red stripes'.

The skirt was thought to have come from New Zealand until the Catalogue was rediscovered in 1969, which has confused the identification of the materials from which it is made.

The skirt is decorated with red and white tags made from short lengths of plant material, about 5cm long.

The red tags on the skirt, before conservation treatment

The tags have been wound around one of the strips of an outer weft where it crosses an inner one, which had to be done as the skirt was woven, leaving two 2cm long tags on the front. The tag is not visible on the inside of the skirt, and it is firmly held in place by the structure of the weaving.

Two tags, red and white, seen from the back of the skirt

Part of the 'Conserving Curiosities' project is to attempt to identify some of the plants used to make objects in the Cook-Voyage collections. Over the years there have been many suggestions about what the skirt was made from, including New Zealand flax, lacebark (a tree, also from New Zealand) and Pandanus palm. Very small pieces of the plant material from the skirt were sent to Dr Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford Herbaria, for identification. He discovered that the skirt itself was most probably woven from the bast fibres of Thespasia populnea, a hibiscus-like plant found throughout the Pacific. Both colours of tag were identified as being made from the leaves of the Pandanus, although the leaves used to make the red tags were much more heavily processed before use, with just the outer layers of the leaf remaining. The samples were boiled in water during the identification process to rehydrate them, and Dr Harris noted that the red sample retained its colour when boiled, indicating that it was probably not dyed with a water soluble dye or pigment - interesting as the red dyes of the time were plant based and would be expected to be water soluble.

The skirt needed many hours of humidification with an ultrasonic humidifier to allow the brittle tags to be unfolded and opened up where they had become creased.

The skirt is being loaned to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, with several other Cook-Voyage objects from the Pitt Rivers, for their special exhibition, 'Eating the Exotic!' which opens in March.