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Issue 465, 23 April 2001

Abandoned chapel enters the material world

Egyptian mummy fabric and wartime escape maps belonging to the University will soon be on view to the public, thanks to a £589,500 grant to re-house, conserve and extend a unique textile archive, second only to collections in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The grant will also enable the archive to be opened up to both scholars and the wider community.

Inspirational design - the conservation ark offers state-of-the-art storage and display facilities

A Heritage Lottery Fund grant – the largest in the current round of grants to projects in Yorkshire – has been awarded to the University of Leeds to relocate its textile archive in the Grade II listed St Wilfrid’s Chapel on the new Western Campus. The award covers just over 70% of the initial cost of the project. The first application for the grant began over four years ago, and has been overseen by Professor David Holdcroft and archive director Dr Michael Hann.

The University of Leeds International Textile Archive (ULITA) is an internationally important collection, which includes a huge range of items from different countries and periods. It has over a thousand Victorian pattern books, as well as items as varied as nineteenth century Qing dynasty silk embroideries, twelfth century Egyptian children’s garments, 167 pieces of Egyptian mummy fabric, a Maori kilt, and Second World War escape maps.

International renown – 11th Century Egyptian infant’s garment

Professor Holdcroft was overjoyed by news of the award: "The whole bidding process for this grant has taken four years, and involved a huge amount of work from the whole team involved. We have been awarded the sum we asked for, which is fantastic. ULITA is a resource which is unique in the UK, and this project provides a wonderful opportunity for the University to make that accessible to the public."

Overjoyed – Professor David Holdcroft

The collection is currently housed in the School of Textiles, in very cramped conditions with limited public access. A key feature of the plans for the new location is the construction of a building within a building – a ‘conservation ark’ – which will be independent of the walls and roof of the chapel. This will allow the elegance of the Gothic revival interior to be maintained, while creating a specialised storage and display facility with temperature and humidity controls for perfect conservation of the textiles. A digital database of the collection will also be put together using the latest technology, with high resolution pictures so that fragile items can be displayed without being handled.

Unique collection – detail from a19th Century Qing dynasty panel in embroidered silk

Public access forms a major part of the project and extensive market research was carried out to determine the best possible public use of the facility. The project team contacted over five hundred schools throughout the UK, 130 universities and colleges and 180 textile museums worldwide, as well as industrialists from across Europe to determine their interest, requirements and possible participation. The archive plans to attract around 20,000 visitors a year, through a programme of exhibitions, educational workshops and special events. As well as attracting specialists and scholars, attention will be given to ensuring participation by the local community, through liaison with schools, community groups and museums in the region.

An exciting time for textiles at Leeds – Dr Michael Hann

Dr Hann sees the creation of a new home for the archive as a beginning: "It’s a very exciting time for textiles at Leeds. This award has come through just as a whole range of other initiatives are taking shape. The merger between the University and Bretton Hall is to create a new School of Textiles and Design, which will be able to make use of the ULITA facility; Ars Textrina, the prestigious textile journal is now edited at Leeds; we have already contacted embassies, industrialists and other museums with the view to extending the collection; we are also hoping to start a rolling programme of research fellows who will work with the archive; and will be considering commercial opportunities to ensure the archive can become financially self-sufficient."

Part of the building work has already begun, including a glazed entrance shared with the University of Leeds Business School. The rest of the work should be completed by summer 2002, and the first exhibition will be open to the public early in 2003.

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