Where in the world could you examine a 17th-century hunting falcon's snug hood, complete with a jaunty red tassel? Or for that matter a tiny set of 1860s doll's house chairs with gilded balloon backs and minuscule silk seats and cushions cut down from an 18th-century dress? Or a fabulously grand tapestry, almost as bright as the day it was made six centuries ago? Or Dior's flaming red "Zemire" two-piece with its impossibly nipped-in waist?
These are just a few of 104,000 marvels of textiles, including interiors items made from textiles, from bed canopies to table linen, to 17th-century Dutch "table carpets" and magnificent costly tapestries. There is also a vast collection of historic items of clothing. Along with dresses, the centre has everything from shoes, muffs, corsets, 18th-century hooped petticoats, menswear and parasols (160 of them), all stored in the state-of-the-art Clothworkers' Centre in Blythe House, Olympia. The Victoria & Albert Museum's latest pride and joy, it opens next month.
The centre is the new research flagship of the V&A, a place where, as long as you have a sensible (or scholarly) reason, you can ask to be shown some of these priceless and important items. The V&A's collection of textiles —and all things made from textiles is one of the most important in the world but until recently things were stored higgledy-piggledy in the V&A itself, clogging up display space. Which meant that when the painstaking transfer was made to Blythe House, there were some surprises.
The most astonishing was a fragile piece of Egyptian linen used to wrap someone's intestines back in about 3350 BC that is so ancient, it actually predates mummies.
The centre got its name because its biggest backer is the Clothworkers Livery Company, one of London's oldest medieval guilds. It is housed in an impressive listed Edwardian building (once the Post Office bank's headquarters).
Popular with film-makers, the cavernous old building was a relic of a bygone era, with spooky, ceramic-tiled corridors. But after a serious spruce-up it is handsome once more, and modern bits have been added where needed by architects Haworth Tomkins.
Three vast storage rooms with huge sliding racks hold 7,000 drawers in six designs, in which precious things nestle, tucked up in acid-free paper. Garments hang swathed like chrysalises, each with a photo attached. These rooms are not open to the public but there is a fabulous viewing room where you can look at items on bespoke tables. The big, light room has beautiful original parquet and as curator Edwina Ehrman says 'a rather clubby feel'.
The V&A's swish new textile conservation workshops are on the floor below, where conservator Sung Im, one of 14 full-time conservators, has spent 500 hours bent over the canopied 17th-century "Jacob" bed of grey-green silk and gilded wood, which (once she has spent another 150 hours using thread so fine you can scarcely see it) will go on show in the V&A's 1600-1800 Galleries. If you could lie in this saucy old bed you would see the underside of the canopy is entirely mirrored, which makes you wonder. At the same time, another conservator is restoring the tiny Victorian doll's house chairs.
How it works
Items must be ordered for viewing six weeks ahead and if you request, say, a massive tapestry, it might take six people to bring it to you. Everyone wears white gloves. At the moment only about 25,000 of the holdings are photographed and online but double that number have detailed descriptions, so there is plenty to choose from and the rest are being done bit by bit.
The Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, Blythe House, Blythe Road W14, opens to the public on October 8. For full details on visiting, on one of the monthly tours or making an appointment, visit vam.ac.uk/page/c/clothworkerscentre. V&A Entry is free.