Digitally ‘restoring’ a WWII souvenir textile

Digitally ‘restoring’ a WWII souvenir textile

A faded embroidery shines again with the help of Photoshop. Textiles conservator Anne Peranteau discusses the process of digitally restoring colour to a faded Egyptian souvenir from World War II.

In 2015, Te Papa acquired several items from the RSA (Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association), some of which relate to the two World Wars and the annual Poppy Appeal. One of the items is an embroidered textile, customised with inscriptions “Souvenir of Egypt / To Rose From Mark / Egypt / 1941”.

Allieds in Egypt

The Mediterranean was one of the most important regions for the Allied campaign, particularly after Mussolini’s 1940 invasion of Egypt. ANZAC forces were focused on securing the Suez Canal and preventing Italy and Germany from gaining a foothold in the Middle East. Of the 140,000 Kiwi men and women who served in WWII, the majority were part of the 2nd Expeditionary Force commanded by Major General Bernard Freyberg and based at Maadi camp near Cairo. Others served in the Royal Air Force and New Zealand and British navys, and in smaller specialist groups.

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The Long Range Desert Group was a special reconnaissance unit, intitally formed largely of New Zealand volunteers from the 2nd NZEF. The LRDG produced critical topographical maps and disrupted Axis communications and supply routes. Colonials were favoured “because of their self-reliance, general levels of fitness and knowledge of vehicles” (Jackson, A.).
THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH AFRICA 1941 (E 2307). New Zealand members of the LRDG pause for tea in the Western Desert, 27 March 1941. © IWM

A popular souvenir

Souvenir embroideries were produced in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in both World Wars. The techniques used to make them vary somewhat, but chain stitch embroidery in bright rayon floss on a black cotton velveteen background is typical of the WWII-era souvenir cloths.

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Souvenir cloth, 1941. Te Papa (GH017981)

The prevalence of chain stitch indicates that the embroideries are more closely related to textiles used as household goods than to traditional costume of the region which tend to feature cross stitch and couched thread embroidery. Souvenir embroideries are held in other New Zealand and Australian collections and were popular in part for their vibrant colours and the ease with which they could be folded and sent home, but unfortunately not much information about the people who made them has been uncovered.

The experience of bartering and bargaining in the “Musqi”, Cairo’s 500-year-old bazaar district filled with textiles of all sorts, has been recounted by veterans in Alex Hedley’s book Fernleaf Cairo. Te Papa’s souvenir embroidery represents the desire to connect and share the impressions of this new and sometimes bewildering setting and to connect with distant family and friends.

Unframing the embroidery

When the embroidery was acquired, it was brought to the conservation lab because the surrounding wooden frame was broken and the cotton velveteen cloth was visibly dusty. When the frame was removed, I noticed that the cloth had been glued down to a weak and acidic piece of cardboard. Over the long term, paper-based materials such as cardboard that are not specifically made to be archival contain acids that can migrate into the textile fibres and cause them to become discoloured and weak.

After unframing, the embroidery was carefully vacuumed using a dental aspirator (yes, this is the same instrument used by dentists to clear away saliva). It was then gently lifted off the acidic board, using a microspatula to loosen the attachment of the cloth. The glue used to attach the textile was a thin layer and had aged, and it was relatively easy to loosen its grip by locally humidifying the area to soften the adhesive.

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Removing the souvenir cloth from its frame. Photograph by Anne Peranteau. Te Papa

As this progressed, it was possible to see that the original colours on the reverse of the embroidery were still vibrant and had not suffered the same degree of fading caused by exposure to light. This fading has blanched the Egyptian flag on the front to the extent that it is difficult to make out the crescent moon and three stars on it. These symbols were only used on the flag 1922–1953, from the time Egypt was granted independence from Britain to the establishment of the Republic of Egypt.

Digital ‘restoration’

With the assistance of media creator Kate Whitley, it was possible to virtually restore the front of the textile using Adobe Photoshop. Once we had high-resolution images of both sides of the embroidery, spot-samples could be taken of the colours on the reverse side of the object. Kate then selected the equivalent area of stitching on the front and blended the relevant colour onto the existing faded stitching. Digital post-production gives us a visual indication of how the embroidery may have looked at the time of creation – a vibrant and exciting rendition.

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Digital ‘restoration’ by Kate Whitley of Souvenir cloth, 1941. Te Papa (GH017981)

Further reading

  • Hedley, A. & Hutching, M. Fernleaf Cairo: New Zealanders at Maadi Camp. 2009: Harper Collins.
  • Hutching, Megan ed. The Desert Road: New Zealanders remember the North African Campaign. 2005: Harper Collins Ltd.
  • Jackson, A. The British Empire and the Second World War. 2006: Hambledon Contiuum.

4 Comments

  1. Kirstie Ross

    Hi Anne
    Thanks for writing about bringing this textile (virtually) to life, as well as the actual process of conserving the object.
    Kirstie

    1. Author

      Thanks Kirstie for reading and commenting! More to come 🙂

  2. I had recently found an embroidered postcard at our museum here in Mokau from WWI. It was very faded and I was wondering about using photoshop to recreate the original colours. You have inspired me to do the same and am very pleased with the results. Luckily the reverse was easy to access and the colours were nicely preserved.
    I have put it on our online collection. https://ehive.com/collections/6207/objects/892074/postcard-embroidered

    1. Author

      Thank you Amanda, I am so pleased to know we have inspired you. Best regards, Anne

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