Conservation Blog - Golden Booties for the Well-Shod Woman

In China during the era of foot binding, the ideal size for women’s feet was considered to be san cun, a measurement that roughly equals 7.62 centimetres or 3 inches.  Feet that achieved this perfect size were called jin lian or ‘golden lotuses’. These narrow red silk boots come from Zhejiang and were made to be worn in winter. They are decorated with symbols of good fortune including bats and peonies and date to the early 20th century

This particular pair of red silk booties was purchased by the BSM from a private collector specializing in bound-foot shoes from China and Taiwan. They were in poor condition when they were acquired, and needed a great deal of careful conservation work by BSM conservator Ada Hopkins. Many of the stitches that anchored the golden threads to the red silk had broken, leaving the embroidery looking as though it had been teased with a comb! In order to prevent further unraveling someone with good intentions had stuck the lose threads in place with scotch tape.

Tape securing lose threads in place. The ink outlines of the peony are visible in areas where the gold thread is missing.

The metallic threads are composed of two elements: an extremely thin flat yellow metal strand, which was wrapped around a silk thread core. Images of peonies (symbolizing wealth and honour) and bats (auspicious creatures that bring happiness and good fortune)  were drawn in ink onto the silk by the embroiderer. Starting on the perimeter of each design component (a wing or a petal), the metallic thread was laid down following the ink outline in an ever decreasing path towards the centre. The threads were secured to the fabric every two millimeters with a fine silk thread.

Lose tangled threads.

The first step in the treatment involved removing the scotch tape. Luckily its adhesive had dried out so it was just a matter of gently peeling off the carrier film. As the tape was removed, the newly released gold threads were loosely secured with a series of basting stitches to prevent them becoming further entangled with neighbouring threads.

These basted areas were worked on one at a time. The gold threads were gently untwisted, starting at an unanchored end and removing knots using fine tipped tweezers under a magnifying lens. Next the gold thread was worked around the existing pattern, working from the centre to the outer edge (the reverse of the original embroiderer). The threads were tacked in place with very thin entomology pins. Pinning everything in place gave Ada an opportunity check that the threads were properly placed before stitching them down with fine hair silk using an extremely fine beading needle.

Areas of lose threads are basted together to prevent further tangling. Thin entomology pins hold the aligned threads in place before stitching begins.

While the booties were purchased in 2002 it was four years before Ada was able to put aside the considerable time required to undertake the conservation. They are currently on display in "The Gold Standard: Glittering Footwear from Around the Globe".


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