The Conservation of Nelson's Undress Uniform

This is one of five coats that belonged to Nelson that we have in the collection. It is a Royal Naval uniform undress coat of the 1795-1812 pattern made from a navy blue raised wool fabric that is rather felt like with a cream twill silk lining. The undress coat would have been worn by Nelson as everyday clothing. It is a relatively plain tail-coat with the two stripes of gold lace at the cuff denoting his rank of vice-admiral. His button-back lapels are decorated with his four orders of chivalry.
The coat is being conserved so that we can rotate it with another of our Nelson uniforms that is on display at Portsmouth Royal Naval Museum. We need to limit the length of time textile objects are on display because the light is so damaging to them.
The outer blue wool of the coat is in quite good condition with only one or two very small holes probably caused by previous insect attack. Unfortunately it is the silk linings that often suffer the most damage and this is no exception, the silk is very weak with lots of splits and holes throughout.
Because the whole lining is so weak we will put a new silk lining under the existing one. We do this by taking a pattern of the original lining, cut the exact shape out of the new silk and then pass it under the original trying to use existing holes and splits. We aim to do this without undoing any of the original stitching or further damaging the already weak areas. We like to leave all original stitching in place if at all possible as it is historic evidence of how the garment was constructed. Once in position with the weaves of both fabrics matching, the original lining is stitched down onto the new silk. Very fine needles and thread are used working in a laid and couched stitch; this is worked around all the holes, splits and weak areas following the direction of the weave.
When all sections have been supported in this way we will put an overall covering of a very fine gauze like fabric called silk Crepeline over all sections of the coat, again using the patterns taken earlier. This is stitched down around all the outer edges of each section and acts as a protective layer when the coat is handled. Because it is quite see-thru the original lining can still be clearly seen.
When working on a coat like this you often find out interesting facts about them for instance in the coats made for Nelson after he had the lower part of his right arm amputated following The Battle of Cape St Vincent 1797 he had a small loop sewn just inside the cuff so he could secure the empty sleeve onto a lapel button to prevent it from flapping about and getting in the way. We can also see that they only lined the right sleeve as far as the elbow, probably because fabric was so expensive at that time.
The conservation is likely to take over 200 hours of work to complete and will include a new conservation quality mannequin to display the coat on. It will be made-to-measure and then padded to provide an exact fit so the coat is well supported while on display, through this process we can also gain insight into Nelson's height and build at the time he was wearing the coat.