Taming the Dragons on a Chinese Imperial Dragon Robe

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty collected eight Chinese Dragon Robes, it is thought several came from The Forbidden Palace in Peking, now Beijing. These magnificent robes were once worn by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, 1644- 1911, the last ruling dynasty of China. The robes tell a story of a vanished court life and were worn for important rituals as well as everyday.

Over the last few years a rolling program of conservation has been undertaken to conserve all the dragon robes within the collection, to allow an annual rotation to coincide with the Library’s celebration of the Chinese New Year. For those of you planning a visit, the dragon robe case is in the first floor Arts of the Book exhibition gallery.

This blog will focus on the conservation of one of the three Imperial yellow robes, which are of the highest quality yellow silk and feature exquisite embroidery showing the vibrant colours of the fabrics and superb workmanship. Both the five claw dragon motif and this particular bright yellow colour could only be used on the emperor’s garments and for many centuries, it was against the law for Chinese people to use them on their own clothes.

CBL C 1051, front

CBL C 1051, an Imperial Dragon Robe

The primary areas that deteriorate on a Dragon Robe are the gold embroidered dragons as a result of wear and creasing during storage but primarily as a result of the silk couching thread deteriorating and becoming weak over a period of time. (CBL) 1051 is the largest of the yellow Dragon Robes with an arm span of over 2 metres. The robe was structurally in good condition with evidence of wear to areas  such as under the arms as would be expected with a robe of this period. Imperial Robes have a total of nine large heavily embroidered dragons across their surface, three on the front and on the back, two on the shoulders and one on the inner panel. Smaller dragons adorn the ‘horse hoof’ cuffs and neck decoration.

CBL C 1051, detail

A dragon surrounded by auspicious symbols

Dragon Embroidery

Traditionally the large dragons were embroidered using long lengths of silk thread wrapped in gold paper. These threads were laid in pairs on the yellow silk ground in-filling the shape of the dragon in a scale pattern and held in position with tiny silk couched stitches. It is these tiny couched stitches that weaken with time coupled with the effects of the metal elements of the gold paper resulting in them breaking causing the dragon to unravel and areas of loss to occur.


Gold Paper Wrapped Threads

Several detached gold threads allowed me to undertake analysis using both high powered and Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to investigate their construction and composition.  At first glance the gold threads appear to be made from thin gold foil or wire but it is only under high powered microscopy that the gold can be seen to be applied to a paper substrate. One method the Chinese used to make gold threads in antiquity, in addition to the usual method of extruded gold wire or beaten sheet, was by using paper. The origins of gold paper wrapped silk threads dates to the golden age of the silk textile industries of Sassanid Iran and the Tang dynasty 607-911 in China.

Handmade paper coated with a thin wash of clay similar to a bole or animal glue was gilded using either very thin beaten sheets of gold, equivalent to gold leaf, or gold paint. If a red or bronze coloured gold was required the paper was first painted red and the gold burnished with a stone to obtain the desired colour. The gold paper was cut by hand into very thin strips less than 0.1mm wide and wound around a silk core. China exported these gold paper strips throughout Asia, both for embroidery and for weaving silk brocades.


SEM– Elemental Analysis, Energy Dispersive X-ray analysis (EDX) of the surface goldSlide3

The gold threads on all of the dragon robes within the collection show little evidence of deterioration or tarnish to their surfaces. The detached gold threads allowed Elemental analysis (EDX) to be undertaken to determine both the purity and percentage of gold now present on the surface of the paper. As expected the results show other metals and minerals present in addition to gold such as iron, potassium, aluminium, silica and carbon. Although gold was only present in small quantities this would have been much greater originally as a large amount of the surface gold has now been lost from the paper surface over time. The addition of the other elements confirms that the adhesive used for adhering the gold sheets was a clay wash.

Dye Analysis

The detached threads also allowed dye analysis to be undertaken, the analysis was carried out at Glasgow University by my colleague Jing Han, a PhD researcher on dyes of the Qing dynasty. The silk core of the wrapped paper threads was found to be dyed with curcumin, the main dye component of turmeric, which is very interesting because turmeric is quite sensitive to light. This poses the question that still remains unanswered, was curcumin used in particular as the dyers didn’t expect the thread cores to be exposed? Hopefully further research will allow this question to be answered.

Taming and Stitching the Dragons

Slide8The convention in textile conservation is to stitch using very small curved needles, these allow a textile to be stitched on a flat surface whilst fully supported at all times without the need to lift the textile.

Detached lengths of thread are usually couched back into position using lines of couching stitches, however using this method would have caused greater strain and distortion to the original embroidery threads therefore the detached hanging threads were reattached in the traditional manner. The gold threads were pinned into what was thought to be their original position and couched down using small individual holding stitches.


Stitching in the round

When stitching garments it is important to ensure that the stitching follows the form and shape of the tailoring so that shaped areas such as shoulders, sleeves, and cuffs et cetera are stitched in the round. A padded cushion was used to support the shoulders during the couching of the shoulder dragons so that the shape was retained and to prevent any stresses and distortions being created. Care was taken not to stitch through to the fine silk robe lining.

Slide5Slide6To have the opportunity to conserve objects such as these is both rare and a great privilege for a textile conservator and I am very grateful to the Members and Friends of the Chester Beatty Library for their generous and continuing support in making the conservation of the Dragon Robes possible.


The dragons took in excess of 50 hours to tame back into their rightful positions.

CBL J 1116.1, detail

To celebrate the year of the monkey, here is a detail from Picture Scrolls of Animals handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Attributed to Mori Sosen (1747- 1821) CBL J 1116

Karen L. Horton, Independent Textile Conservator

Happy Chinese New Year to all!

Karen will give a lunchtime lecture titled ‘Taming the Dragon: the Conservation of an Imperial Dragon Robe from the Chester Beatty Collections,’ on Thursday 18th February at 1.10pm in the Chester Beatty Lecture Theatre.