18th-Century Men’s Clothing Restoration

During a dig at the church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Visonta, archaeologists discovered a complete set of clothes.

The exploration in the church interior commenced on 12 July 2013, organised on behalf of the Municipality of Visonta, supervised by archaeologists Szabolcs Nagy (ELTE) and László Nagy (Dobó István Castle Museum). The team uncovered early modern remains, including 48 relatively intact graves, mostly dating from the late 18th century, including textiles.

One of the eight coffins, decorated with bronze pins, contained the deceased’s entire clothing, his hat, wig, chinstrap, breeches and boots, all in exceptional condition. The skeleton, except for the shinbone, was chalky and powdery.


Location of the hat at the time of excavation


Wig of the deceased


The excavated man's grave


On 10th September, the restoration team moved the artefacts to the museum's workshop. Their first task was to create an environment similar to the soil in which they had been found, winning time to decide on restoration details. Recovering the items was not the end of the story, however. No matter how carefully one proceeded, there was a risk that microorganisms might cause further damage due to change in the storage environment. Rapid and effective intervention was therefore required.


Recovery of the Finds


Fabric restoration was carried out jointly by István Dobó Castle Museum and the National Centre for Restorers and Restorer Training at the Hungarian National Museum. The National Centre for Epidemiological Research executed the mycological examination. Andrea Várfalvi, Lecturer in Textiles at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, supervised her team, including fifth-year textile students. The aim was to prevent further damage to the clothing, making it displayable to the public. The restoration of the hat, dolman, breeches and boots was carried out intermittently over a period of five years at the National Centre for Restorers and Restorer Training in Budapest.

The first restoration project was a triangular hat.

Among the other pieces of men's clothing, the subsequent step was the remarkably well-preserved dolman. Earth, coffin fragments and dead pests covered the deformed surface of the green-coloured dolman. The relatively well-preserved cloth was torn in several places, with some areas incomplete. The thread holding the pieces of cloth together was broken and had disintegrated. The thin braid decorations and button stems were weakened and incomplete. The green-coloured corrosion covering the buttons' surface, hook fastenings, button stems and loops stained the fabric. The leather lining below the waist was slightly mouldy and deformed but remained supple and in good condition. Only fragments of the loosely woven interlining between the textile and the leather survived.


The dolman before restoration


The removal of loose dirt using a variety of utensils.


Dry cleaning the dolman


The dolman after cleaning


Before wet cleaning, the team carried out a test on a loose fragment. The material reacted well to the water and detergent, showing no structural deterioration. We removed the leather lining from the bottom of the dolman since this material needed different treatment.

We cleaned the garment in a custom-made tub using detergent, disinfectant and a soft brush. We avoided causing any further damage to this unique item.


Wet cleaning the dolman


Safe handling of the dolman


After rinsing we smoothed out the material adjusting the direction of the threads by pinning the items on polystyrene covered in foil.


Pinning out the dolman


The fastening of braid after wet cleaning.


Decorative braid on the edge of the pocket.


Once the material has dried, we clean the buttons mechanically using a scalpel, copper brush and micro vacuum cleaner.


Mechanical cleaning of buttons.


In addition to supporting the clothing on an even surface, it was necessary to patch the holes with additional material. The restorers used cotton fabric to stabilise the garment and cloth to fill in the gaps. We thinned the replacement cloth, making a patch slightly larger than the hole to stabilise the ragged edges. Ensuring that the old material and new fabric blended harmoniously proved a challenge. To solve this issue, we aimed to create a patchy effect with the new cloth. We reinforced the garment by stitching the original material, the patches and the lining of the entire garment together at 1cm intervals using dyed silk thread.


Thinning the cloth


Dyed pieces of cloth


Missing parts


Supplemented cloth


Supplemented sleeve


The back of the supplemented sleeve with bands of reinforcing fabric


Incomplete front edge


Supplemented front edge


Fabric insertion at sleeve fastener


Fabric insertion at sleeve fastener


The conservation of uneven surfaces with reinforcing stitches, after humidifying, shaping and flattening.


Reinforcing the front of the dolman, flattening deformed surfaces


The dolman supported and supplemented displayed on an installation suitable for use with historical garments. The leather lining around the waist was not stitched back into place as it would have stretched and deformed the cloth.


Assembling the dolman


Assembling the dolman


Before placing on the installation


Front of the restored dolman
Back of the restored dolman


Side view of the restored dolman


The structural integrity of the breeches was very poor, the fabric fragmentary and incompletely preserved.

We dry-cleaned the breaches using similar techniques to the dolman. Before wet-cleaning we sandwiched the fabric between two plastic nets stretched across a wooden frame to prevent fragments from shifting out of place.


Placing the breech fragments on the wooden mesh frame


The stitches followed the contours of the fragments. We employed soft wet-cleaning without any detergent to avoid damaging the fabric and pinning the pieces to reshape them. We could then identify the fragments.


Piecing together the fragments of the breeches


The condition survey drawing and the pattern of the fragment were pasted in their original place, and the "Hungarian trousers" were determined on the basis of these.


The trousers with the fragments fitted in place


Only fragments of the leather boots are preserved, but this footwear has clearly identifiable oriental features. The tips on these relatively sturdy boots were covered in corrosion. The leather fragments were dry and wet-cleaned with detergent and disinfectant. Fully preservation and supplementation of this item, due to its fragmentary state, is neither possible nor desirable. 

The results the joint efforts of Andrea Várfalvi, Csabáné Szabó, Melinda Sikéné Kovács to preserve the Visonta tomb material was presented at the 19th Transylvanian Hungarian Restorers’ Conference in Odorheiu Secuiesc (Székelyudvarhely), held on 5th-9th October 2018. We published the results in the 19th edition of the Isis Transylvanian Hungarian Restorer’s Notes.

Two pieces of the costume, the triangular hat and the dolman (photo 32), were presented at the exhibition "60 Impressions”. During a series of lectures, visitors could discover the world of historical fabric restoration.


The dolman and hat on display



Csabáné Szabó

Textile Restorer - István Dobó Museum