Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer at work

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How to make a longer storage tube for large textiles, especially oversized flags

Rolled storage is a great method for storing oversized textiles, especially large flags. Rolling is a method that precludes the textile from being folded, therefore eliminating fold lines and areas of weakness caused by folding. Oversized textiles, especially very large flags, require special accommodations so that they may be rolled. Since flags and large textiles come in a wide range of sizes, standardizing a rolled storage system can be challenging. First, there must be enough storage space for a large rolled flag to be housed. The second (and maybe biggest) challenge is that the supplies for rolling very large flags and textiles do not exist, they must be created.

This post is about how to create a custom sized/oversized acid-free tube by adding length.  It is not intended to teach about rolling of textiles, however that information can be found in part three of our previous posts about flag storage: "How to Store Your Flag: Part 3 - Rolling".


While I was doing the survey of a large collection of flags at the State Historical Museum of Iowa we found that the standard 8 foot long tube would not accommodate several of the flags; in fact the longest of the tubes needed for Iowa's collection was 16 feet. So what to do? What follows are images and even a video (above) that explains one method to create a lengthened tube. The process of creating that very long tube is demonstrated by Pete Sixbey, conservator and Kay Coats, collection manager, both of the State Historical Museum of Iowa.

textile conservation of historic battle flags and banners by textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation Albany New York capital region. oversize flag storage rolled archival tube for textiles
Measuring the cut of tube for the extension and the insert.

Spicer Art Conservation, How to create custom archival tubing to support an oversize textile, flag or banner for museum, private and institutional collections using archival materials and built by a professional textile conservator.
Making the cut.

textile conservation of historic flags and banners. creating storage using archival materials and rolled storage methods to eliminate folding and creasing of textiles. war flags, battle flags, civil war revolutionary war war of 1812, world war 1, world war 2, antique flags
On the table saw, slicing out lengthwise a 1" channel. This width
is basically the distance of the thickness of two walls of the tube

Preservation of historic battle flags and banners, textile conservation, rolled storage for large or oversized textiles and flags, preservation, storage, repair, conservation
The cut out channel. This width of the channel is critical
to insure that the  insert is tight inside both halves of the tube.

creating custom rolled storage tubes for the preservation and care of the historic state battle flag collection of the State of Iowa, with textile expert and professional flag conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation
Now squeezing the insert down to fit inside of the tube.

textile conservator Gwen Spicer works with staff from the State Museum of Iowa to desgn custom made archival tubes to roll the fragile oversized battle flags in the State's collection
A vise-grip and clamp provide pressure on four sides.

Textile Conservator, Gwen Spicer was on-site to assist the State of Iowa with their battle flag collection. Gwen instructed the museum on how to create extended archival tubes to safely store the largest battle flags in a way that allowed them to be free of folds which can be quite damaging to antique materials including silk, cotton or wool flags
Positioning one side of the tube.

Flag conservation, storage, repair, preservation, mounting, presure mounts, display, and collection care by textile conservator Spicer Art Conservation
Fitting the smaller tube inside of the larger. A mallet might be needed. 

Flag conservation, storage, display, mounting, collections, state house historic battle flags and banners, antique textiles repair, preservation, conservation and care.
And now for the other side! Above you can see the sliced tube
fitting inside of two 8 foot tubes, therefore creating a 16 foot tube.

Iowa's larger flags are now rolled using archival materials and can be safely stored until they require conservation treatment or are ready to be prepared for exhibit or mounting.

Happy Flag Day from all of us at Spicer Art Conservation. The preservation and conservation of historic flags and banners is our expertise and it has been out great pleasure to assist institutions, museums, state houses and private collectors with flag collections both great and small.  

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Monday, May 16, 2016

So, how do I store my magnets?

I recently returned from the 5th Mount Maker's Forum, held at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.  It was a great meeting, full of enthusiastic mount makers, all sharing great ideas and solutions with one another.

I was fortunate to be able to both give a talk, "Stick to it, magnetic mount-ineers!" and present a poster, "Magnets as an Alternative to Velcro". The mount makers had many questions regarding the use of magnets.  "What is the best way to store them?", was one of the most frequent questions I was asked.  I  realized this topic made for a perfect blog post, therefore, here it is!

As mentioned in earlier blog posts about magnets, there are four permanent magnets. Each type of magnet has its own needs for long-term use and continual performance. Which is no different from museum collections, or any other equipment that you might use. Some magnets are effected by shock or mechanical action, others are brittle and break easily, and others are effected by temperature or moisture. All of these are issues of handling and environment, which conservators and other museum professional are especially suited to understand. Depending on the class of magnet, the care will vary slightly, but, with proper care, little decay should be noticed.

Various magnets held in film style containers and separated by foam disks.

Coercivity (Hc) is the process where a magnetic field is reduced or eliminated. Each permanent magnet has its own coercivity rating. The higher the Hc, the greater the resistance to demagnetization. Understanding the Hc of permanent magnets, and other materials and equipment that surrounds us, is necessary when working with strong magnets. Rare-earth magnets currently have the highest coercivity values.

What causes coercivity?


Several magnet types are brittle* and can easily fracture. This is especially the case with rare-earth magnets, when impact and tensile forces affect them. In fact, many suppliers do not guarantee against poor handling due to this fact.  Since a sharp hammering, or any physical shock, can cause demagnetization, it is necessary to prevent magnets from quickly jumping to one another or dropping to the floor from a raised height. Once a magnet is broken or cracked, it is highly susceptible to moisture and corrosion. Do not attempt to use them by positioning them together or gluing them together. Chipped or cracked magnets with peeling or spalling surfaces should not be used since the protective coating has been disrupted (Campbell, 1994).
*NOTE:  Brittleness increases as the grade number of the magnet increases.

cracked rare earth neodymium magnets should not be used in art conservation applications
Cracked magnets should not be used.

HEAT and Curie Temperature (Tc)

Each permanent magnet has a Curie temperature (Tc) that identifies the point where the material’s magnetism is eliminated. Neodymium magnets are very sensitive to high temperature* and therefore have the lowest Tc of the permanent magnets; Alnico and samarium have the highest Tc values. This is one of the reasons why Alnico magnets are still used. Be sure to stay well below the Tc of each permanent magnet used.
*NOTE: This is why hot glue can be dangerous when used to adhere rare earth magnets to a surface.

As stated earlier, Neodymium is easily oxidized. In a magnet, an oxidized surface lowers the pull force of the affected layer, therefore allowing that region to demagnetize more readily (Campbell 1994, Drak & Dobrzanski 2007). A coating of nickel-plating, or epoxy, is applied to prevent this from occurring. Blistering and spalling of the surface can be seen, more readily with two-layer copper nickel plating (Drak & Dobrzanski 2007). Even during the manufacturing process, oxidation prevention measures are required, often using a vacuum or argon gas environment. A sintered magnet is less stable than a bonded magnet against oxidation induced demagnetization corrosion (Campbell 1994; Trout n.d.). If a neodymium magnet is used in a raised relative humidity location, a bonded magnet is recommended (Drak & Dobrzanski 2007).

A N52 magnet that was used in a salt water environment;  the magnet is corroded and is no longer usable.


Some types of permanent magnets influence or weaken other magnets. One such case is when a ceramic (including flexible type) or samarium magnet is demagnetized by a neodymium magnet. As a result, neodymium rare-earth magnets should always be stored away from other magnet types. Similarly, electronics systems that rely on magnets to hold information, such as hard drives and disks, can be altered or demagnetized by a neodymium magnet that is placed nearby. Magnetic strips on credit cards and other cards can also be affected, as can electronic devices.

The statement above appears on stickers that we adhere to the magnet cases at SAC.

Ferrite magnets can be demagnetized when their poles are alternated, a reason to carefully stack the magnets. This is especially the case with the bonded flexible type; sliding a magnet side-ways perpendicular to the polar rows demagnetizes the array. Alnico type magnets are unique in that they can be remagnetized by realigning the internal domains via another strong magnetic field. This is not the case with other magnets, especially neodymium ones, where once demagnetized, the magnetism cannot be recovered.

Each type of permanent magnet should be segregated and spaced well outside other magnetic fields. As more magnets are concentrated together, the field increases. A safe approach is to separate each type in the work area.

To summarize this information, here is a table of the different categories with the various permanent magnets:

Use keeper for Horseshoe shape

Wrap to prevent abrasion


Group by size

Stack, orienting N to S

Place separator between

Moisture and RH sensitive

Demagnetizing Field (Hci)
Can be easily demagnetized. When repetitively placed north-pole-to-north-pole ends together, it quickly weakens itself.
Keep them away from Rare earth magnets.
Can be demagnetized by NdFeB magnets. But they do not weaken others.
Tough to demagnetize. This also means that they can easily demagnetize other classes of magnets like SmCo or Alnico or Ferrite. Shock can demagnetize.

Finally, with all of this information, let me show a few images of how I store my magnets.

Magnets are stored with a separator (black foam) between and in compartments lined with foam.  These small magnets are placed in "day of the week" pill containers.
-Individual small containers clearly labeled with type, grade and size.

-storing in divided boxes of a wide range of types.

-contact lens containers are wonderful to keep strong individual magnets separated from others.

-interleave magnets stored together with cardboard, foam or matte board for ease of separation

-Neodymium magnets are separated from other types of permanent magnets as that they effect their coercivity when in near proximity.

NEVER store you magnets next to a heated surface, like an oven or radiator; the location is too hot. Why? because some rare earth magnets have a low Curie temperature and thus, will demagnetize (and become completely useless) with heat.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mounting Quilts with Magnets for Display or Exhibit

by Gwen Spicer, Principal Conservator, Spicer Art Conservation, LLC

SAC has been answering many inquires from several museums and private organizations regarding the mounting of quilts, other textiles and skin artifacts with magnets (More information on magnets can be found at SAC's website).  The increased inquiries show first-hand how the field of conservation is interested in using magnets, while also continuing to find an alternative to the use of Velcro for mounting and hanging.

As with any new material or technique, concern of how magnets work and any known adverse outcomes are the most prominent subject of questions asked.  Also the challenge with using magnets with textiles, and especially quilts is that some textiles can be quite heavy.  This creates a concern with downward pull of the artifact and of sheer stress of the system that could result in failure, or compression of the artifact at the magnet site.

Antique quilt textile conservation mounting with magnets at Spicer Art Conservation

Quilts in particular present interesting problems when using magnets.  Quilts are complex; made in a range of sizes, materials, and thicknesses.  Due to this broad range of quilt characteristics, the sheer stress factor, and the need to prevent slippage or compression of materials, the potential for failure seems high.  However, with the proper planning and understanding of how a magnetic system works, its strengths, and any limitations of the type of magnet you select, the potential for failure is then quite low.

We have talked in the past about what is a "magnetic system".  The system as a whole is a significant factor in how the magnet behaves or is able to perform the task (Feymann 1964; Livingston 1996).  The magnet works in conjunction with two other parts, these three factors together create the system:

1) The actual strength of the magnet itself; care is taken to ensure the magnet is not too strong, and not too weak.

2) The ability of the metal behind the textile to be magnetized.  The receiving metal must have enough receptivity to allow the magnet to "stick" to it with its fullest ability. 

3) The space between, or the gap created by the layers between the magnet and the metal behind (or receiving metal).  These gap layers consist of the artifact and any buffering layers - mount fabric or mylar for example.

When magnets are placed on the surface of the quilt, the gap or field distance becomes an issue. Often the strength of the magnet is increased to ensure a strong magnetic field, but then puckering or "tufting" of the quilt's surface becomes visible.  Below is an image of magnets used as a point-fastener system; the magnets, while painted to match the quilt squares have created a puckered look. 

What could a textile conservator or curator do to eliminate this?

point fastener mount of textile with magnets is not the best method. Spicer Art Conservation
Magnets used to mount this Civil War era quilt are
obvious, even though they have been carefully
painted to match the surface of the quilt. The quilt is
safely mounted, but the puckering or tufting of the
quilt becomes problematic.

Our favorite solution is the Magnetic Slat sold by SmallCorp Inc.  A solution that solves the issue of a heavy weight textile by using an aluminum strip with a small lower lip (L-Shaped in cross-section) to support the textile, while rare earth magnets hold the textile back against the aluminum strip.

magnetic slat, conservation and mounting of textiles, image by Spicer Art Conservation, Gwen Spicer and may not be reproduced without permission
Grade N42 magnets, measuring ¾” dia. X 1/8”, with counter sunk holes are fastened along at 6” intervals on the vertical side.  A 22-gauge steel piece is held into a stitched sleeve along the upper edge of the artifact (Wood 2013; Spicer 2013a, c).  In this solution the lower lip actually holds the weight of the artifact, but it is the strength of the magnets that ensure that the steel piece is held back and onto the aluminum horizontal element.  The solution appears to be unlimited.  A textile weighing 60 lbs. was successfully hung with this magnetic system.

magnetic mount of textiles, conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation has pioneered the field of using magnets in art conservation
Above: The aluminum slat with "L" lip and countersunk magnet (silver).
The ferromagnetic steel piece (white) sits perfectly on the lip and is
held in place by the magnets. NOTE: The steel piece is shown without
the webbing sleeve. See below for the steel slat in webbing sleeve photo.

Magnetic slat, webbing sleeve, conservation and mounting of textiles by Spicer Art Conservation
Above:  Here the slat as it slides into a webbing sleeve (one piece 2" webbing,
the other 3" webbing). Below, see it as it is affixed to a 30 foot long
weaving. The system was used to hang several weavings, the heaviest
of which was over 60 lbs.

conservation of textiles, mounting of artifacts using magnets, Spicer Art Conservation
Above: The slat is inside its webbing sleeve and has been attached
to the textile.  Special consideration is always made to test the
hanging of the textile to be sure the slat is affixed to allow the
textile to hang properly.

Problem solved. The magnets can be as strong as you want them to be, and you never have to worry about puckering or compression.  It is simply because the quilt is no longer between the magnet and the receiving metal, instead all the magnetic pull is happening behind the artifact.  We have moved from a system where the magnets are being used as a point-fastener on the face of the artifact, to a system that distributes large area pressure behind the artifact.  It is like moving from hanging a painting on a wall by hammering the nail through the painting, to hanging it with wire mounted to the frame.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Objectivity is essential when evaluating artifacts

A conservator is often trusted to determine what something is, where it comes from, and the time period in which it was made. And while we are not antiques dealers, nor can we give an estimated sales price (a la "Antiques Road Show"), it is often a conservator who is sought to weigh in on the authenticity of an item, simply from the perspective of an expert who is in close working contact with artifacts on a daily basis.

Recently, I watched a fellow textile expert look at a textile composed of silk and wool. The owner had hoped the artifact was from a particular time period, and it was quite likely to be, but the provenance of the piece was largely unknown. It was not until after the examination of this textile that the expert asked for the "story". So as not to be biased by the hopes of the owner, this expert based their examination on the hard evidence: thread count, weave structure, dyes used, degradation of the silk areas, stitching methods, style of the piece, hems, selvedge ends, (and other things that textile folks find fascinating!).

In a blog post written not long ago, we spoke of dating objects and our research into the "sprang" weave structure of a sash from the War of 1812. That blog post has received 1000's of views, and lots of comments and emails asking us about the dates of similar objects. In the studio at the same time was a beaver felt-style chapeau with "1812" prominently sewn to the front flap with a lovely decorative cord. And while it would be easy to say it was from 1812, that was not the case. From observation alone, the hat was quite worn and featured the date to commemorate the War of 1812, that was certain. But was it worn in battle? That seemed unlikely from several factors: the materials used to construct the hat, the condition of the hat, the rank of the owner, and the style of the hat was from a slightly later period (so while it was similar, it had distinctly later features). Our findings were discussed in our blog "what's in a date?".

Spicer Art Conservation specializes in the preservation of historic artifacts and family heirlooms
Was this hat worn in the War of 1812, or does it commemorate the War of 1812?

There are many items that commemorate dates, like the 1812 hat above, that can easily be thought to originate at the time or event they commemorate. Such is the case with flags, pennants, buttons, banners and other items that are reproduced for a celebration, especially a centennial or significant anniversary.

On the other hand are objects that have a strong story or a label that was affixed to the object a long time ago. These are items that have history from legend retold or sometimes from documentation that is quite old, but does not go back to the date of the object.

For example, a lovely textile, which came into the studio along with some other artifacts, was believed by the owner to be something quite extraordinary. For this owner, family tradition had cemented the importance of the garment they believed to be from the late 13th century. Yet, the story (which was beautiful and had accompanying documentation that dated to the mid 1800's) was not plausible for a variety of reasons. The most persuasive factor was that this artifact was made using a technique that was not known until hundreds of years later. Also this textile was in very good condition, yet was hoped to be a 740 year old garment.

Spicer Art Conservation specializes in the care and preservation of historic textiles and family heirlooms
A lovely knitted garment with open work and ribbed scalloped edges. Family
history claimed it was knit by a queen in the late thirteenth century.

It was a surprise to the owner that another item in their collection was actually older, and was the one that was remarkable. This textile (photo detail below) was used as a protective covering to hold a circa 1800 book. The covering is a pouch made of linen with silk, and the embroidery is wonderful. When we commented on it, the owner stated that the textile was always "just the bag used to protect the book". The bag was clearly not made for the book, the book just happened to fit inside and so the two are now, and for many past decades, "together".

Spicer Art Conservation specializes in the conservation of historic textiles
Detail of the small embroidered pouch. The owner was surprised that it
was possibly a 17th century piece depicting King David playing his harp.

Sometimes an item will be misidentified as something it is similar to, but is not: "Japanese Kimono", "Tapestry", "battle flag", etc. will turn out to be a Chinese robe or a weaving that was hung on the wall, or a flag made to commemorate a military unit. These long standing labels can be difficult to shed. And often it is difficult to tell the client that what they have is not exactly what they think they have. However, the history of the object is still there, it's just different than what was assumed, but certainly just as (and sometimes more) interesting.

Spicer Art Conservation specializes in the conservation of historic antique flags and textiles
Is this a Revolutionary War era flag because it features 13 stars? One must be cautious that the number of stars, does not automatically mean the flag is from that specific time period. Flags, like the 1812 chapeau above, are often made to commemorate the anniversary of an event. 
Depending on the artifact, whether it be a textile, object, paper etc. Particular attributes are important. Objects made of wood, metal, glass or any medium all have specific characteristics that are indicative of the way they were made, and often when they were made. As discussed above, textiles can be quite telling when you look at the way they are woven, the fabric they are composed of, or the way they are dyed.

Why is dye analysis so important and what can be learned from it? Dye analysis is not meant to tell the date something was dyed, instead it is used to determine if a dye is natural or synthetic. We know that synthetic dyes were discovered in 1856. This is a clear date line because regardless of the appearance of an item, if the dye present in it is synthetic then the item absolutely cannot be dated before 1856.

More so than analysis, or even hard facts, is the simple fact that you must remain unbiased from trying to make an artifact fit into a particular era. For example, recently an item came to us that had been framed. The item was believed to be of a particular time because of the frame. However, the item was separate from the frame, yet because they had been together for so long they were assumed to be one in the same.

Determining an artifact's authenticity or period of manufacture or era can be quite difficult (if not impossible) without supporting documentation or a lot of unbiased research. Bias is a dangerous thing, hence is why scientists guard against it in their research to remove their predispositions from the outcome. It is no less dangerous in attempting to prove validity in dating artifacts, proving authenticity or establishing provenance.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Magnets & Health in Conservation

We use rare earth magnets quite often here at Spicer Art Conservation. One of the many questions that we hear from fellow conservators, curators, and others who are using magnets in treatments or exhibit mounting is: 

"Are magnets dangerous to my health and are there negative effects from my close proximity to strong magnets"?  

Rare earth magnets surround our everyday lives, but we may not realize that they are hidden in our cell phones, other devices, ear buds, etc. Medical professionals have investigated the dangers of a patients proximity to rare earth magnets mainly because of their concern with the effect of magnets on pace makers, defibrillators, and brain shunts. Why the concern? Because the settings on each of these medical devices is controlled by magnets.

All magnets, when purchased, come with warnings about their effect on pace makers in particular. A pace maker, or defibrillator, deliver signals to the heart, causing it to beat without regard to the patients’ underlying heart rhythm. When exposed to a magnet the device works improperly or is deactivatedPace makers or defibrillators are negatively affected starting at 10 gauss (however, conservative estimates place this number at 5 gauss). This can result in a pacemaker missing a beat or cause an ICD defibrillator to temporarily stop looking for abnormal heart rhythms. As a comparison: headphones have small magnets with field strengths as high as 200 gauss or more (that's 20 times more than the dangerous limit of 10 gauss or 40 times the limit of the more conservative 5 gauss limit).

Spicer Art Conservation uses magnets in the conservation of historic textiles and artifacts
Internal parts to Earbuds.

But how close does the magnet need to be to be dangerous? Researchers agree that the magnet (or in this case device, headphones, etc) should not be placed directly on a patient's chest. However,  researchers have found that if the headphones were placed at least 3cm or 1.2” away from the chest, they were shown to have no effect (Morphy 2008). 

Therefore, in the museum world, the real danger of magnets might be to the conservator or preparer, and not as much to the visitor to an exhibition. A visitor most likely will not be close enough to any artifact or object within a case to be effected. As a courtesy, a small sign could be placed on stand-alone cases. Only an artifact in a small-bonneted case where something might need close inspection might be an issue if a particularly strong magnet was used. 

The chart below comes from K & J Magnetics where they have provided magnet sizing guidelines to reach a 5 gauss or lower reading. This chart and their article on "Pacemaker Safety" can be found on their website.  

determining the correct magnet to use when mounting a textile can be difficult, Gwen Spicer is an expert in the field of conservation and mounting artifacts with rare earth magnets

Luckily, pace maker technology is changing, with new devices unaffected by the magnets in electronics. We live in a world that is being saturated with waves from wireless services, devices and their carriers. It is unclear what all of this does to us. But for now, art conservators, curators and museum exhibit preparers do not need to be worried that our attempt to best support our heritage will badly effect our visitors.

And what about us? As practitioners (especially those who use an implanted device like a pace maker), we do need to remain at "arms length" from magnets, and no problems should arise. However, our exposure to magnets when mounting or treating an artifact is limited to a brief time period. The real issue for all of us seems to be our own personal electronics and how much exposure we have to these items that have "invaded" our lives. 

The bottom line, don't be afraid to use rare earth magnets to mount or treat an artifact. And if you have an implanted medical device, don't put the magnets near your device.

For additional information read these:

  • K & J Magnetics webpage on "Pacemaker Safety". As always, K & J has exceptional information about magnets (for example the chart above comes from K & J's page on pacemaker safety). But there is so much more! Look around their website for all the other magnet information they offer.  
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The conservation of 17th century needlework textiles, a conglomeration of stitches, symbolism and media

Mid-17th century English Stump Work embroideries feature a variety of symbolic images, with a variety of stitches, using a variety of materials. These pieces truly are are early "multi-media" pieces, and with their complex embroidery is a multitude of conservation needs. These 17th century pieces are rendered in a raised-work style, often referred to as "Stump Work". The images depicted in the needlework, the techniques and materials used, make these stump work embroideries all similar in appearance.

Recently in the studio was an embroidery called "Mordecai and Esther". It is named after the biblical story, yet the image is of Esther and King Ahaznerus of Persia. According to the story, Esther marries the King, and as his queen bravely implores his mercy to save her people from execution.

17th century English needlework conservation, professional textile preservation, restoration, Upstate Albany New York, Spicer Art Conservation, collection of Newport Restoration Foundation
The overall image shows the density of embroidered symbols. Notice the windows in the town, they shine due to pieces of mica embroidered into the work. Below is a detailed image of the mica windows. From the collection of Newport Restoration.

17th century English stump work embroideries were filled with religious references and symbolism. The restoration and preservation of these multi-media artifacts needs to be approached carefully. This embroidery was expert preserved and repaired by a professional conservator at  Spicer Art Conservation in New York State

Biblical stories are found frequently in embroideries of this time, the story of Esther is quite common because it was accepted as "historical" because it was Old Testament, and therefore not seen as overly religious (so it would not offend). The following quote describes this type of work quite well:

"The variety of method was almost infinite, though the range of subjects was limited.  The curiously disassociated juxtaposition of "curiosities', mythological, religious, natural historical and even heraldic, in unrelated scales, combined in creating an atmosphere of magic or fantasy" - Lanto Synge in Antique Needlework 1982

These needlework textiles are heavily worked with symbolic images. (Much is written on the symbolism found in art, and especially symbolism in textiles such as tapestries). This work alone includes:

  • Stag (in corner)
  • Lion (in corner)
  • Unicorn (in corner)
  • Leopard (in corner)
  • Birds of various species
  • A water fountain
  • Clouds with rain and a rainbow
  • Sun placed at the top, center
  • Fish in a bird's mouth
  • Trees - various: pears, grapefruit, orange? pomello?
  • Insects - many species and sizes, disproportional to things around them, i.e. bug same size as bird
  • Flowers - various
  • Camel
  • Squirrel
  • City or town in the background

Detail of symbolism in 17th century English stump work embroidery, conserved at the textile conservation studio of Spicer Art Conservation, New York
Detail of symbols and "distortion" of proportion (hare and peacock are the same size as a caterpillar, which is on the same scale as a flower).

The multitude of stitching techniques and symbolic imagery is typical of needlework from the mid 1600's. In fact, as we looked at some other examples, the style and manner in which the pictures are stitched makes one biblical story was almost indistinguishable from another. Below is a needlework picture from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the similar features are obvious.

another example (this one from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) of a 17th century English stump work embroidery very similar to the one conserved by textile preservation expert, Spicer Art Conservation, located in upstate New York

These multi-media needlework pictures require the conservation of a multitude of elements including:

-Silk ground, backed in linen, with backing of silk.

-Silk thread, metallic thread, metal sequins, glass beads, pearls, mica

Closer inspection shows unique stitching techniques to create flat satin shiny areas, richly complex stitches creating 3-D images, and elements like pearls and sequins and chips of mica to create areas of interest and detail. Stitching techniques include (but are not limited to): tent stitch, gobelin, satin, french knot,  couching, rococo, detached buttonhole, etc. The satin stitch is easy to examine and clean in that the stitch is flat and easily seen. The knotted stitches and the dimensional work is much thicker and gives "nooks and crannies" for dirt to hide and mask unseen damage hidden below.

Close-up showing the detail of the embellishments to the 17th century English stump work embroidery, recently conserved by textile preservation experts, Spicer Art Conservation
The added beads, pearls and sequins create interest, and more 3-dimensional areas. Below is a closer look, where you can see the metallic threads used to create the robe of this individual.

close-up detail of 17th century stump work embroidery conserved at Spicer Art Conservation, experts in the preservation and restoration of textiles

Regardless of condition, a 350+ year-old embroidery is a fragile textile and must be approached with regard to the age of the materials. This particular embroidery, while dirty and with some areas of loss,  is in good condition. As we always do, the treatment starts with a vacuuming using very low suction and a small brush attachment. When the silk and linen backings were removed, the embroidery showed evidence that it had been trimmed. This could indicate it was the lid or a panel of a larger object like a "casket" (not coffin, much like the one below).

from the V&A Museum, this casket embroidery very much resembles the 17th century stump work embroidery conserved at Spicer Art Conservation
A 17th century stump work casket from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The needlework we treated had been attached for a very long time to a wooden strainer and had been framed. It was removed from the strainer and placed on a mount constructed of DiBond that was cut to fit inside of the frame. A sealed package was created around the artifact that contained the the new DiBond backboard as well as new Plexiglas and spacers. The original wooden backing was returned, but only after it was separated from the sealed package with an interleaving layer of Marvelseal to protect the needlework from any other possible acid migration.

Some interesting work has been done by conservators using microscopy to look more closely at the complex threads used in these, and other 17th century embroideries, and how these threads were produced. Another interesting find is discussed at length on The National Gallery of Victoria's (Australia) website. While doing their microscopic evaluation they found evidence of peacock feathers used to embellish the bodies and feelers of insects depicted in the embroidery. Sadly, only these small pieces of evidence are left due to the quick degradation of feathers. Their website also includes x-radiography images of a needlepoint revealing hidden pieces of fabric and thread and how they were used.
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.