Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Friday, May 31, 2013

Ferrous Attraction and The Science Behind the Magic

by Gwen Spicer

At AIC's 2013 annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, I presented a hands-on session on the use of magnets in conservation. Art conservators have been using magnets for many years, but mostly in a very limited way. Perhaps because a system has not been fully understood or described in literature, perhaps because it is not part of our training, or perhaps because it is a practice that is too new to be embraced. This session's purpose was to change all that and give conservators hands-on experience with my favorite things - MAGNETS!!!

parts of the jig system for testing magnetic systems in display of artifacts. Art conservator Gwen Spicer is a recognized expert in the use of magnets to treat, mount and display artifacts.
Parts of the jig.
jig from the AIC 41 conference hands-on session using rare earth magnets, presented by Art Conservator, Gwen Spicer, expert in the use of rare earth magnets in the conservation treatment and mounting of artifacts and textiles
The jig put together.

testing rare earth magnet systems for use in conservation and artifact display. system designed by conservation magnet expert, Gwen Spicer
Jig with a "system" in place. The wooden block is one side with a magnet, the metal behind is the other part. The red clip will hold a cup which will be filled with ever increasing weight until the system fails.

The focus of the session was for participants to learn and understand the parts of a magnet system so that they may use this knowledge in their own practice. Each part of the magnet system works in tandem in order to achieve the best combination for the artifact. The three parts are:

  1. The strength of the magnet
  2. The ferromagnetic material
  3. The gap or space between the two

These three parts, in various combinations, were experimented with during the session.

Groups were divided into five puzzles or combinations of magnets and ferromagnetic materials. All of the groups were given the same materials to use to create various gaps. The jig works like so: weight is added to the system and then recorded when the system fails. (we are focusing on sheer strength of the magnetic system).

The goal of the session is to become acquainted with the diverse variables of a magnet system. A range of magnets of both Neodymium and ferrite flexible magnets were selected. The ferromagnetic material is also a range that includes several thicknesses of steel plate and preparations of iron powder.

Below is a table that describes the various tests. The Neodymium magnet for all cases were disc, grade N42 and 1/8" thick in a range of diameters. The poles were axially oriented.

Receiving side
Green – Local
Fender washer
Thicker washer
Metallic cups, ½” and
1” in cups
½” in cup,
1” in cup
Blue – Iron Powder
Iron Powder “Magnetic” paint
-       Painted on surface
-       Mixed with Epoxy
-       Embedded into Batting
½” in cup,
1” in cup
Orange – Steel gauge
.025 (24 ga),
½” in cup
½” in cup,
Red – Flexible magnets
Foil tape (.001)
Steel (24 ga)
Flexible magnet (0.06)
Flexible magnet (0.03)
Yellow - Velcro alternative idea
“Slat” Side
Steel (24 ga)
3/4” dia attached to aluminum
Empty cups
Removable Side
• Webbing sleeve with pockets for magnets ½”
• Steel (24 ga), powder-coated
• 2 webbing sleeves

Several of these tests have been described in couple conservation publications. They were included for participants to see how not only how they worked, but more importantly, how they could be altered for another situation.

Each group recorded their findings using a real-time internet-based document. Then at the end of the session we discussed the findings. Click here for the final summary of results.

Time will tell, but I am sure once anyone has seen first-hand the power of magnets and can appreciate the ways in which they can be used, they will be as big a fan as I am. On a side note, if you want to see the use of magnets in a conservation project, be sure to check out the most recent edition of the AIC Journal which features a paper from yours truly demonstrating the use of magnets in an upholstery project with a Hunzinger chair.

Special thanks to SmallCorp, Inc who generously made all of the jigs and components for the session.  This session was only made possible because of them. My very deep gratitude goes to everyone there for being so helpful and supportive in making this session a reality.

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.   Her current research focuses on rare earth magnets and their use in conservation. To contact her, please visit her website.

Learn more about magnets and their many uses in the new publications Magnetic Mounting Systems for Museums and Cultural Institutions. Available for purchase at www.spicerart.com/magnetbook.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Trapunto banners are Memorial textiles

by Gwen Spicer and Barbara Owens

As we approach Memorial Day and we remember the men and women who have died while serving in our military, I wanted to talk about artifacts that we have treated that best demonstrate how our soldiers have been remembered from the Revolutionary War until recent conflicts, such as WWII , Korea, or Vietnam. This was a harder task than I had thought it would be. Veterans, families of soldiers killed in action, collectors, and museums all value items which commemorate specific conflicts or military events and we have treated a variety of items from flags to uniforms, hats, swords, and saddles of cavalry units, to name a few. But perhaps the most interesting, are the Trapunto banners from the United States Navy's Great White Fleet's stop in Japan in late October of 1908.

Trapunto banner, WWI, Great White Fleet, Teddy Roosevelt, art conservation, repair of historic textiles, memorabilia, mold damage
A detail of a trapunto banner before treatment. Even though this banner had been
 exposed to moisture and suffered mold damage, what is not diminished is how 
intricate and beautiful the stitching is.

For all of those textile people out there, I need not tell you what trapunto means. But for those readers who are unfamiliar with this term, "Trapunto" is an italian word that refers to a method of stitching where the fabric is "stuffed" with a padded layer beneath and then embroidered with beautiful heavy couching stitches on the top to create an image of very high relief. The trapuntos from Japan come almost exclusively from a company in Yokohama called the George Washington Company. The company sold many silk items as this was a popular commodity that navy men sought while in Japan,  But, their specialty was beautiful banners made of silk in trapunto style with stunning colors of thread and a space to insert a photograph of the sailor. Many of these  featured the image of an eagle, or  flags, an anchor, the ships of the fleet, perhaps a dragon, and often were titled with something like: "In Memory of my Cruise Around the World" and some featured the phrase: "E. Pluribus Unum".

A beautiful and symbolically typical example of a Trapunto banner from Yokohama. The sailor's photo is inserted into the life ring at the center, below that the eagle attacks the dragon, this is probably to to depict the "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900.  Other flags run along the edge, these can differ from one trapunto to the next, and may be representative of countries which had imperial interests in this area of the world.

Here is the history lesson that goes with these trapunto banners: President Teddy Roosevelt has built a formative navy and wants to show it to the world. He sends his 16 warships out to circumnavigate the world from December 16, 1907 to February 22, 1909. The ships are quite a sight with each of their hulls being painted bright white, hence the term "Great White Fleet". (Side Note: True, this voyage was a peacetime mission and certainly no servicemen died in any battle, but I am writing this blog for Memorial Day to remember this important and fairly unknown part of history and the amazing textiles that came from it!)

Route of the Great White Fleet courtesy of Wikipedia and map author: "TastyCakes"

The above and below image are two banners of the same design. This seems to be the largest of the trapunto banners that was available for purchase. It contains a large amount of detail and information. Not only could the sailor have his photo inserted, it also came with photos of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Admirals Sperry and Evans. The above banner is in good condition but notice the loose threads of the outermost red stripes. The banner below was acquired by a museum and is in poor condition from lack of proper storage, but has not yet been able to undergo conservation treatment.
Trapunto banner in need of art conservation

The first of the above photos, as well as others from the Great White Fleet's journey, can be found at the Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command website. It is a great place to learn about The United States Navy and its history. The image below is also from their website and shows another beautiful example of this type of textile.

Each time a trapunto from this time period comes in to our studio, I am struck by how fantastic these textiles are, and I am amazed at how popular these must have been among the sailors and marines. Think about how few sailors and marines made this trip (14,000 of them according to the US Navy) and how many of these trapunto banners exist. These must have been valued by the sailors and it is clear that these were not seen as just a simple souvenir, but instead were kept as a memory and cherished. For their age, many of them are in good condition because they have been cared for.

To read more about the voyage of the Great White Fleet go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_White_Fleet.

And if you still want more, the Navy Library page has a very detailed article about the voyage and you can find the link here: http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/gwf_cruise.htm

From all of us at Spicer Art Conservation, Happy Memorial Day!
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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Conservation of objects and textiles that are actively degrading

by Gwen Spicer

While it may seem like just yesterday, much time has gone by.

Don't we often find ourselves saying this? Think of when you see the child of a friend and you are shocked at how much they've grown. But for the parents of that child, the change was so subtle and so gradual that it was almost invisible.

My thoughts turn to artifacts in collections and how gradually they can change, whether it be damage from light, humidity, temperature, improper storage, etc. I particularly think of artifacts that you may have had the opportunity to examine only to see the item again in 10, maybe 20, years and the change is profound. I cannot help but wonder what caused the change that was invisible day to day but from "then" until "now" is stunning.

textile conservator, repair of tear, conservation of artifacts,
The first time I examined and treated this artifact, there were several tears and structural
problems all near the lower section of the curtain. Over the years this tear developed. 
tear in textile to be repaired in the Spicer Art Conservation studio

Recently we treated a 250+ year-old, organic object from a museum that was kept in storage in a temperature controlled setting. The humidity was correct, the object was covered. However, the artifact had begun to crumble in several locations on its surface. I remember seeing this item about 10 years prior. Only a decade ago it was not nearly as vulnerable as it is today and so the questions is: What happened?

Art conservation of organic objects, powder horn, 1760, Albany New York
A detail of a powder horn from 1760 in great condition. The intricate images
 are clear and the horn is 100% intact.  
Art conservation of organic objects, powder horn, museum collection care,
This horn is nearly the same age as the horn above, but its condition could not
 be more different. The images are at risk for being lost and areas of "crumbling"
are scattered over much of it. These items are in the same collection and have
been in the collection for about the same amount of time, housed in the
same way. So what happened to this one?

Here is a little background: The object is not handled regularly, it is not exposed to light, and it is housed properly. This information tells us that the object is currently cared for properly, but what about prior to this time? Is it being affected by something it was exposed to 50 years ago? Is it sulfur dioxide in the air? Or is it just a natural progress for an organic item of this type?

The radical change to an object can also be predictable. I recently treated a Theater curtain that had been used in a theater in a very small town. The theater is also the hall where town meetings occur, and it serves as a space for community events and gatherings. The space is not heated in winter, nor cooled in summer. When I first saw the backdrop about 4 years ago, it was not in terrible shape, but it clearly needed treatment before the rips and tears became more damaging. When the item was finally approved for treatment, the change that had occurred over four short years was substantial.

When I compare these artifacts for what they have in common, I begin to get a clearer picture. Perhaps what is wrong is that I am stuck on the "why" of the degradation. What I should be paying attention to is that objects of different composition change differently over time, and sometimes the change can be put into high gear despite our best efforts and knowledge. So perhaps the important thing is not to let time slip by.

Think of kids again. Each school year they are photographed, and if you put 1st grade next to kindergarten, the change is not terribly shocking. But put 1st grade next to 8th grade and you may be hard pressed to identify the subject as the same person.

So perhaps certain objects should be photographed more often, maybe once a year is a good time for certain things, like furnishings. But maybe items made of shell, bone or horn need to be photographed every 6 months? Perhaps artifacts are only photographed once each decade until they are 50 years old, then photographed more frequently as they age? My guess is that no single formula will fit all items.

art conservation of harness racing silks, historic sports uniforms and garments repair and restoration
The above cap was worn by a harness racer (horse), it is made of silk, and 
was falling apart. Compare it with the image below: cap worn by a harness 
racer but still held together fairly well. Both caps were worn for the 
same sport and housed in the same collection.
art conservation of silk textiles, harness racing silks, repair restoration of historic garments,

Volumes have been written on the subject, and the view of changes and how they should be described or recorded is subjective based on who you are: conservator, scientist, curator. I recently reread a few sections of "Risk Assessment for Object Conservation" by Jonathan Ashley-Smith. The amount of information available to determine what is (or could be) causing damage is almost too much to comprehend, but each possible contributing aggravator has the potential to produce a negative change, whether it be radical or slow and subtle.

The bottom line: Things change. Change is undeniable and unavoidable. This is not what we want to hear as conservators, curators, or custodians of objects that we are trying desperately to maintain. So my  question is; while we are busy constantly trying to avoid changes that will cause degradation of artifacts, are we missing the things that are happening invisibly under our noses?

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, May 1, 2013

The conservation of textiles belonging to Thomas Edison

By Gwen Spicer

It seems like in the last year, everywhere I have been looking, Thomas Edison has been appearing.  I recently visited the Schenectady (NY) Museum, now called miSci, and there he his. Really no surprise given his roll in the founding of General Electric, originally headquartered in Schenectady, New York. But then I watched a PBS program on Henry Ford and learned that he too had spent part of his early career working at the Edison Illuminating Co. and was a close friend of Edison. Then later, I found that Nikola Tesla himself worked for Edison as well, after arriving in the United States.

So why, do you ask, would this matter to me? And why so keen on Edison and his continuous legacy? And WHAT does this have to do with object or textile conservation?

It all started when miSci approached me to work on a curious piece they inherited from the GE Museum when it left Schenectady. The piece was a tinfoil from 1878 that was used to demonstrate Edison's phonograph. Discovering the history of this tinfoil, and then following it through to the revelation of the words actually captured on it was quite a journey.  To read more about this amazing treatment and the unbelievable outcome go here:
then here for the second part of the story:
and here to read the conclusion:

Tin foil wrapped around an early Edison phonograph

The tinfoil was my first exposure to Edison.  Then, a short time after the conservation of the tinfoil made national news, I was contacted by a curator from a historic site who had in their collection several more Edison tinfoils needing treatment. And then, as if Edison was not prominently "on my radar", I received the contract to treat a few items at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. The items included: his laboratory coat, a United States Flag presented to him by Ediphone Distributors in 1920, and the projection screen from his library, believed to be the oldest projection screen in the world.  To read more about this treatment see the blog entry: http://insidetheconservatorsstudio.blogspot.com/2012/12/vacuum-vexations-and-victories.html 
Edison, projection screen, textile conservation, on-site treatment by art conservator
The projection screen, fully unrolled in Edison's library.

Even with all of this Edison exposure, and the opportunity to work on some of his very own items, and spending time in his workshop where he experimented and worked and thought and invented; I am still astounded at his life and accomplishments. Each time I read something about him I learn something new (for example, there is an asteroid named after him). And each time I am impressed and wonder how one person could accomplish so much?
Edison's lab coat before treatment by Art Conservator and historic textile expert, Gwen Spicer
The coat in its storage box at Edison NHP.  Imagine that in the early days of this site as a Park, the coat simply hung on a hook in his Chemical Room and would sometimes even be modeled by well-meaning tour guides.

The most recent Edison item I treated was his laboratory coat which he used in his Chemical Room.  This was the coat he wore during his later years and it was during this time he was spending considerable time experimenting with batteries. As you can imagine the coat is remarkable. It is covered with holes from acid and staining from a variety of substances, and it is beautiful. Beautiful because to me it really shows that Edison was clearly not afraid to get dirty as the coat appears to have barely saved his skin from his caustic experiments. There is not one square inch of clean fabric left on this coat, Edison used it heavily and it shows.
Edison's lab coat, conservation treatment and rehousing of the coat for storage done by Spicer Art Conservation
The coat before treatment as it arrived in our studio.
Edison's lab coat, textile conservator Gwen Spicer, conservation treatment, Historic site New Jersey
The coat after treatment, and before re-housing.

One of the stabilized holes from the previous treatment. Tiny tight stitches
 are used along the perimeter of the hole. The white fabric seen at the center
 is the heavy weight muslin lining fabric that covers the entire reverse of the coat.

From the textile conservation standpoint, the coat is in an interesting condition in that it has seen treatments that date back many decades. (remember that Edison died in 1931, so the coat is roughly 100 years old).  As I look back at some of the patching that had been done, or the full lining to the coat with tight herringbone stitches, I think of the textile conservators who have gone before and how their treatment, at the time, was thought to be the best the "industry" had to offer. I wonder if they, like Edison in his work, knew that there was always a better way that just hadn't been figured out yet? I wonder what I am doing now that in 100 years will be looked at as an "interesting old way of textile conservation"?

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.