Flag conservation

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Supporting textile artifacts without tissue paper - Save a tree!

by Gwen Spicer

Over the years SAC has had many museum clients. Each Museum, whether they are about history, art, music, culture, science, you name it - EVERYONE has storage needs. While each museum is different, one thing is always the same in our treatments: in all cases we have incorporated the proper rehousing of each artifact in the treatment. Why is rehousing so crucial to treatment?  Because the method of treatment or the display choice, is directly affected by storage situations or constraints.

The "unexhibited" collections of a museum can far exceed what is visible to the public on a daily basis.  And many items in storage are "unexhibitable" because of the way they have been stored or housed.  A common factor in the storage of textiles is the standard sized garment box. At just 18 inches wide and various lengths, a regular sized garment, whether it be a jacket, dress, or trousers, is simply too wide to fit inside without getting scrunched. (Scrunching = wrinkles, distortion and stress on already fragile fabric). So why not just get a bigger box?  Because this is the standard-size commercially produced archival box, and the chance that boxes everywhere will be reconfigured is pretty slim. Moreover, making custom boxes is very costly.

The next factor in contributing to "unexhibitable" artifacts is acid-free tissue paper. It helps to soften creases in textiles, and is almost universally used in all museums. Quite frankly, I wish it was not. Not only is it not as effective as it needs to be, but it is almost not-reusable, it shifts, it settles, it is not reliable for support. See the photos of two similar caps below.

Acid-free tissue, artifact in need of support, before art conservation, deteriorating harness racing silk
A cap before treatment with acid-free tissue as support
ethafoam support of artifact, harness racing silks art conservation, acid-free, museum collection storage
A cap with ethafoam/stockinette batting support.  Fully supported, acid-free and no trees harmed.

Let me give you the best example I have: A museum with a huge collection of textiles, a limited amount of storage, and a huge need for stable storage of these textiles.

Such a museum is the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.  SAC has treated many of their historic silk jackets and caps.  Their textiles are somewhat unique in that many were heavily worn during use and used excessively. One in fact, had soil and rocks embedded within the hem of the jacket. So much was present, and it was so tightly packed, that the museum decided to keep the dirt in place to demonstrate the closeness of the rider to the horse and track.  Some jackets however had suffered from exposure of light damage during previous museum display.  And many simply had the combination of both modes of deterioration.

Harness racer in his racing silks.

The treatment of the silks have required the stabilization of the silk fabric itself.  For caps, the brim boards are at times broken with the silk wrapping fragmented (see image below).

Harness racing silk before conservation treatment, museum storage and support, textile
Cap before treatment.



Due to the fragility of the artifacts, they need to be fully supported.  In garments, SAC does this by creating an internal pillow which is made of needle-punch batting and stockinette for the body and each of the arms.  In this way the form of the body is created, which significantly reduces creases.  In addition, a smooth polyester fabric sling is created that wraps around the jacket while it is in the acid-free box (see photos of jacket below).  Hats receive a similar treatment, detailed below.

art conservation of harness racing silks, support for museum storage and collection care, silk textile
Cap after treatment with internal support

Art conservation of historic harness racing silks, museum storage improvements, silk textile artifacts
Silk Jacket before treatment.
reducing the handling of artifacts, silk textile, harness racing, art conservation
Treated jacket with internal support inside its
new storage box with polyester fabric sling.
By using fabric materials, the shape and support is maintained for an extended time.  This is not the case with acid-free tissue.  The tissue looses its shape over time due to gravity and the weight of the artifact.  The nice loose folds become crushed.  In addition, if the artifact is placed on display, the tissue does not return in the same configuration.  Fabric materials relieve each of these problems and they are reusable materials that are not just "green", but they also create a system that is understandable for the entire collection in that it takes a somewhat flat item and returns it to the three-dimensional object it was meant to be.

Full support is not just beneficial for garments.  Hats and caps are perfectly suited for the same kind of treatment, and perhaps even more so.  The internal structure for the caps are made with a disc of Ethafoam and polyester batting covered with stockinette.  Below left, the unsupported hat is shown next to its custom made internal support.  The image is clear, without proper support, the treatment is not complete.

Art conservation of silk harness racing cap, support of artifacts, archival materials, museum storage, internal support
Cap without internal support (left) and its custom made internal support (right).
archival box refitted, custom made storage, museum collection, art conservation
The storage of two caps, "double-decker" style,
using a standard size archival box.
Finding a balance between overall support of the individual artifacts, and the constraint of the storage room, is a critical issue.  And any improvement in storage is a huge leap forward.  For the Harness Museum, the collection manager had placed the jackets into acid-free boxes.  And even though the boxes were not jacket sized (and so the jackets had to be folded) they were now housed in an acid-free environment.  It may not seem like a "major leap forward", but any time storage is improved, even in ways that seem small, they are actually huge.  Think about storage and the length of time an object spends in its housing.  It is essentially where the artifact "lives" and any improvement is extending that "life".

In an earlier post, we discussed the custom storage and display with the treatment of a unique artifact.  But this is a little different; in this case, many of the artifacts are quite similar.  So, a systematic solution needs to be determined that both works with the full range within the genre, but also is similarly able to adapt to small variations while also being supportive and similar to researchers or those who are accessing the collection.  A solution from SAC is the "double decker" hat storage (see image above).  Two hats are fully supported in an acid-free environment.  It takes up less space and you do not have to disturb one to access the other.  They are however paired together because they are likely to be accessed together.

So we can change the way things are stored, but changing storage space is more difficult.  Museums are limited by their physical space.  Shelving is standard and objects and their boxes are not.  But some items need to be stored together simply because they belong together.

archival boxes, museum collection storage, art conservation of textiles

This is a common feature with any specialty collection, whether it be an isolated collection among others in a museum, or a focused museum like the Harness Museum, all museums have large groups of similar artifacts that are best stored in a similar manner that assists with everyone who accesses the collection.  Determining what system to put in place is based on several factors. To begin, several questions must be asked: what is the size of the actual artifact in the group, the amount of use by researchers or others, fragility or sensitivity of the material(s), how are other collections stored, and what space is available for the actual storage.


Visit the Spicer Art Conservation website to see more about the treated items at the Harness Racing Museum.  Visit the Harness Racing Museums website here: www.harness.org and go see them if you can. They were awarded the AIC/Heritage Preservation Ross Merrill award for outstanding commitment to the preservation and care of collections for 2012.
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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, February 6, 2013

Cleaning the textile wall coverings of Wilderstein, home of Ms. Margaret "Daisy" Suckley

by Gwen Spicer

I have known Wilderstein for many years now, mostly as a pleasantly preserved home of a woman, who happened to give a scottie dog to a former president.  Over the years it has gone through some drastic changes, like a coat of paint (it hadn't been painted since 1910), or a new roof that is actually water proof.  These improvements have all occurred under the loving attention of several devoted people, but especially Duane and Linda Watson, who are just two of the dedicated volunteers who keep Wilderstein going.

Wilderstein wall coverings,  textile, art conservation
This house is not just another estate that over looks the Hudson River, but behind the once weathered clapp boards is an interior that was attentively detailed by some of this country's most important fashion decorators of the later nineteenth century.
Art conservation of historic structures and interiors, The cleaning and repair of textile wall coverings, antiques, artifacts, antiquities
Ms. Suckley's (pronounced "sooklee") family spared no expense when building and selecting how their home was to be decorated, and of course only the best artisans of the time were contracted.  

Spicer Art Conservation has been helping Wilderstein for several years with bringing the fragile and dirty wall coverings of the home back to their former glory. The first room was the dining room, which due to water leaks was in great need of conservation. Then later the front parlor.

Art conservator at work, cleaning, restoration and repair of historic textile wall coverings, art conservation
Hard at work in the Dining Room

After treatment of historic textile wall coverings, Wilderstein, art conservation
Panel of Dining Room fabric
The two rooms feature original panels of weft-face woven fabric which covered the walls.  The parlor has 10 fabric panels made from silk and cotton.  The dining room has 15 panels of wool, silk and cotton or linen fabric.  In each room the panels were quite fragile and showed varying degrees of fading with layers of soiling and soot deposits as well as signs of general deterioration.  A note to this is, these panels were placed on the walls nearly 125 years earlier and for that kind of lifespan, the deterioration actually could have been much worse.  Perhaps that is a testament to using such incredibly well made fabric.  For the first generation Suckley's, it appears to be money well spent.

The dining room had suffered the most damage.  The floral print fabric was dirty, but had also been affected by webbing cloth moths, who had left their casings

behind.  The room had also suffered water damage from a long term leak.  This room also had many decorative features: wainscoting, intricate wood work, embossed and painted plaster, each which contributed to the detailed cleaning that would need to be done.  See the photo below: the left side shows the condition of the room prior to beginning the treatment, and the right shows the area that had, up to that point, already been cleaned.

During art conservation treatment of historic textile wall coverings, art conservator at work, repair, restoration of historic structures and interiors.
Detail of dining room ceiling and upper wall during treatment.  

Art conservators at work, historic interiors, textiles, conservation, repair, restoration
Notice the color of the parlor ceiling, seems like it could have blended very well with the "hidden" fabric.
The parlor, which could be referred to as a gold-colored room revealed some surprises about the true original color, which was (as you may have guessed) not gold.  The images below reveal small hidden sections of the fabric.  The closeup below is of the fabric hidden behind the gimp (aka the edging trim). Here you can see cream, mauve, pink and some blues.  When you view the ceiling in this room (see photo immediately above), the color of the hidden fabric "makes sense".

Antique textile wall covering, art conservation, repair and restoration,
historic wall covering, textile, art conservationWhile still very faded, glimpses of the original colors in the wall covering fabric is evident where a frame once covered this section of wall (see images left and below).

art conservation of historic textiles, determining true original color of antique textiles

The Suckley house has unique issue which contributed to the condition of the wall  coverings.  Any house built before gas and oil fired furnaces, used coal.  The coal dust went everywhere and attached to  everything.  You see, it is the oily nature of the coal dust which allows it to adhere especially well to all types of surfaces, but especially textiles.  It is a gradual build up that is not noticeable at first, but after years of buildup, it becomes impossible to miss.  To add to the issue, the coal dust can also be trapped in duct work.  Which means long after a system has been transferred or changed to another fuel source, the oily coal dust is still being sent throughout the house (this would be especially damaging if the system was switched to forced air heat).

When this project was completed, we had treated 444 square feet of fabric in the parlor, and another 144 square feet of fabric in the dining room.  To get a sense of the magnificence of this house as it once was truly was an amazing experience.  It is a wonderful place and one can easily see how it was a beloved home to generations of Suckley's.

True, historic homes dot the landscape all across the Hudson Valley.  And until recently, Wilderstein was just one of those many homes.  However, Wilderstein got a recognition boost recently with the awareness of it's former owner and her relationship to FDR in the movie, "Hyde Park on Hudson" where the relationship between Ms. Suckley and President Roosevelt was fictionalized.  Nonetheless, spending time at Wilderstein, getting to "know" the house, and knowing how important it was to Daisy Suckley, it was so wonderful to see Ms. Suckley "come to life" in this film, as I never had the privilege to meet her.

If you would more information about Wilderstein, visit their website here:  www.wilderstein.org.  If you would like to read more about Wilderstein, check out the story written about Daisy Suckley in the New York Times here: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/ghosts-of-the-hudson-valley/ .  And if you have the chance to get to Wilderstein when it opens in the Spring, I recommend it highly.

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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.