Flag conservation

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What is your base knowledge about Rare Earth or Neodymium magnets?

Sometimes we just need to begin with the basics.

There has been lots of talk recently amongst conservators about Rare Earth Magnets, specifically rare earth magnets composed of the element Neodymium. These neodymium magnets have gained a foothold as the "go-to" magnet for mounting artifacts for exhibits and display. That is not say that this particular type is the only suitable rare earth for conservators to use, just that our literature indicates it is the most popular choice. Besides Neodymium, the other rare earth magnet for conservators is a Samarium Cobalt.

Rare Earth?  Neodymium? Samarium Cobalt? What do these terms really mean, and is there a big difference from one magnet to another?

To begin with, rare earths are not really rare, nor are they precious. They are actually as common in the earth as lead or tin. What makes them "rare" is that the elements that make up the rare earths are hard to come by, meaning mining for these elements is no easy task, and when they are found, the process to isolate them from the surrounding materials is quite difficult.

On the periodic table they are the upper row of elements that sit below the table (the plum color). (The lower fuscia colored row are the radioactive elements). They are part of the Lanthanide group of elements. Of the four permanent magnets, all developed in the twentieth century, two are made of elements from the Lanthanides; Samarium and Neodymium.

Conservators may be partial to Neodymium magnets for several reasons. They are cheaper than Samarium magnets, but more importantly, Neodymium magnets are strong, compact, permanent magnets, and they have the highest magnetic field strength as well as a higher coercivity (which makes them magnetically stable). The downside is that they have a lower Curie temperature (tolerance to heat  exposure) and are more vulnerable to oxidation than samarium-cobalt magnets. Samarium magnets, are more prone to corrosion and are far more brittle.

So it is an easy choice for many conservators, the neodymium magnet is the logical choice. The drawbacks (i.e your neodymium magnet being demagnetized because it is exposed to high heat) can easily be avoided. Simply do not use hot-melt glue with your neodymium magnet. Other options are available, like countersunk magnets to accommodate a screw for instance.

Hot melt glue and neodymium magnets just don't go together. The temperature of the glue
(even the kind marked "low temp") is just too high and will render your magnet useless.
Neodymium magnets begin to lose strength if heated above their maximum operating temperature,
which is 176°F (80°C) for standard N grades. They will completely lose their magnetization if
heated above their Curie temperature, which is 590°F (310°C) for standard N grades.

So now that we have established why neodymium is the logical choice, lets talk about the variety of neodymium magnets that are available. Not only do they come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but they are available in many strengths as well. Essentially that means these magnets are labeled in a way that tells you how strongly they "stick" to a ferromagnetic surface, which is perhaps the most useful information for conservators as we are often looking for a delicate balance of supporting an artifact, but being careful not to cause any harm to the artifact.

A very small sample of the sizes and shapes of Neodymium magnets available.

Neodymium magnets are marked N35, N38, N42, N52…but what does that mean? According to our favorite magnet distributor, K & J Magnetics, "Neodymium magnets are all graded by the material they are made of. As a very general rule, the higher the grade (the number following the 'N'), the stronger the magnet. The highest grade of neodymium magnet currently available is N52. Any letter following the grade refers to the temperature rating of the magnet. If there are no letters following the grade, then the magnet is standard temperature neodymium".

One of the smallest Rare Earth Neodymium magnets available.   This N52 measures 1/16" in diameter and only 1/32" thick!

The magnet above is an incredibly small magnet, yet as a N52 magnet it's pull force is quite strong.  Finding a balance between size, shape, pull force, and other factors to accomplish a mount is challenging. One would wonder if you could simply weigh your artifact and then figure out how many magnets would hold it up, and maybe add a few extra as a safety feature. But as we all know, nothing is ever that simple. For Conservators it is not just about holding the weight of the object, but how intact is the object, and what is it's ability to hold it's own weight. Sadly, there is no way to measure that. So we build in safety factors, like an angled display board, or a display fabric to provide some built-in friction for a textile.

So often I hear, "oh, magnets?! I know all about those" only to discover that the real magnet knowledge of the speaker is limited, it is only the term "magnet" that is familiar. Understanding that magnets are part of a broad and diverse world is the first step in using them properly.  Being familiar with magnets and their properties is the first part of creating a successful mounting system. In future blog entries we will discuss the other parts of a magnet system: The gap (or space in between the magnet and the ferromagnetic material) and the ferromagnetic material (what the magnet is attracted to).  Once these parts are understood, their cooperation together and the ways in which they can be altered, can be utilized to create inventive and successful systems.
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 the use of rare earth magnets 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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Shipping or traveling by air with Rare Earth Magnets

Recently, when I purchased some magnets, I noticed the box that they came in was labeled: "Not packed for shipment by air." What does this mean?

The box was small, only holding a few rare earth magnets in a zip-lock bag and the entire box was filled with crushed paper. I began to think, "what more was needed to ship this package by air"? Is there a concern with the pressure in the baggage compartment of the plane? Could the few magnets in the box effect flight instruments? Neither seemed possible or a significant issue. 

So, I looked into it further. First, I found that magnetized material is NOT regulated as a hazardous material when transported via ground/surface transportation. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that rare earth magnets pose a safety risk when shipped by air unless they are specially packaged. Many suppliers do not provide such specialized packaging, and therefore do not transport via air. Perhaps they do not want to take the time to concern themselves with the added time to determine this. We know of one trusted supplier who does, to see how they ship their magnets via air, see the link below for K & J Magnetics.

It is important to realize that when groups of magnets are in close proximity to one another, their field forces unify and thus increase. Therefore if a large or moderate quantity of magnets are shipped together, shielding of some sort could be necessary.

Is it safe to take magnets on airplanes? Yes and no. Magnets can affect the navigational equipment on an aircraft. However, most single small magnets are not capable of significantly affecting these instruments from a moderate distance. But to determine exactly how strong a magnet(s) would have to be to affect the instruments, and how close they would need to be to do so, the US Department of Transportation and the International Air Transport Association have set precise guidelines for the transport of magnets by air. If the magnets you are transporting exceed certain thresholds, they will be considered Class 9 Hazardous Materials and should only be placed on an aircraft by trained and certified personnel. 

So, what are the rules?

According to K & J Magnetics,
"There are two important measurements of a package containing magnets. Rule #1: If the field strength is 2 milligauss (0.002 gauss) or more at a distance of 7 feet from the package, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) says the package needs to be labeled as Magnetic (see below). This is especially applicable for international shipments.

This label would be placed on a package containing magnets being shipped via air.

Magnets are often shipped in a steel-lined box to remain below this limit.

If there is any chance that the arrangement of magnets could change, or any package shielding could be damaged so that a measurement exceeds this value, it falls under the Dangerous Goods category and should be labeled as Magnetic.

Rule #2: For any package shipped by air, whether it is labeled magnetic or not, the field strength must be 5.25 milligauss or less at a distance of 15 feet from the surface of the package (FAA Title 49, Part 173.21 Forbidden materials and packages). If the package measures above this value, don't ship it by air.

Why are these rules so important? The magnetic compass. Despite all the fancy GPS navigation systems, the basic compass is still an important part of aircraft navigation. If a cargo of magnets alters the compass readings, accurate navigation might be compromised.

Remember, your magnets are competing with the magnetic field of the Earth, whose strength is only about 0.5 gauss on average."

So the short answer is that a magnetized material is considered a hazardous material and is regulated as a hazardous class 9 material when it is offered for transportation by air and when it has a magnetic field strength that is capable of causing the deviation of aircraft instruments. 

This image from K&J Magnetics shows a packing
method to keep magnets as far from the box walls as possible.

So how do you put this into practice? Well one way is with the use of a compass. That's right that ancient tool that was invented when the mysteries of magnets and Lodestone were first put to use. With your compass you can also measure the field distance of the magnets inside a box. (The first link below also includes a great youtube video showing this!) Remember, the farther away from a magnet you are the more the field force drops.

Read more of K & J Magnetic's article at: https://www.kjmagnetics.com/blog.asp?p=shipping
some other sites to visit:
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.

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.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ferrous Attractions - What did Conservators experiment with at the AIC Annual Meeting?

In the last few weeks some questions have come up about testing magnetic systems and how to determine the proper system for mounting an artifact. While more and more conservators are turning to magnets (YAY!!!!) as a solution for mounting, there is still some information out there that may be confusing, here I hope to clear that up!

Below is a recap of the hands-on session conducted by Spicer Art Conservation at AIC's 2013 annual meeting. This hands-on session was an opportunity for conservators to test various types of magnets,  ferromagnetic materials (sheet metal, metal strips, embedded washers, etc) and gap materials (the artifact, mylar, display fabric, or other interleaving materials).  

About 80 participants were present for the early morning hands-on session. For those who were unable to attend AIC's 2013 annual meeting, or were at the meeting but were at other specially groups, here is just a quick summary of the session and the important outcomes observed by the various groups. Read the earlier blog post for a full description and details of the materials we used and how the tests were performed. The goal of the session was to become acquainted with the diverse variables of a magnet system. (1. The strength of the magnets; 2. The ferromagnetic materials; 3. The gap or space between.)

Art Conservators meeting, hands-on session, rare earth magnets, Gwen Spicer's talk
Conservators busy experimenting with magnets.

Small groups of 4 – 5 participants were created. Each group had a "jig" (a stand and a combination of a magnet system, and pre-measured weights to test the system with). Any combination of the system could be used. Fabrics, paper, Mylar, etc, were all placed between to act as a gap. Performing each trial 3 times was recommended, and then recorded onto a worksheet.

Wooden blocks were placed on the aluminum bar. Chains were then added to smaller blocks to hang clips. The clip supported the bucket for the weights. All of the weights were pre-measured sand-bags, in sizes of 5lb., 1lb., ½lb., and ¼ lb., as well as ½ oz.

testing magnetic systems for use in art conservation
Example of the block on the jig.

Below are images of the various blocks that were provided in each of the five groups. (A detailed description of the different components in each group is in the earlier post - see above for link.)

Local spot fasteners.

Steel gauge
Powder iron in several preparation methods.
Flexible ferrite magnets.
Velcro alternatives. (Read more about this system here.)


The final section of the session was when, as a group we were able to discuss our observations of the various trials. Each group was allowed to speak. Below are the recorded comments, with some of the most important comments in bold.

Test Comments
Gap Comments
One group recommended, “buy the cup!” While, they also mentioned that it left a mark or impression on the paper.
The felt/batting diminished the strength of the magnet’s strength. This observation represents the whole idea of: the thicker the gap, the weaker the pull strength.
The powdered iron embedded into the batting created the best results. Groups clearly saw that the increase in the concentration of iron powder held better.
The 1” disc magnet in a cup did not hold more weight than the ½” disc in a cup on average. This was seen on all tests.
Mylar on the outside was better than when placed on the inside. This was noticed by other groups too.
Nap-to-nap surface was better. Alluding to the fact that friction can play a role in the system.
The thin foil (.001) steel did not even hold the bucket. (The average weight was 40 grams)
24 gauge steel held the cup
When the Mylar was next to the steel, it failed at ½ lb. where as, when the fabric was placed next to the steel, it stayed at ½ lbs. Other groups also noticed this.
Best results were when the suede was between and in the gap.
The overall concession was that Flexible magnets do not hold much weight. One group was able to hold as much as 1-½ pounds using the 0.125 thick magnets.
All felt that the strongest was with the suede in the gap.
Not a lot of sheer strength
Magnet needs to be smooth when using the cup
Mock-up is essential
Discussion of how to adjust the lower lip of the “L” slat.

Participants quickly found that the amount and thickness of the ferromagnetic material greatly affected the strength of the magnet. This was seen no matter what form the ferromagnetic material was used in: washers, steel sheet, or powdered iron. Neither the foil tape (0.001), nor the powdered iron in the paint medium was found to be strong enough to hold the bucket with any of the magnets. Large differences in magnet size did not affect the pull strength (1” to ½” was the same) (See the table below).

With using a 1/2" disc, N42 grade neodymium rare earth magnet, the table below shows the range of weight values that the range of ferromagnetic materials can support. 

.001 steel
.01 steel
.025 steel
Thick washer
Epoxy mix
Embedded batting
Less than 40 grams
½ lbs
1 1/8 lbs
¾ lbs
1 lb
Less than 40 grams
~40 grams
1/8 lbs

The activity was designed as a learning experience while also serving as a fun introduction to magnetic systems. It appears that both were achieved. Participants were able to deal with many of the issues in creating and altering a magnetic system.

Gwen Spicer's AIC 41st Annual Meeting, hands-on session Testing magnetic systems for use in art conservation, treatment and display
AIC Annual Meeting, hands on session, testing magnetic systems
While some participants had prior experience with magnets, many were experiencing the magic of magnets for the first time. Many participants mentioned to me their surprise that there were so many magnets to choose from; they had no idea of the differences in size, shape, or strength, or even what a "rear earth magnet" really was. Many participants also mentioned that before the testing they envisioned certain trials to be more successful than others. For example, many confessed their disappointment in the strength of iron powder mixed with paint as they considered it to be a more achievable method for use in their museum and hoped to use that scenario. After seeing the low hold of the iron powder and the risk for slippage of the artifact, many confided that it seemed "too risky".

The other important feedback that came out of the hands-on session was from the conservators in the green group. They immediately saw the benefit of spreading out the "magnetic force" in a system we now call "large area pressure" rather than using an individual point system (i.e. small magnets placed at intervals). Their concerns were based around the possibility of an artifact becoming indented from using a magnet that was too strong. They had only considered mounting an artifact with magnets by placing the artifact on a ferromagnetic backing and simply placing magnets at intervals across its face. Not only did the hands-on session give them appreciation of testing a system before implementing the system, but they realized that they were not limited to using magnets in one single way, instead they could consider having magnets imbedded into the wall, while having a steel strip in the artifact.

The idea of leaving a magnet in an artifact brings up a very important topic. It was not until much later and after much research that we at SAC have started to design systems where the magnet is not kept in the artifact (read an earlier blog post). This is NOT because we determined it to be dangerous (although to our knowledge there is no published information to indicate detriment or safety), but it is really about the cost of magnets and the re-usability of a commodity that currently has environmental concerns (we will not go into it here, but if you are interested, do an internet search on the mining practices for rare earth metals and you will see much of it is done in China, and that it is done in a way that is not friendly to mother earth or the people who call her home).

The use of magnets in conservation is still very much in its infancy, but with good research and sound science, we can make remarkable progress towards utilizing the exciting and great potential magnets possess. Look for more of our blog entries on magnets and conservation in the future, we have a lot to say about magnets and hope that they excite you as much as they do us!

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 the use of rare earth magnets 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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Conserving, then mounting a pair of Leather Gloves with magnets

It has been a while since we at SAC have blogged about magnets. But that is not because magnets have not been on our mind! In fact, we have been quite busy working with them. So we thought that we would share a magnetic mount that we have recently designed. And with it, discuss the idea of using a Universal Standard Language to discuss magnetic mounts, so that they can be understood and replicated by other conservators and mount makers.

The pair of gloves to be mounted had been worn to Abraham Lincoln's funeral on April 19, 1865 in Washington, DC by Robert Van Valkenburgh, a United States Congressman from New York and a Union Army officer.

The gloves are Paris made, as indicated from a stamp that appears inside one glove. They have been owned by the New York State Military Museum for many years and had been in a museum display in the early half of last century. For their upcoming exhibition, the New York State Millitary Museum wanted them again to be included in a short-term display. These 150+ year old gloves are made of fine thin leather, and both gloves together are quite light in weight.

After some humidification, a mount was created where one glove was palm down and the other was palm up. The gloves were quite stiff and misshaped from being wrapped and stored flat. Holes were present from a previous mounting method. The once black color of the outside of the leather had begun to powder and flake, mainly along the fold lines. Due to their fragility, a mount using magnets was created.

Once the shape of the gloves were determined, an internal form using Nomex was created for the fingers and palm for each glove. The thumb was supported separately. Attached to the Nomex were stitched two "L" brackets. They were positioned to support two of the fingers (image below).

magnetic display mount for museum, Lincoln assassination, art conservation, historic garment
The "L" brackets were selected to also support the fingers, as well as the palm of the glove

magnetic mount of artifact for museum display, art conservation, Lincoln assassination, rare earth magnets
Nomex layer with the attached steel brackets, also covered with foiled-paper tape.

The brackets were both stitched with button hole thread (top photo above) and covered with foiled paper tape (directly above). The edges of the brackets were outlined with Volara framing tape in order to cushion the hard edges of the steel bracket. This was to be the side that faced the mount. The visible side of either glove was carefully padded out with layers of 1/4" Volara foam.

Rare earth magnets used to mount artifacts in art conservation and museum display. New York State Millitary Museum
Internal support and the Glove

Much can be discussed about the nuances of the internal support and the creation of the mount. Both of which are also important, but for this blog, it is the magnet system that we are focusing on.

Block shaped, 1/2"x3/8"x1/8", N42 Neodynimium rare earth magnets were used and secured to the mount. I have begun to think that magnets should be secured to the mount rather than incorporated with the artifact.  For one, the mount can be reused, and having the magnet positioned in place could potentially be useful. Where as if installed in the artifact's internal structure, the magnet might stay there. With the cost of rare earth magnets increasing, and also with the unknown long-term effects, magnets kept within artifacts might be ill advised. Also, keeping an "active device" such as a magnet inside the artifact may cause inadvertent harm. What I mean is that we at SAC often speak of the "one-mindedness" of magnets. Magnets are always "on", and they will jump to a receiving metal as quickly as possible. If you did not know that an artifact had a magnet inside of it you could place it on or near something you actually do not want it to magnetically attach to.

Magnetic mount created for display of artifact from New York State Millitary Museum. Art Conservation
Magnets glued to the Plexiglas and covered with foiled-paper tape.
Positioned magnets with the Volara layer. Thin Volara
was added over the magnets to fill the recess. 

Gwen Spicer is the preeminent art conservator when it comes to treatments or creating museum mounts using rare earth magnets
Before the show fabric has been placed on the volara, but here is how the gloves will be positioned when they are displayed.

In each of the papers I have published, or any of the presentations I have given, I talk about magnetic systems as being a three part system; 1) the strength of the magnet, 2) the ferromagnetic material and 3) the gap. As a means to begin to clearly illustrate my system to others, a form of language to describe the system is necessary. How do we begin to think about and write the three parts of a system? Below is my attempt to begin a discussion. The mount description is in brackets and begins with the bottom most layer first. The artifact is listed in italics and the internal structure within the artifact follows within the braces (aka squiggly brackets).

1. The position of the magnet is indicated by an asterisk. The grade and size of the magnet is in parentheses and follows the asterisk: *(grade, shape, size)
2. The ferromagnetic material, is underlined, it's gauge and/or thickness follows in parentheses.
3. The gap layers are in bold.

[Plexiglas, *(N42, block-1/2"x3/8"x1/8"), foil paper tape, Volara tape, show cover fabric] artifact (thin calf leather), {foil paper tape, steel bracket (1/16" thickness), Nomex}

Is this word diagram of mount layers (illustrated below) sufficiently explained so that another conservator or preparator can recreate this magnetic mount? What part of it is not understandable? How does this need to be changed?

cross section of Gwen Spicer's rare earth magnet mount for the display of an artifact at the New York Millitary Museum
Cross section of magnetic mount for gloves.
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 the use of rare earth magnets in conservation treatments.  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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dust Covers. So many designs, so many choices

Dust covers are critical in protecting collections from light and dust. They are an easily implemented level of protection. Recently SAC created a Tyvek dust cover for Historic Cherry Hill, as a costume hanging unit. The hanging unit to be covered is a chrome-plated Metro International system on large caster wheels. Historic Cherry Hill was fortunate to receive an IMLS grant for the equipment and supplies.

There are many ways to construct a dust cover, thus no set method or set materials are specified for use. In my experience, it is more based on the dimensions of the materials available for the project, and the time and skills to devote to the project, that determines the design (simple low tech vs. complex high tech). Think about those great dust covers at FASNY Firefighting Museum that used magnets to support the Tyvek! FASNY needed covers but did not have the staff time to create complex covers, their low tech solution is fabulous.

Along my travels through the years I have seen covers made of muslin or other types of cotton fabric, even pull-down curtains used for barriers, which is just another case of where solutions for preservation are about available materials and creative minds.

But, back to Cherry Hill's cover.  The construction of the cover was created by the fact that from the base of the unit to its highest point was about the same measurement as the width of the Tyvek. Therefore a full sheet of Tyvek wrapped the sides of the unit and a separate piece was positioned at the top. This required little sewing, just around the upper edge.

The front has a center front opening that is secured with twill tape ties, as seen in the image below. Ties are postioned at the top, and then in several locations down the front opening.

Custom made tyvek dust cover, created and designed by Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, New York
The cover placed onto the unit with the front closed.

For this particular cover we added a means to pull back the two panels ("curtains") of the front, to allow for complete and unobstructed access. The center front opening allowed for this to happen. The method we used was to add along the upper edge, a horizontal cord that ran from one far side to the other. Small plastic rings were evenly positioned along the upper edge of the two front opening sides and stitched along the opening. The rings were previously threaded onto the cord, thus acting like a curtain rod.

Custom made tyvek dust cover for the archival storage of historic clothing. Designed and created by Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation
The cover untied, with the front panels opened.

The cord was secured at each end and at the center. The cord was held taught because the cover fit so well to the unit.

Detail of the front corner with the front pulled open.

Custom made Tyvek dust cover, archival museum storage, Spicer Art Conservation
Reverse side of the dust cover.
If you are wondering how big this cover is, it is very big.  And yes, working with a cover this size is a bit daunting.  We are talking about yards and yards of Tyvek.  This is one reason why the cover was designed to minimize the amount of stitching. Tyvek is inherently stiff and therefore difficult to negotiate with the sewing machine. But we pulled it off, and even made ruffled edges around the giant caster wheels.  A nice touch if we do say so.

We at SAC are happy to have had the opportunity to design and construct this custom dust cover to protect the collections for Historic Cherry Hill.

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.

Look for Gwen's book, "Magnetic Mounting for Art Conservators and Museums",  available in 2018.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Not on THAT hanger! Proper storage of hanging collections

Here at SAC, textiles are our "thing". When pressed to label SAC's specialty in conservation, textiles more than likely come in first, (but gosh we do an awful lot of paper, objects and upholstery!).

Whether it is a silk dress from 1840, or a military jacket from the Civil War, or perhaps a christening gown passed down through generations, historic costume is is an important part of any textile conservator's work. Too often, garments are brought to us in a condition that could have been prevented. The damaging item is sometimes a surprise, as not everyone knows the dangers of acid migration and that the natural organic wooden hanger supporting the prized garment is the thing that is doing the most harm. Wooden hangers, while very sturdy, are made of wood which is quite an unfriendly companion to textiles (as evidenced below). (See Glossary of safe materials for storage).

textile conservation, proper storage, archival materials, damage to artifacts, improper handling or storage
The light color of this jacket lining allows the staining from the hanger to be quite visible

But let us not point an accusing finger to wooden hangers only. It is not just the material a hanger is made of, it can simply be the hanger itself. Perhaps the item is too fragile to hang, or the hanger is far too big for the tiny garment and the arms have been forced out to the side rather than to hang naturally from the shoulders, or perhaps the heaviness of the garment causes undo stress to the fabric at the shoulders, resulting in weekend areas now prone to tears. Another contributing factor is the thickness of the hanger, a thin wire hanger is not as supportive as a thick molded polystyrene hanger, simply because the thicker hangers ease the distribution of weight across a larger area, while the wire creates specific and unforgiving stress points.

Textile Conservator, Gwen Spicer created these hangers to support historic garments.
A few examples of hangers that have been padded in various ways to accommodate specific garment and needs. Notice the hangers at the lower right corner are quite small, perfect for children's garments. The hangers at the top demonstrate covers that support a great deal of the upper portion of a garment, and how you can even add "arms".
When treating textiles that are destined for hanging storage or display, we always enclose an information sheet about creating padded hangers, and many times our treatment includes creating a custom made padded hanger for the garment.

Creating padded hangers might seem like a daunting task, especially to the curator of the historical society with walls lined with racks holding innumerable garments, all hanging from wood, plastic, or those lovely but quite thin wire hangers (a la dry cleaner). I know, you are thinking about dry cleaning bags now too, you are thinking how you've seen them covering antique garments and you know it's wrong…we will talk about this later.

To get started, evaluate the garment you would like to hang, determine the proper type of padded hanger design, and gather your materials. Since the initial idea of a padded hanger back in the 1970s, hangers have come a long way. Conservators and collection managers now have far more options to the original design than ever before. But in all cases, they follow the same simple rules.

RULE #1:  A textile should NOT be hung if it is fragile, or if the hanger causes strain on the garment. These more delicate textiles must be boxed and padded out to prevent crushing from folds. Read more about boxed storage of textiles in our blog post about proper storage and support of textiles .

Good intentions. This hanger is at least covered, but just behind it can be seen the
uncovered wooden hangers. Notice the strain on the shoulder lace. This hanger is
also too wide for this particular garment.
RULE #2: The hanger should not be wider than the shoulders of the garment, i.e. you would not hang a small child's dress on a 17 inch hanger. When the hanger (even if padded) extends into the arms of a garment it creates undo stress and misshape of the garment.

Alternative storage for artifacts, museum storage, art conservator survey of storage space
Hangers can be modified to hold objects as well. Here various items, including snow-shoes
 are hung from hangers and enclosed in an archival bag. In this way any applied stress is even
and visual access is possible. An inexpensive solution at its best!

RULE #3: Selecting supplies and materials is critical to constructing your padded hanger. All materials need to be archival: inert, neutral pH, and will not off-gas.

RULE #4: Never hang knits. Just don't. They will stretch and sag and then the damage is irreversible, so just avoid it all together.

proper storage of historic garments in a dedicated archival space. The garments are placed on padded hangers for support
Suit jackets hanging inside of a storage cabinet. Each of these jackets are in
excellent condition and are able to support their own weight. The hangers are
widely padded to mimic a shoulder. Sufficient space for each suit is also provided.

How heavy is the garment you are hanging? Robes, coats, capes and heavily adorned costumes are particularly heavy. Evaluate these appropriately with consideration to the strain on the shoulders to hold all that weight.

There are some other advantages to padded hangers. The material that covers the hanger provides a gripping surface so the garment can "hang on" and not shift much once it is placed on the hanger.

proper storage, padded hangers, museum archives, art conservation
A row of padded hangers in a storage cabinet.
Hangers not only come in different sizes, there are other shapes as well. The Pants hanger, or the strait style hanger with clips is another frequently used item that needs re-evaluation. The clips are just too harsh, they cause crushing, severe pressure points, and usually sagging of the garment in between the clips. The alternative here is the hanger that works more like a strait clamp. These types of hangers can also be padded and provide support that is evenly distributed, this is a much more gentle approach. But keep in mind the length of the hanger and the what it is supporting.  If the waist of a skirt extends well past the clamp edges, it is too large for this type of hanger and is not being properly supported.

The wonderful thing about padded hangers is that they don't have to be expensive. In fact, I am reminded of the Canadian War Museum's ambitious project back in 1999, when they had a backlog of 15,300 (!) clothing items. They needed a quick, archival acceptable, but inexpensive solution and came up with what they dubbed "insta-hangers". Using 1" pipe insulation made from closed cell polyethylene, they covered hangers and got to work.  Ingenious!

Need some illustrated instructions to create your own padded hangers? Lots can be found on-line. Here is a link to Minnesota Historical Society's instructions for making a padded hanger: http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/conservation/reports/paddedhanger.pdf
Also, a step-by step method for creating padded hangers as well as cotton muslin coverings from blogger, Sara who works as a curator: 
And last, but not least, the NPS Conserve O Gram from 1994:

In our next blog we will discuss dust covers and how they keep unwanted things (i.e. dust, debris, cat hair, etc…) off of your textiles.

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 31, 2014

Textile Conservation of First Lady Angelica Van Buren's dresses

By Barbara Owens, SAC staff

There is so little known about this intriguing First Lady. We discussed at length the mystery of Angelica Van Buren's wedding gown in our post on August 1, 2012. The dress, which is the subject of that post, is said to be her wedding gown. If you want to read about the connection (or lack of) between that dress and the dress she wears in her official white House portrait, visit our blog post here.

Textile conservator Gwen Spicer built custom padding for the long-term storage of this historic garment
This stunning bodice is truly eye-popping. The color is still
amazingly vibrant, this dress must have been a show-stopper.

In that post, the information we discovered about Angelica portrayed her as a warm gentle spirit who wholeheartedly accepted her role as First Lady, despite her young age and despite the fact that she did not have to take on this responsibility. At 21 years old, she agrees to serve as first lady at the request of her widowed father-in-law, President Martin Van Buren.

Angelica is young and beautiful. She brings a fresh look to the White House, and although she will be fiercely criticized by Van Buren's foes as being aristocratic-like, she is nonetheless the daughter of a hugely successful southern plantation owner. She is wealthy in her own right and has a clear style befitting a woman of her upbringing and social status.

This style became very clear to us at SAC when we were asked to re-house several dress sets belonging to Angelica. Each of the components of these dresses were beautifully made, the colors (especially the purple dress) were wonderful. And even though they have faded in the 170 or so years since she wore them, you could easily imagine Angelica making her official entrance as hostess of a White House dinner, with all heads turning to see this fashionable young lady.

Art conservation, historic garments, textile, storage support, museum storage, Van Buren
The matching bodice to the bodice pictured above and skirt of the exact pattern/color. Here you can more
clearly see the white dots in the fabric, these are not as prominently visible in the other purple pieces.
Here you can also see the shattered silk under the armpits.

The components of the dress sets are in fair to poor condition, with the most compromised parts being the parts soiled from perspiration. In these areas the silk was shattering and much of the fabric here was vulnerable to loss.

The dress sets are referred to as such because each consists of pieces that would be put together as a set to make a dress. Each of the components we treated clearly went with another piece. The purple skirt matched the purple bodices and the black bodice, the pink silk skirt matches the the pink silk bodices, and could easily be paired with the black velvet bodice. The only bodice that does not seem to have perfect match is the purple bodice with the ribbons at the sleeve. Its matching skirt may no longer exist.  Also, it seems to be of a different era than the other dress components, perhaps that is why it just does  not "go" with them. But interestingly, it bears a very strong resemblance to the wedding dress (pictured below).

Textile conservation, museum storage, art conservator, Gwen Spicer, Spicer Art Conservation, Angelica Van Buren

Textile conservation, museum storage of historic garments, art conservator, Van Buren
This particular bodice did not have a skirt which accompanied it. However, it seemed to "go" with the
 black velvet bodice pictured below. The "pink" bows at the sleeve had a matching bow that had been
detached from any of the pieces.  Perhaps it was meant to be placed at the front of this bodices.

The dresses were only to be re-housed for storage. Each dress component received a padded support to reduce the folds and therefore crushing of the dress. The dress sets were placed into acid free boxes with slings to reduce handling while examining or moving the dress components from their storage boxes.

The dresses in this "set" were labeled as such because many had interchangeable parts. The pink bodice with poof sleeves (below) is the same fabric/color as the bodice to the left. Each could be worn with the pink skirt, in the same color/fabric.

Spicer Art Conservation, Van Buren dresses, textile conservator, historic garments, 1840s
Here three of the bodices are grouped to be stored together.  
Previous repairs in art conservation, textile conservation, damage to silk, 1830's dress
An up-close photo of the sleeve of the purple bodice. Here you can clearly see previous
repairs,the staining from perspiration, and most importantly the detail of the fabric.

The exact date that these dresses were made or worn is not known for sure. Angelica serves as First Lady from 1839 to 1841 and then spends several years at the Van Buren estate in Kinderhook, New York, which is the location of the National Historic Site. When one looks at the style of the dresses and compares them to standard fashion "plates" of the 1830's they are clearly lacking the "leg-of-mutton" sleeve of the early 1830's, but certainly take on the late 1830's look as indicated below.
This is a wonderful image from the Museum of Costume. Notice the model with her back to us shows
that infamous "leg-of-mutton" sleeve, while the model who faces us shows a gown silhouette that
could easily be in keeping with the dress components from the Van Buren NHS.

The 1840's fashion standards may be more clearly met with these dresses. As Susan Jarrett writes on the history of Fashion and Dress section of the website www.maggiemayfashions.com: "By the mid 1840s, the shape of the skirt took on a bell shape and stiff crinolines along with multiple layers of petticoats became necessary to aid in lifting the circumference of the skirt. Double flounced skirts became quite popular. Bodices of the late Romantic period typically had basque waists (or elongated waistlines which ended in a point at the front). Necklines were round, V-shaped, and wide for both day and evening wear." This description seems to best fit the dress sets above. But below is an 1855 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter with some similar necklines to what we see in the wedding dress or purple bodice with bows. Hmmm…the mystery continues.

Keep in mind that Angelica's dresses are at about 170 years old. They were clearly cared for, and are a glimpse into a relatively unknown life of the 8th First Lady of the United States. While the dresses will need to undergo full conservation treatment in the future, they are now being housed and stored in a way which will not hasten that treatment. Their padded supports and archival storage materials will allow for their safe keeping. 
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.