Flag conservation

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

Friday, March 7, 2014

Organizing, or "Ode to Embroidery Floss"

It had recently become apparent that some of our supplies needed serious re-organizing. The candidate to start was the cotton embroidery floss.

Here at Spicer Art Conservation, we use floss extensively. It comes in a range of colors and has a gentle twist that blends well with historic textiles. We might not have all of the colors that are produced, mostly due to the fact that we use more of the duller, aged colors (i.e. sadly, neon green rarely shows up in ancient textiles). But some of the brighter colors are just as much a challenge when grouping…where do you put the bright rose pink from that 1910 embroidery? Should it go with the reds, or maybe the purples? Should we put them in ordered sequence the way they are numbered according to DMC, or J&P Coats? Decisions, decisions.

art conservator supplies, conservation of textiles, studio equipment, organization
Floss grouped by color family, placed into bags linked together by a ring.

Over the many years since the business started, any effort at reorganization of the ever-growing collection has not been made. The original "system" was started at some time in the mid-1990's when similar colored floss was placed in zip-lock bags with rings punctured through the corners to keep the group together. Then as the collection grew, they were bundled by color and placed into drawers. A somewhat simple system, and it worked quite well for a while. But as color choices increased, and with many individuals working on various projects (or one big project), our volume of floss was quickly getting out of hand. For some colors (from smaller projects) we had only one skein, but others with many colors or several skeins of the same color (think of very large projects), things had really gotten chaotic. It was becoming difficult to find various shades that would best work with the artifact that was being treated, simply because the choices seemed endless!

Some of our most used floss are from this color family, often I reach for a blue, only to find what I really need is a gray, or sometimes even a green.  Thankfully there are many shades of each to choose from. 

An updated solution was desperatly needed.

What worked: the clear bags were good, they kept the thread skeins and loose threads together. Plus we could easily see the colors. And for the most part, the color shades stayed together.

What did not work: Color shades did not stay in sequence. Newly purchased skeins were placed with similar skeins, but due to the sheer number of them, they often were not grouped in the bag which already held exactly the same color. Instead, skeins were just placed in the larger box. When returning from travel and performing on-site treatments, colors removed for the trip were not returned to the bag they originally came from. But this is understandable, we all get busy and getting the work done is what is on the "to-do" list, not the reorganization of your floss collection.

In hind-sight, I realize the bags were too small, and as they became crowded, the skeins had to be bent to be placed inside, which created added bulk when the bags got too full.

An example of our "before" organization. It doesn't seem bad, does it?  Except that this is only 2 of the boxes, we had many more, and each was completely filled with floss.

A solution was desperately needed, yet looking at the solutions available resulted in no solution at all. How one organizes a supply or material that is used, is really dependent on how it is used. When I am reaching for a blue, it is not any shade, but one that must blend seamlessly with the artifact. This might be a shade that is far from my minds idea of blue. And it is only when it is placed near the artifact will it be known. The "blue" I am looking for might end up actually being a gray or green. Therefore the colors need to be organized so that one can easily and quickly move from one shade or sequence to another. (And alas, this is always against the assigned numbers of the colors.)

I looked into using pre-divided boxes, but they were often not the correct size. I had also tried some of the newly designed "stitchbow holder" that DMC sells. They are very nice, but I am a creature of old habits, and I prefer to pull the thread from the skein, not unwrap it. This also eliminated the smaller cardboards where the thread is wrapped around. I guess it is true, you just can't teach an old dog new tricks.  So what to do?

Stitchbow holders - sadly, they did not work for us. But how wonderful that they include an area to label the skein! 

I knew what I wanted: 

  •  The skeins should lay flat within the storage unit.
  •  I need to be able to separate out the various shades and assigned numbering systems.

What I found were clear plastic boxes created for 4"x 6" photographs. These boxes are thin, allow the skeins to lay flat, and they have lids. They allow for the zip-lock plastic bags to still be used, allowing for loose threads to be kept together with skeins. These boxes allowed for greater flexibility. I know that any organization is not static, but instead in a working business, it is a work in progress (even though Martha might want us to think otherwise). And most importantly, others need to be able to use it easily.

Art conservation supplies and tools, studio organization, archival materials
4"x6" boxes of floss "families" neatly placed into a large case with handle - easy to carry and to store.

So the colors were all layed out and were found to fall neatly within small groups that could easily fit within the lided boxes. Each box was labeled with the colors's numbers and threads. To make it even better, the 4x6 boxes are made to fit within larger boxes (see image above and below).

16 boxes fit perfectly into the larger case. They can be removed easily, and
perhaps more importantly, they can be put back easily.

A smaller test box had been purchased which we have already determined will be great for travel. That's right! Now when we need to go on the road, we can grab the colors that we think we might need and we are off. And then upon return, they can easily go back!

Ah, a perfect solution. Now, what to do about all that sheer netting?

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.

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