Flag conservation

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The making of a historic slipcover.

Early original furnishing textiles are rare. They were often recycled as tastes changed, or simply as they wore out. "Slip", "loose", or "protective" covers are examples of such textiles. Once upon a time they were a common item custom made for all types of furniture (not just upholstered seating furniture) often to protect the expensive fabric or surface that lay beneath. Leather coverings for tables were also made, as were covers for expensive carpets. Now, few of these coverings survive. A few museum collection's have them, with probably the fewest examples for easy chairs.

Boscobel House and Gardens has an early easy chair that originally was not upholstered, but instead protected with a slip cover. They wanted to recreate a slip cover in the historic manner. The problem was how would it have been created? Where did the seams lay? How did they work the cones? Was there a flounce? The questions and the "unknowns" were endless. What was known, is that it could not be created with a modern eye.

Reupholstery of historic furnishings is expertly done at Spicer Art Conservation. Before image of chair.
The "bare-bones" of the chair. This chair has a slip seat, under which,
 at center, is indeed an opening for a chamber pot to be placed below.

Historic illustrations, as well as small domestic and formal paintings of the time, are hugely beneficial and very useful in recreating a slip cover to accurately reflect the time period that Boscobel wanted to interpret. Such examples of historic illustration are by Ella Emory and Mary Ellen Best, two women who created many illustrations of interiors in the late 1800's. The amount of detail found in their illustrations is remarkable, as is their amazing detail. These sources can assist with identifying fabric type and indications of fabric direction and trimming locations.

However, questions of construction still remained.

The solution was to find originals. With the help of the Boscobel curator, Judith Pavelock, two were located. One from the collection of Historic New England, which was quite well known, being illustrated in several publications on slipcovers (Its accession record can be found here), it specifically comes from the Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine. 

The slipcover is made of chintz cotton fabric printed with columns of large scale
 undulating flowering vine flanked by dendretic vine/roots of blues and golds; 
off white ground. It is edged-hemmed with striped linen tape. It dates from the
1840's and was made for a 1759 chair; 1977.541A for an Easy Chair (1977.253)

The other is from Locust Lawn, an 1814 historic house outside of New Paltz, New York, that was shuttered in the 1880's, and so remained a time capsule of the early nineteen century.

Chair from Locust Lawn.

The two examples were both floral chintz with striped tapes. By blending solutions from the two examples, a plan for the new slipcover was developed. The fabric was selected as a white dimity with a small herringbone pattern. The tape was simple twill tape also in white, both woven by Thistle Hill Weavers.

The wing of the chair during the construction of the slip cover.

Dimity refers to a cotton, woven on a harness loom into a patterned fabric. It was originally imported from India, but soon was woven in Britain and in the Americas. The term dimity covered a wide variety of weave patterns, from figured, bird's eye, to stripes. Strips were the most common being the easiest to weave. Dimity was both sturdy and serviceable, being attractive for finishing and clothing.

Expert reupholstery of historic furnishings is done at Spicer Art conservation, the chair during treatment
Positioning the fabric around the arm and cone.

The historic chair after reupholstery in custom made reproduction fabric, textile conservator Gwen Spicer performed the work.
The completed slip cover.

Linda Baumgarten wrote in "Protective Covers for Furniture and its Contents", that "Checks and stripes were preferred for public rooms such as libraries or parlors, whereas printed cottons were favored for the bedchambers, where the slipcovers often matched the bed hangings". Her article goes on to talk about that at various times chairs were fitted with slipcovers to protect the finer fabric below.  And at other times the opposite was true for chairs that were covered with a simple linen, with the intention of    being covered. It is on chairs like the later, that the absence of nail holes for an outer textile can be observed, thus these chairs were made to always have a removable slipcover. She also discusses in great detail the use of covers for nearly all valuable property and furnishings, from beds to desks, to bookcases and clothespresses.

Read what you can about these textiles. Slipcovers are a fascinating and often overlooked textile.  Another great resource is "Furnishing Textiles" by P. Clabburn. Chapter eleven in particular is fully devoted to "case covers".

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment