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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The conservation of 17th century needlework textiles, a conglomeration of stitches, symbolism and media

Mid-17th century English Stump Work embroideries feature a variety of symbolic images, with a variety of stitches, using a variety of materials. These pieces truly are are early "multi-media" pieces, and with their complex embroidery is a multitude of conservation needs. These 17th century pieces are rendered in a raised-work style, often referred to as "Stump Work". The images depicted in the needlework, the techniques and materials used, make these stump work embroideries all similar in appearance.

Recently in the studio was an embroidery called "Mordecai and Esther". It is named after the biblical story, yet the image is of Esther and King Ahaznerus of Persia. According to the story, Esther marries the King, and as his queen bravely implores his mercy to save her people from execution.

17th century English needlework conservation, professional textile preservation, restoration, Upstate Albany New York, Spicer Art Conservation, collection of Newport Restoration Foundation
The overall image shows the density of embroidered symbols. Notice the windows in the town, they shine due to pieces of mica embroidered into the work. Below is a detailed image of the mica windows. From the collection of Newport Restoration.

17th century English stump work embroideries were filled with religious references and symbolism. The restoration and preservation of these multi-media artifacts needs to be approached carefully. This embroidery was expert preserved and repaired by a professional conservator at  Spicer Art Conservation in New York State

Biblical stories are found frequently in embroideries of this time, the story of Esther is quite common because it was accepted as "historical" because it was Old Testament, and therefore not seen as overly religious (so it would not offend). The following quote describes this type of work quite well:

"The variety of method was almost infinite, though the range of subjects was limited.  The curiously disassociated juxtaposition of "curiosities', mythological, religious, natural historical and even heraldic, in unrelated scales, combined in creating an atmosphere of magic or fantasy" - Lanto Synge in Antique Needlework 1982

These needlework textiles are heavily worked with symbolic images. (Much is written on the symbolism found in art, and especially symbolism in textiles such as tapestries). This work alone includes:

  • Stag (in corner)
  • Lion (in corner)
  • Unicorn (in corner)
  • Leopard (in corner)
  • Birds of various species
  • A water fountain
  • Clouds with rain and a rainbow
  • Sun placed at the top, center
  • Fish in a bird's mouth
  • Trees - various: pears, grapefruit, orange? pomello?
  • Insects - many species and sizes, disproportional to things around them, i.e. bug same size as bird
  • Flowers - various
  • Camel
  • Squirrel
  • City or town in the background

Detail of symbolism in 17th century English stump work embroidery, conserved at the textile conservation studio of Spicer Art Conservation, New York
Detail of symbols and "distortion" of proportion (hare and peacock are the same size as a caterpillar, which is on the same scale as a flower).

The multitude of stitching techniques and symbolic imagery is typical of needlework from the mid 1600's. In fact, as we looked at some other examples, the style and manner in which the pictures are stitched makes one biblical story was almost indistinguishable from another. Below is a needlework picture from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the similar features are obvious.

another example (this one from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) of a 17th century English stump work embroidery very similar to the one conserved by textile preservation expert, Spicer Art Conservation, located in upstate New York

These multi-media needlework pictures require the conservation of a multitude of elements including:

-Silk ground, backed in linen, with backing of silk.

-Silk thread, metallic thread, metal sequins, glass beads, pearls, mica

Closer inspection shows unique stitching techniques to create flat satin shiny areas, richly complex stitches creating 3-D images, and elements like pearls and sequins and chips of mica to create areas of interest and detail. Stitching techniques include (but are not limited to): tent stitch, gobelin, satin, french knot,  couching, rococo, detached buttonhole, etc. The satin stitch is easy to examine and clean in that the stitch is flat and easily seen. The knotted stitches and the dimensional work is much thicker and gives "nooks and crannies" for dirt to hide and mask unseen damage hidden below.

Close-up showing the detail of the embellishments to the 17th century English stump work embroidery, recently conserved by textile preservation experts, Spicer Art Conservation
The added beads, pearls and sequins create interest, and more 3-dimensional areas. Below is a closer look, where you can see the metallic threads used to create the robe of this individual.

close-up detail of 17th century stump work embroidery conserved at Spicer Art Conservation, experts in the preservation and restoration of textiles

Regardless of condition, a 350+ year-old embroidery is a fragile textile and must be approached with regard to the age of the materials. This particular embroidery, while dirty and with some areas of loss,  is in good condition. As we always do, the treatment starts with a vacuuming using very low suction and a small brush attachment. When the silk and linen backings were removed, the embroidery showed evidence that it had been trimmed. This could indicate it was the lid or a panel of a larger object like a "casket" (not coffin, much like the one below).

from the V&A Museum, this casket embroidery very much resembles the 17th century stump work embroidery conserved at Spicer Art Conservation
A 17th century stump work casket from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The needlework we treated had been attached for a very long time to a wooden strainer and had been framed. It was removed from the strainer and placed on a mount constructed of DiBond that was cut to fit inside of the frame. A sealed package was created around the artifact that contained the the new DiBond backboard as well as new Plexiglas and spacers. The original wooden backing was returned, but only after it was separated from the sealed package with an interleaving layer of Marvelseal to protect the needlework from any other possible acid migration.

Some interesting work has been done by conservators using microscopy to look more closely at the complex threads used in these, and other 17th century embroideries, and how these threads were produced. Another interesting find is discussed at length on The National Gallery of Victoria's (Australia) website. While doing their microscopic evaluation they found evidence of peacock feathers used to embellish the bodies and feelers of insects depicted in the embroidery. Sadly, only these small pieces of evidence are left due to the quick degradation of feathers. Their website also includes x-radiography images of a needlepoint revealing hidden pieces of fabric and thread and how they were used.
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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