Flag conservation

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mounting Quilts with Magnets for Display or Exhibit

by Gwen Spicer, Principal Conservator, Spicer Art Conservation, LLC

SAC has been answering many inquires from several museums and private organizations regarding the mounting of quilts, other textiles and skin artifacts with magnets (More information on magnets can be found at SAC's website).  The increased inquiries show first-hand how the field of conservation is interested in using magnets, while also continuing to find an alternative to the use of Velcro for mounting and hanging.

As with any new material or technique, concern of how magnets work and any known adverse outcomes are the most prominent subject of questions asked.  Also the challenge with using magnets with textiles, and especially quilts is that some textiles can be quite heavy.  This creates a concern with downward pull of the artifact and of sheer stress of the system that could result in failure, or compression of the artifact at the magnet site.

Antique quilt textile conservation mounting with magnets at Spicer Art Conservation

Quilts in particular present interesting problems when using magnets.  Quilts are complex; made in a range of sizes, materials, and thicknesses.  Due to this broad range of quilt characteristics, the sheer stress factor, and the need to prevent slippage or compression of materials, the potential for failure seems high.  However, with the proper planning and understanding of how a magnetic system works, its strengths, and any limitations of the type of magnet you select, the potential for failure is then quite low.

We have talked in the past about what is a "magnetic system".  The system as a whole is a significant factor in how the magnet behaves or is able to perform the task (Feymann 1964; Livingston 1996).  The magnet works in conjunction with two other parts, these three factors together create the system:

1) The actual strength of the magnet itself; care is taken to ensure the magnet is not too strong, and not too weak.

2) The ability of the metal behind the textile to be magnetized.  The receiving metal must have enough receptivity to allow the magnet to "stick" to it with its fullest ability. 

3) The space between, or the gap created by the layers between the magnet and the metal behind (or receiving metal).  These gap layers consist of the artifact and any buffering layers - mount fabric or mylar for example.

When magnets are placed on the surface of the quilt, the gap or field distance becomes an issue. Often the strength of the magnet is increased to ensure a strong magnetic field, but then puckering or "tufting" of the quilt's surface becomes visible.  Below is an image of magnets used as a point-fastener system; the magnets, while painted to match the quilt squares have created a puckered look. 

What could a textile conservator or curator do to eliminate this?

point fastener mount of textile with magnets is not the best method. Spicer Art Conservation
Magnets used to mount this Civil War era quilt are
obvious, even though they have been carefully
painted to match the surface of the quilt. The quilt is
safely mounted, but the puckering or tufting of the
quilt becomes problematic.

Our favorite solution is the Magnetic Slat sold by SmallCorp Inc.  A solution that solves the issue of a heavy weight textile by using an aluminum strip with a small lower lip (L-Shaped in cross-section) to support the textile, while rare earth magnets hold the textile back against the aluminum strip.

magnetic slat, conservation and mounting of textiles, image by Spicer Art Conservation, Gwen Spicer and may not be reproduced without permission
Grade N42 magnets, measuring ¾” dia. X 1/8”, with counter sunk holes are fastened along at 6” intervals on the vertical side.  A 22-gauge steel piece is held into a stitched sleeve along the upper edge of the artifact (Wood 2013; Spicer 2013a, c).  In this solution the lower lip actually holds the weight of the artifact, but it is the strength of the magnets that ensure that the steel piece is held back and onto the aluminum horizontal element.  The solution appears to be unlimited.  A textile weighing 60 lbs. was successfully hung with this magnetic system.

magnetic mount of textiles, conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation has pioneered the field of using magnets in art conservation
Above: The aluminum slat with "L" lip and countersunk magnet (silver).
The ferromagnetic steel piece (white) sits perfectly on the lip and is
held in place by the magnets. NOTE: The steel piece is shown without
the webbing sleeve. See below for the steel slat in webbing sleeve photo.

Magnetic slat, webbing sleeve, conservation and mounting of textiles by Spicer Art Conservation
Above:  Here the slat as it slides into a webbing sleeve (one piece 2" webbing,
the other 3" webbing). Below, see it as it is affixed to a 30 foot long
weaving. The system was used to hang several weavings, the heaviest
of which was over 60 lbs.

conservation of textiles, mounting of artifacts using magnets, Spicer Art Conservation
Above: The slat is inside its webbing sleeve and has been attached
to the textile.  Special consideration is always made to test the
hanging of the textile to be sure the slat is affixed to allow the
textile to hang properly.

Problem solved. The magnets can be as strong as you want them to be, and you never have to worry about puckering or compression.  It is simply because the quilt is no longer between the magnet and the receiving metal, instead all the magnetic pull is happening behind the artifact.  We have moved from a system where the magnets are being used as a point-fastener on the face of the artifact, to a system that distributes large area pressure behind the artifact.  It is like moving from hanging a painting on a wall by hammering the nail through the painting, to hanging it with wire mounted to the frame.

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.


  1. I may not be reading this correctly, but doesn’t this method require sewing a sleeve onto the textile?