Flag conservation

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Textile mounts of unusual sizes

Cultural heritage just does not come in regular sizes.

This fact can be both frustrating and interesting, especially when it comes to the mounting and display of artifacts, particularly textiles. In our modern mechanical world our lives are filled with things in pre-determined sizes and shapes; clothing comes in systematic sizes, small, medium and large, etc. Our houses are typically built in Colonial, Cape Cod, ranch (traditional, raised or split) or other blueprint with specified characteristics. But this not so for the artifacts that tell our stories. And so, mounts and storage spaces are all dictated by the unique and often non-conforming sizes of our collections.

A recent project at SAC is such an example. It is a most unusually embroidered artifact. I am not even sure if it should be singularly characterized as a sampler, or better described as a trade-persons portfolio providing examples of their handwork. Regardless of it's original purpose, it is clearly representative of a skilled needle person. We do not know if the creator is a man or woman as the artifact is signed at one end with an initial and last name and a date of 1857.

Textile conservation of Berlin work sampler featuring Bargello needlework. Conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation custom mounted the unusually sized textile sampler
Here the sampler of Berlin wool work is seen after treatment. It has been mounted and framed using archival materials. The sampler's extra long size can be appreciated, stretching 12 feet, it beautifully showcases each of the 36 unique design panels and the 35 border designs between each panel.

Similar artifacts like the one above exist is several collections, it is likely that these artifacts were produced as a demonstration piece to show skill, and therefore secure work for the embroiderer. To this endeavor, this particular artifact is reinforced and protected for travel. The entire embroidery is backed with a glazed cotton that covers the reverse side, also hiding the reverse or "business side" of the stitches. The glazed cotton backing also protects it, especially while it is rolled during transport. The outer rough edges are covered with green silk ribbon and at each corner is a small bow. The green silk ribbon also provides a nice finishing touch to any presentation.

BEFORE TREATMENT: A close-up of the end of the sampler. Here, the fraying corner can be seen, along with the silk ribbon that covers the edge and creates the corner bows. This particular panel is lovely in that it captures both the needlework as well as the beadwork. 

This artifact is also unusually sized, measuring 146 inches (or just over 12 feet long), yet it is a mere 8 inches wide. It features 36 different and unique embroidery samples. No two pattern designs are alike. And while the outer black wool floral border is consistent around the entire perimeter, each pattern sample is separated by a unique dividing border of a repetitive design stitched in (see image below). While the sample designs include those worked with both glass and metal beads, the style of the vibrant wool colors is unmistakeable, referred to as "Berlin wool work", or just simply, "Berlin work". The panels feature much more than "standard" Berlin work, it also includes a mixture of cross stitches, Blackwork insets, and several Bargello needlework panels (see image below), some panels are embellished with glass and metal steel beads. As well as a mixture of both wool and silk threads. Such an artwork! It begs the question, who was the owner? Who did they present it to? Were they successful at their trade?

One of the several Bargello panels featuring the beautiful
brightly colored wool yarns. Here, two of the dividing
border patterns can be seen as well. 

After it was done being used as a demonstration piece for earning a living, no doubt someone saw the beauty in the piece and it became decoration. Following examination, we learned that it had been mounted previously. Signs of thumb tacks and nails were present along the twelve foot long sides of the embroidery.

The prepared mount was unusual, 150" long and only 9" wide. The owner wanted to have it span the entire upper wall "frieze" area of a room with a high ceiling.  

We are often asked what goes in to creating a mount that is both constructed of materials that are archival, and preferred among conservators, as well as museum professionals to ensure that the mount materials are safe and will not harm the artifacts they hold.

The structure of the mount is multi-layered. At its base is a support which is created from an aluminum honeycomb panel which will not release harmful pollutants, is buffered against acid migration, is not prone to warping, and is light weight (which is a wonderful characteristic when you are creating a large mount that could be tremendously heavy!). Over it is a layer of soft material, typically polyester batting. Then, over that is a mounting fabric, chosen to blend best with the artifact, composed of plain weave long-fibered cotton. The textile is then carefully attached to the mount using fine thread and stitches that follow former or existing stitching so as to not create additional holes (see illustration above). At the perimeter of the mount is the fillet, which creates the space (between the mount and the UV filtering Plexiglas) for the textile to rest. The frame of the mount is constructed of aluminum and is powder coated in any color, but typically black is the color of choice. Smaller mounted items can have a decorative frame placed over the top of the aluminum frame of the mount. The mount is completed with UV filtering Plexiglas. Plexiglas is much lighter than glass and it does not shatter like glass. Depending on the mount, the hanging mechanism is often incorporated into the back (see image below).

The reverse of the mount, with hanging mechanism.

Here at Spicer Art Conservation, we mount a lot of flags and other items that all tend to be closer to being square or a "reasonable rectangle". But to have a mount with this odd proportion is not just unusual, but also fun. The studio's work tables get moved around to accommodate the extra long size and then we begin to think about methods that might be slightly out of the standard. This is all great fun; we welcome and embrace the challenging mount and unusual textiles at SAC.

Textile Conservator, Gwen spicer works to prepare
the mount for the long needlework sampler.
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Gwen Spicer is a conservator in private practice. Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper. To contact Gwen, please visit her website or send an email.


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