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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Adinkra Cloth, Another Textile from Ghana

The kente cloth is a well-known woven textile from Ghana, stamped meaningful proverb symbols, and strongly associated with the Ashanti. Lesser known, but as important to the Ghanaians, is the Adinkra cloth.

Ntonso Visitor Center where demonstrations of Adinkra making are performed.
Adinkra cloth is a woven, solid-colored fabric that is stamped with a wide variety of symbols. I recently had the great opportunity to visit a center in Ntonso where it was being made. Ntonso, located 20 km northeast of Kumasi, is now the center of adinkra manufacturing. This cloth, like the kente, is also typically worn by men in the form of a toga. However, its use is reserved for more sober occasions, like funerals, where kente is used for celebrations.

Adinkra on display at the visitor center.

The origin of the adinkra dyeing technique is not fully known. Possibly it was adopted by the Ashanti around 1818, when King Osei Bonsu defeated the Gyaman (now in the Ivory Coast), whose chief at the time was called Nana Kofi Adinkra.

An early adinkra cloth is located at the British Museum, collected in 1817 by Thomas Edward Bowdich in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Empire. This shows that the tradition was well established by Ashanti culture.

The pigment used in stamping the designs on the cloth comes from the bark of the Badie tree (Bridelia migrant). Once broken up, the bark is soaked in water.

Preparing the bark of the Badie tree before cooking.

Then the bark is pounded to break it up with a large mortar and pestle.

Then it is soaked again. Before cooking begins, it is filtered through a sieve. Interestingly, after eight hours of cooking, the liquid can be used as an herbal medicine. But for the ink, more cooking is required, usually lasting 12 hours.

After 8 hours the liquid is an herbal medicine.

The stamps, the most important part of the adinkra cloth, are carved from sections of a calabash gourd. More than 60 different Adinkra symbols are used, each of them signifying a specific tradition or proverbs.

Using the calabash gourd for the stamp designs.

A sampling of symbol designs.

Once the symbol has been selected, it is inked and the fabric stamped.

The stool symbol.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Metallic Threads Tango

Textile and organic conservators all have had the exciting, but also, at times, frustrating, experience of untangling metallic threads before restitching them. You consider yourself lucky when threads have a memory and really, truly want to return to their original placement. Would it only be the case for the breakable silk threads around which stable metallic thread is wrapped!

The reader might wonder what I am talking about, but there are many textile embroidery traditions that use metal-wrapped threads delicately arranged on the surface of the textile, which are then anchored with small stitches positioned regularly along the threads. Write Ingrid K. Jimenez-Cosme and Jannen Contreras-Vargas in their article, "Gilded silver threads; corrosion and cleaning":
The manufacture of gilded silver threads can involve different processes like fire gilding, hammering, drawing, spinning, rolling and striping wound around a fibrous core of silk or cotton, and that is just the beginning; the fine metallic threads are then combined with silk, linen, paper, parchment, cotton or other metallic elements to make complex textiles woven in lace, brocade, embroidery, etc.
M. JáRó notes in the article, "Metal Threads in Historical Textiles," "...threads have been used to decorate textiles, predominantly embroideries and woven fabrics, for several thousand years. We find them on ecclesiastical as well as on secular vestments, on different accessories like gloves, shoes, head dresses, or even on other objects like hangings and carpets." It is the Chinese and other Asian textiles that might be best known for their extensive use of metallic thread. And my examples here are Chinese. However, many other countries also had this tradition, showing their wealth and prosperity.

The technique we've been using at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC to handle metallic thread has recently changed. In the past, I had used small weights and, sometimes, very fine pins to hold the metallic threads in place. But this was never really fully successful. The sewing thread would get tangled in the heads of the pins or the tops of the small weights.

Small "kiss" weights (shot pellets
wrapped in thin polyester film
tied up with tape)

Anyone who has been reading this blog will soon know that our change, of course, has something to do with magnets!

Small block-shaped magnets covered with
paper and an extension with a handle.

Behind the silk we slipped a sheet of stainless steel. Then small block-shaped N35 magnets (1.5 mm x 8 mm x 6mm) were wrapped with filmoplast self-adhesive archival paper tape (Neschen P 90). A long tab of paper was left to serve as a 'handle' for carefully lifting or repositioning the magnet.

Metallic threads aligned and stabilized.

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.


Costa, Virginia, de Reyer, Dominique & Betbeder, Maria (2012) A note on the analysis of metal threads, Studies in Conservation, 57:2, 112-115, DOI: 10.1179/2047058412Y.0000000001

JáRó, M. (2003) Metal Threads in Historical Textiles. In: Tsoucaris G., Lipkowski J. (eds) Molecular and Structural Archaeology: Cosmetic and Therapeutic Chemicals. NATO ASI Series (Series II: Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry), vol 117. Springer, Dordrecht

Jimenez-Cosme, Ingrid K. and Contreras-Vargas, Jannen. Gilded silver threads; corrosion and cleaning, papers from the Forum of the ICON Textile Group, 4 April 2011, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Toth, Márta (2012) Lessons learned from conserving metal thread embroidery in the Esterházy Collection, Budapest, Hungary, Studies in Conservation, 57:sup1, S305-S312, DOI: 10.1179/2047058412Y.0000000056

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Overcoming the Challenges of Mounting a 39-foot Painted Textile

This year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts asked Spicer Art Conservation, LLC to mount an unique painted textile from Tibet. The uniqueness of this artifact was not just due to the type of artifact, but also its dimensions. After all, how many artifacts do you know that are 39 feet long! The good news was that it was in a remarkable state of preservation for its monumental size.

The textile needed to be mounted for an exhibition, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, that would later travel across the country to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The length is a critical part of the piece's iconography, which shows side-by-side deities. The deities, all with menacing appearances, are to be allies, not adversaries, facilitating the practitioner's spiritual progress. The painting is surrounded with rows of silk damask, as well as a pleated, double-layer ruffle along the bottom edge. This banner likely once hung on the walls of a monastery's main assembly hall or antis inner sanctum.

The painting layer out on the floor of a gallery for
examination (ca. 18th century, Tibet, opaque
watercolor on cloth).

Mounting this wonderful artifact had been a challenge for the museum. Using magnets was an appropriate solution, but what type of magnetic system would do the job? After all, due to the length the artifact would need to be rolled in at least one direction for the installation. Also the curator desired to have it installed where it would go around corners, allowing the viewer to 'enter' and be surrounded by it. I thought this was a really great, but really challenging idea. Just mounting it on 39 feet of straight wall would be challenging!

The obvious mounting system was to use the magnetic slat, fabricated by SmallCorp, Inc. But what gauge of steel could be rolled while also being thick enough to maintain the pull force of the magnets? The powder-coated steel with the magnetic slat is a gauge-24 (0.0276" / 0.7010 cm). This was too stiff and the coating was not flexible enough to withstand several rollings.

After much searching and investigating, a local manufacturer was found who makes steel air ducts. They had the ability to cut a continuous strip of galvanized steel, 1-inch wide in a gauge-26 (0.0217" / 0.5512 cm). We found that it could easily roll over an 18-inch diameter tube. The small jump between gauges 24 to 26 is not much, however, the thinner gauge was just enough to allow for the needed curvature, while also being able to return to a straight and flat surface.

From the start, it was clear that the painted textile needed to be rolled onto two large diameter tubes. The installation would begin at the center of the mount installed on the wall, working each side out, one at a time. This would insure its center and positioning. Unlike paper that is often rolled on a tube for installation, due to its stiffness, textiles -- even painted ones -- require support from the upper edge. Another issue to solve. In order to support the textile and provide a sleeve for the galvanized steel, Tyvek was used. The sleeve was sewn into the top edge of the Tyvek to hold the steel. The Tyvek was also kept long to act as a barrier for the painted regions during the rolling process. This was then attached to the reverse side of the banner providing support, protection and housing the steel needed for the magnetic system.

Preparing the Tyvek sleeve and backing for the scroll.
Painting conservator, Nancy Pollak inpainting
 on-site at Spicer Art Conservation's studio
Gallery before installation.
Last stages of installation.
With the help of the team at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC, and along with the mount makers and the art handlers at the VMFA, the scroll was successfully installed for the exhibition.

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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Remembering World War I and II Service Banners and the 'Home Front'

Sheet music, "Our Service Flag: A Blue Start 
Turned to Gold," 1920, Library of Congress.

Over the years at Spicer Art Conservation, we have seen many types of service banners or service flags that were meant to be displayed by service members' families. First used during World War I, the banner was designed and patented in 1917 by U.S. Army Captain Robert L. Queisser of the Fifth Ohio Infantry, in honor of his two sons who were serving in that war. With subsequent use, their design and sizes were standardized and codified.
The flag or banner is officially defined as a white field with a red border, with a blue star for each family member serving in the Armed Forces of the United States during any period of war or hostilities. A gold star with a blue edge represents a family member who died during Military Operations. This includes those who lost their lives during World War I, World War II, or during any subsequent period of armed hostilities in which the United States was engaged before July 1, 1958, or those who lost their lives after June 30, 1958:
  • while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
  • while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
  • while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent party against an opposing armed force;
or those who lost their lives after March 28, 1973, as a result of:
  • an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of Defense; or
  • military operations while serving outside the United States (including the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States) as part of a peacekeeping force. [1]
A personal banner, often placed in a window. The blue star signifies one family member serving in the Armed Forces. Should the family member die in service, the family had the right to replace the blue star with a gold one.
The size of this banner needed to be the same size ratio as the American flag.

The Gold Star Mother designation originally started in 1928 by Grace Darling Seibold to recognize mothers who lost sons in WWI. The last Sunday in September is observed as Gold Star Mother's Day. Above, Gold Star Mother's Day at Arlington National Cemetery in 1936.

These banners were widely distributed in the home front, but lost favor during the Vietnam War. There has been a resurgence in their use since the first Gulf War. For example, the Silver Star is a tradition begun in 2004, marking service personnel who were wounded.

A 1918 Service flag, presented to Mills County by Glenwood
Lodge No. 43, Knights of Pythias
Many organizational banners were personalized
with the names of their members and, thus, can be very large.

WWII banner for Navy service. The printed design is
'flocked'. It still has its wooden rod with cord and tassels
WWII Banner from the West Side Rowing Club,
Buffalo, NY
The idea of commemorating members of a group has a tradition with GAR roll of honor as a means to honor valor and bravery of members.

GAR Roll of Honor with 18 names
Names are printed onto cardboard and attached to
fabric with a ribbon

Notes and Resources

[1] Wikipedia, "Service Flag," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_flag, accessed January 12, 2019.

CRW Flags, "Service Flags (U.S.)," https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us%5Esvc.html, accessed January 12, 2019.

"The Service Flag of the United States," http://www.usflag.org/history/serviceflag.html, accessed January 12, 2019.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Puerto Rico - One Year Later

I sit here comfortably in my home. The lights on, heat when I need it, and even water (this is sporadic due more to regional geographic issues than natural disasters). Even this year in the mid-west crazy events are happening on unusual scales - flooding and endless rainfalls, record numbers of days with tornadoes. Nationally, the incredible weather events this spring make one wonder if some of their underlying causes are related to climate change.

Lost siding from strong winds on the Museo de
Arte de Puerto Rico. 

It was only a year ago I found myself in Puerto Rico surveying collection damage for FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Maria. I was reminded of this fact by FEMA's countdown clock which announced next hurricane season begins June 1st.

Blue tarps on unprepared roofs.

A year later and Puerto Rico's recovery is far from complete. Perhaps a roof has been repaired on an university's library. Volunteers, like me, have come and gone. But I can't helping asking myself if the  the collections that library roof had once protected will ever be the same. Can students safely read the books without masks? Will the staff at the library every resume their jobs or health?

LIbrary at the Universidad de PR-Humacao.
The roof was completely lost.
Circulation dest at the library at the Universidad
de PR-Humacao.

Capuana Ceremonial Ball Courts site, Utuado.
Metal building in Caguas.
Museo Casa Antonio Roig, Humacao.
Moisture in the walls of Casa Alonso, Vega_Baja.

Mold is silent, till it is awakened
Waves of assistance come and go
No electricity or generators,
More mold grows

Am I safe?
Are my loved ones safe?
My home, my belongings?
Yet mold grows

Mixed with a humid climate, mold grows
Stone walls remain wet
Wind can slow it, if at the shore
More mold grows

Collections are disfigured
Collections are distorted
Collections are never the same
As more mold grows

What is the remedy?
Without assistance
More mold grows

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Magnetic Mounting Systems for Museums and Cultural Institutions is now available!

The book is now available and it is time to get yours today! 

We have been waiting for this day for a long time. I especially want to thank all of those who pre-ordered books. In all, they ordered over eighty books. Some ordered at the time of the International Mountmaking Forum in London. Since that meeting, there has been a steady flow of orders from museum professionals, framers and mountmakers globally. I have been overwhelmed and pleased by this early support and enthusiasm for the book.

All the boxes delivered. 

The book! It looks really great, too.

How do I get a book? It is easy, you can go here to place your order and we will ship a copy to you.  Are you going to be at this years AIC annual meeting in Connecticut and don't want to wait or pay for shipping? It is only a few weeks away. I will be there too selling copies of the book.

How do you find me at AIC? You can find cards with ordering information at SmallCorp's table in the exhibit hall. Or look for conservators wearing a large button with the book cover. These conservators will also have cards with ordering information available. Or you can just find me walking around. I will have books available for purchase and am happy to arrange meeting up with people to facilitate the purchases; just send me an email at gwen@spicerart.com and we can work out the details!

An assembly line was needed for
the packaging of all of the books.
These books are headed abroad!

All of the pre-ordered books packaged and ready
to be shipped out!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Magnets to the Rescue for Mounting Paper, Books and Label Text

I have recently been contacted by a conservator at the Winterthur Museum regarding the display of books and archival materials using magnets. As part of the conversation, we discussed the idea of converting the existing display case where small pins and tacks are used to support artifacts into a full magnetic system.

It turns out that a magnetic system is perfectly suited for use with these types of materials. This is especially the case when using a three-part magnetic system. Such a system would use one magnet between two layers of ferromagnetic materials, ie steel. One layer of steel is the actual back wall of the case with the second steel part being the armature as seen in the image below. The use of a three-part system almost doubles the strength of the single magnet, allowing for the support of even heavier artifacts when using the stronger neodymium type of permanent magnet. An example of a two-part system can be found in an earlier post on the mounting of leather gloves.

The variations of two-part and three-part magnetic systems, a) Magnet-to-magnet; b) Magnet-to-ferromagnetic
material; c) Ferromagnetic material-to-magnet-to-ferromagnetic material.

A range of armature shapes and sizes made of either steel or another ferromagnetic material can be created independent of the magnet. Separating the parts allows for each to be stored. Remember the importance of proper storage of magnets.

I recently visited the musée de quai branly, in Paris. The conservator, Eleanore Kissel, generously gave me a tour of the galleries and conservation studios. Below are some images from the visit. The quai branly is unique in that their gallery display cases, designed in 2006, were purposely designed to use magnets. They are perhaps the first museum to so fully embrace a wide use of magnets. Since that time, magnetic systems have become more sophisticated and fine-tuned. It was wonderful for me to see all of the creative solutions each using magnetic force!

Having an entire surface of steel means that artifacts can be placed anywhere on the panel with no marking of the surface. This eliminates the need for filling holes in the wall between each gallery rotation. Steel, with a durable powder-coat, can also be placed in a gallery's deck and ceiling.

The armature for this basket is
attached to the cup with a magnet inside.

Magnets in 'cups' or 'pots' produce a strong pull force. The cups are available with counter-sunk holes for securing into wood or other materials or into a protruding flange as seen in images above. All of these armature elements can easily be moved and readjusted to accommodate fine-tuning.

The 'J'-shaped armature is attached to the back wall with a magnet. A
decorative coat-layer was added to the face of the steel. The armature
elements are discretely placed, to support both the lower and upper edges
of the matted works of art.

A modular system for labels can also be created with flexible magnets behind them. The printed text can then be inserted into an appropriately sized sleeve. A range of products are available for such things and the internet is filled with a variety of ideas demonstrating the range of aesthetic options and prices.

I hope that I have shown the great flexibility that using a magnetic system can offer in displaying a wide variety of artifact types, all without the visitor knowing. 

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.