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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

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

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