My area of interest is early 20th-century art, so I was excited to research a dress in the MTS Study Collection that resonates with me as an example of Primitivism. Primitivism is defined as the fascination of cultures identified as “uncivilized” and free from modern greed, and the struggles of power and egoism. Primitivism can sometimes be found alongside Orientalism, which is a fascination with cultures east of Europe and America (such as Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East). These movements have in common the idea of the “noble savage,” a term that existed in Ancient Greece but was later popularized by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his writing, Rousseau describes the noble savage as an “uncivilized man who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization” (www.britannica.com/art/noble-savage).
Primitivism found its way into the art and fashion of the late-19th and 20th centuries through painters like Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Henri Matisse. Artists traveled to such places as Tahiti and Hawaii to study the cultures, painting their people and environments to bring back to the Western world. These paintings can be identified by their use of bright and colorful backgrounds with exotic and exposed women, creating an illusion that these cultures were mysterious and sexy. The fashion industry embraced Primitivism even before Egyptomania struck the West following the rediscovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Popular fashion designers that took inspiration from these cultures include Mariano Fortuny and Paul Poiret. Their work became popular because it made women feel fashionable, worldly, and colorful. Inside the dresses, the wearer was relatively unencumbered and could imagine a simpler time before industrialization and urbanization.
The MTS Study Collection dress can be dated to the 1920’s due to many context clues. The curved C-shape neckline, the low waistline, the sash, the intricate beadwork, and the high hemline were departures from the Edwardian period. However, what leads me to believe that this dress is inspired by Primitivism is the use of color, beadwork, and iconography. Though the origins of the dress are unknown (such as where it was made and by whom), the dress still tells a story about its wearer. I believe that the triangular beadwork is inspired by indigenous tribal garments from North America. The triangle is a popular shape that is symbolizes family, growth, and enlightenment, and can be found throughout art, including textiles. The dark orange/red shade of the silk fabric and beads represent an important color to many warm-weather cultures, including those depicted by Western primitivist painters. The beaded sash across the low waistline hints at the flapper dresses that followed, but also is an example of the appropriation of indigenous cultural elements that was so popular in the 1920’s, and continues today.
This silk beaded dress is too fragile to display without considerable conservation, but it survives because someone cared about it. It still has the power today to teach us something about the symbolism and style of clothing from a century ago.
At Museum Textile Services we recently received a generous donation of textiles and costumes to our study collection, most of them dating from around the very early 20th century. The MTS study collection is primarily used for teaching and research, though it also contains our founder Camille Breeze's family textile collection and a few special purchases. In this newest donation, one item stood out: a single baby bootie that showed interesting signs of deterioration.
The white kid-leather bootie has plastic buttons with metal shanks that show clear signs of corrosion. The metal buckle on the toe of the shoe is also corroded. The metal corrosion and its proximity to the plastic indicates that the button is made of a modern material that is releasing a chemical as it degrades, or off-gasses. This in turn is causing other nearby materials to deteriorate.
To learn more about modern materials in your collection, visit the Resources section of the MTS webpage for handouts and further reading.
A Rough Walkers hat came to Museum Textile Services from the Erie County Historical Society in 2020. The hat belonged to William C. Hegner who fought in the Spanish-American War. The members of the 1st Volunteer Calvary were commonly referred to as the “Rough Riders”, “Rough Walkers”, or “Wood’s Weary Walkers” in honor of their first commander, Colonel Leonard Wood.
The hat is made of felted wool with a pinked brim, and a silk band with black lettering in ink that reads “Rough Walkers”. At the center front of the hat is a pin composed of two rifles crossed with the number “15” above a central white shield and the letter “A” below. There are painted and inked embellishments on the sides and brim of the hat. The proper-right side of the crown reads “Spanish American War”. “E. Pluribus Unum”, and “Cuba Libre” with a painted four-leaf clover in the center. The proper-left side reads “1st Brigade Division 2 Army Corp.”, “Co. A”, and “15th PA” with a bald eagle in the center. On the underside of the brim are dozens of additional names, places, and dates inscribed in ink. The interior of the crown has the owner’s initials “WH” and other indistinguishable inscriptions. There is also a leather sweatband with a straw stiffener.
A custom-made mount for storage of the hat was constructed out of Ethafoam, polyester batting, and cotton stockinette. The mount supports the hat so it retains its original shape and won’t deform over time due to gravity. The metal pin at the front of the hat had a screw back which was tightened to prevent the loose pin from rotating and abrading the felted wool. The hat was packed in an archival box and returned to the Erie County Historical Society.
Artifacts are witnesses to history, and each and every textile we treat at MTS provides us with a opportunity to learn more about history and the individuals who made a difference.
A private client brought a framed 35-star flag to Museum Textile Services for conservation. The flag belonged to Henry Harrison Hadley (1841–1903) from Malta, OH. In 1862, Hadley joined the 90th Ohio infantry during the American Civil War. His leg was shattered and nearly amputated in Tennessee, after which Hadley was discharged for disability in 1863. He re-entered service in 1865 as Captain of Co. “D” of the 119th United States Colored Infantry at Camp Nelson in Paducah, KY. Hadley left honorably in 1866.
The flag has a silk canton with 35 gold painted stars and a silk bow in the top-left corner that may or may not have held the flag to a pole. The stripes are made of alternating ribbons of a figured white silk with multiple shades of reddish ribbons; only 10 stripes are extant. At the lower-right corner of the frame is a handwritten note in ink on paper that reads, “Flag made by colored refugees during the war of the Rebellion. Presented to Col. Henry H. Hadley after he had conveyed them in safety within the Union Lines.”
Given all these concerns, we would normally begin by separating a textile from its failing support board. Conservators attempted mechanical separation with the aid of humidification, isopropyl alcohol, and great patience, but we were only able to safely lift the card and bow off without creating new breaks in the silk. Any pressure easily turned the silk to powder. We needed to shift our treatment goals to find a way to conserve the flag together with its board.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, where we outline our decision-making process and show the final results of treatment for this unique and priceless relic.
Over recent years there have been many natural disasters that have impacted museums and other historic sites (i.e. flood at the Louvre in 2017, fires at the National Museum of Brazil (2018) and Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019). While most natural disasters result in extensive damage to artifacts, they may also reveal something new or exciting that would otherwise remain unknown.
In February, 2019, staff from Museum Textile Services surveyed several costumes and costume ensembles at the Maine State Museum that were impacted by ice and water damage to secure storage facility. Later that same year, 17 costume ensembles initially surveyed arrived at MTS for conservation treatment. One costume ensemble in particular, consisting of a polka-dot bodice and skirt with lace panels, was particularly fragile and required an interventive treatment.
The two-piece dress, comprised of a bodice and skirt made of white silk with blue polka dots, was stiff and discolored from water exposure from the flood. The plain white silk used in the lining of the bodice, as well as the float-linings of the skirt and skirt tiers, already had numerous tears and splits, which is an inherent vice of silk. Underarm shields in each sleeve of the bodice were also shedding powder, likely from deteriorated polyurethane pads.
To address the flood damage, it was decided to wetclean the bodice and skirt. Prior to wetcleaning, the degraded skirt lining was removed due to its fragility. The decision was made not to conserve the linings due to the potential to cause additional damage through handling and loss of historic information. The underarm shields were also removed and archived due to their instability, bulkiness, and increased weight when wet, which could damage the fragile silk in surrounding areas. Fragile areas on the bodice were temporarily encased in nylon net for ease of handling during wetcleaning.
The flood at the Maine State Museum initiated the subsequent survey and treatment of many historic costumes. Perhaps without that unfortunate event, this delightful ensemble would have remained untreated and unexhibitable due to its fragile condition. Today, the polka-dot dress is free of distortions and deterioration products caused by the flood, and is stable enough that it can be displayed. A special thank you goes out to the excellent staff of the Maine State Museum who helped us manage this project, which kept us going through the early months of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.
In this MTS blog we highlight a lovely day dress brought to Museum Textile Services by the Friends of the William H. Johnson House in New Jersey. The owners are in the early stages of determining what their new acquisition needs for long-term preservation and display. They elected to have a full conservation assessment followed by a Vac & Pack. The dress is now safely housed in archival materials and back at the William H. Johnson House while a conservation plan is finalized.
The hand-stitched day dress is constructed of pink and gray striped patterned silk with a glazed cotton lining. Based on the silhouette of the dress, it likely dates to around 1865 and may have belonged to William H. Johnson’s wife Sarah (the good condition of the dress suggests it was only worn a few times.) The dress has some small splits in the silk throughout, large splits on the proper left side of the bodice and sleeve cuff, and discoloration at the underarms. The lining is in less stable condition with evidence of past insect activity.
If you missed the introduction to our new Vac & Pack service, you can read it here. Vac & Pack, either with or without a conservation assessment report, provides a level of security for costume and textile collections that are in any condition. A conservator always examines the item/s for condition issues prior to surface cleaning and rehousing in brand new acid-free tissue, and a box or tube. The William H. Johnson House dress was carefully surface cleaned with a HEPA vacuum to remove dust and other particulates that can accelerate deterioration over time. Then the dress was packed in acid-free tissue into an archival storage box. The archival box was packed and shipped back to the museum.
If you have questions about your collection or you would like an estimate for a Vac & Pack, please contact our Studio Manager, Samantha Alarie.
A private client brought their grandmother’s embroidery to Museum Textile Services for conservation late in 2020. The embroidery was started by the client’s grandmother and later finished by their mother. The embroidery depicts the client’s grandmother’s family, who were held at an internment camp in the Philippines during World War II. The internment camp was at the University of Santo Tomás in Manila from January 1942 until February 1945.
The lettering around the perimeter of the embroidery reads “Santo Tomas Univ. ‘Food and clothing for three days’ Internment camp Manila. Jan. 6, 1942; Feb. 3, 1945.” At the center is a family portrait under a tent with the internment camp in the background. There are faint lines of handwriting in the upper-left corner, of which the last word is “Philippines.” There are two miniature figures on either side of the top line of cross stitch that appear to be agricultural workers.
This embroidery provides a snapshot into a young girl’s life during a tumultuous period in history. After conservation, it can now be shown for years to come.
Preserving historic textiles includes safely packing and storing them in a way that suits not only the artifact but also your available space and budget. Museum Textile Services' new Vac & Pack options provide a quick assessment, surface cleaning with a HEPA vacuum, and packing in an acid-free museum storage box, all for one lower price. Vac & Pack is an ideal solution for clients who do not need a conservation report or who aren't ready to commit to conservation at this time.
Before your textiles are put in their new storage boxes, textile conservators perform a quick assessment to identify any pests, microbial activity, water damage, or other emerging condition issue. Next we carefully surface clean the textile with a high-efficiency filtered collections vacuum that adjusts to a safe level of suction for any textile. Different approaches are taken depending on the fiber content, weave structure, and condition. These videos show a micro-vacuum attachments being used on the front of a silk patchwork quilt, and a standard flat attachment being used on the solid, cotton backing.
After vacuuming, textiles are packed in unbuffered, acid-free tissue in one of eight available sized museum storage boxes. Prices range from $200 to $600, including all materials. All Vac & Pack items can be easily shipped back to you after treatment for an additional charge. To use our convenient Vac & Pack inquiry form, click here. A member of the MTS staff will be in touch within 5 business days.
The shifting of the excelsior stuffing inside the body of the bear left a void at the back that caused the head of the bear to lean forward and to the side. The seam on the back of the body was opened and the original hump reformed with more batting encased in cotton stockinette. All seams were invisibly closed with hand stitching. The tears in the arms and areas of loss on the face of the bear were stabilized with hand stitching and cotton fabric patches. Nylon net patches were placed over areas on the arms and face that remained vulnerable after repairs. The net wasmasked by gently pulling some of the mohair pile through the net structure. The small loss in one of the button eyes was in-painted with gouache paint.
The client requested a storage solution that would also allow the bear to remain on view. An archival box was purchased from Hollinger Metal Edge. We cut one side out of the box and replaced it with 10 mil Mylar, making a window the bear could be seen through. A custom Ethafoam tray was carved with a depression matching the footprint of the seated bear. This tray was covered with polyester batting and cotton jersey. Cotton twill tape handles were attached to the tray to make the bear easily removable from the box.
This Steiff Teddy Bear barely survived its long life as a beloved toy. After conservation, it is now stable and almost as handsome as the day it was purchased.
A private client brought their father’s teddy bear to Museum Textile Services for conservation in late 2019. The bear had blond mohair fur on a cotton ground, excelsior (wood wool) filling, and shoe-button wooden eyes. The bear was characteristically similar to early teddy bears made by Steiff and Michtum. All we had to go on was the father's birth year: 1923.
To determine the manufacturer of the client’s bear we first closely examined its materials and construction. The fine blond mohair pile and cotton fabric on the paws is seen consistent on the majority of Steiff bears. The earliest of these were stuffed with excelsior and sometimes kapok (a traditional futon filling). Steiff bears have an internal skeleton consisting of cardboard disks and metal pins that allow the head, arms, and legs to move. We could feel the round disks connecting the head, arms, and legs to the body of the bear.
History of Steiff Teddy Bears:
Margarete Steiff was born on July 24, 1847 in Giengen an der Brenz, Germany. She went to sewing school to became a seamstress. Steiff worked as a tailor and eventually founded a felt clothing business selling garments and household articles.
For more information about Steiff Teddy Bears and Margarete Steiff check out the Steiff Museum. Stay tuned for a future blog about the conservation treatment of the teddy bear.