By Josephine Johnson
A year after our blog about Digitally Printed Fabrics, the replication of Henry Adams' silk bed hangings is finally complete. One of Museum Textile Services biggest projects of 2013, the most challenging part was recreating the colors and patterns of the brocaded, watered silk on a modern, stable cotton fabric.
David Berman of Trustworth Studios created our new fabric in Photoshop and digitally printed it onto cotton sateen. Although we supplied him with many photographs, in the end he hand drew the moire pattern and the brocaded medallions, as well as the texture and patina of the 200-year-old French silk.
Choosing the shade of burgundy was also a challenge. Exposure to smoke and dirt had rendered the silk the masculine color of the red-leather books on the near-by shelves; however unexposed areas hiddin inside seams clearly showed that the original color was a vibrant cochinille pink.
Determining the color fabric to use for the replica lining also posed a challenge because of the condition of the original glazed cotton. Although much of the fabric had turned brown, it was clear that it originally matched the red silk. What has caused this color change is a mystery to us, though evidence points to chemical instability of the red dye, rather than light exposure, wear, or poor wash-fastness.
Once we received the digitally printed fabric, our studio turned into a bed hangings workshop. For several weeks we hand stitched an exact replica of the bed spread, valences, and tester that once hung on the bed in which Henry Adams spent his summers. It was always known that these bed hangings were too large for the bed, and we were able to piece together from the original components the likely history of their modification and use.
We also found evidence of more than one installation of the original bed hangings. Several rows of tiny holes in the valence panels show they were taken down and replaced in the 19-th century. Alongside are circular tack marks that clearly are modern. The replica bed hangings have a built-in Velcro hanging system, which should protect them from damage from deinstallation and reinstallation.
Once we completed the replica bed hangings, MTS staff went about installing them in the third-floor bedroom at the Adams National Historical Park. First the tester was attached to a new strip of Velcro tacked to the back bed rail. Next, the three valence pieces were likewise hung, and the gold rail put back in place. Finally, as expected, we had to artfully arrange the too-large bed spread to appear as the old one did.
The final part of the project was for us to rehouse the original bed hangings in three archival boxes. This was no small feat, as it took three conservators two hours to complete. The fragile silk may be too delicate for display, but is preserved for future study in the collections storage building at the Park.
Visitors to the Adams National Historical Park don't often make it up to the third floor. But for those who do, they can now appreciate Henry Adams's bed as it would have appeared in his time.
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