A lovely, richly colored firescreen has just been conserved at Museum Textile Services, and is a perfect seasonal subject for the MTS Blog as we head into the cold weather. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fireplaces were used constantly to warm the house, bringing bright, hot, roaring fires in the long, dark New England winter. A firescreen protected the faces--and sometimes voluminous clothing--of those sidling up to the fire from its high heat and sparks. For wealthy families, these screens also became lavish decorative objects, stitched and designed with care by the women of the family.
This firescreen was made by Abigail Brooks Adams and is part of the collection of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Adams family produced two presidential couples, John and Abigail Smith and their son and daughter-in-law John Quincy and Louisa Johnson. The third generation of Adams, Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks were also a political power couple, and it was Abigail Brooks Adams who made this beautiful firescreen. You may recall that in 2013 MTS replicated a set of silk bed hangings purchased in France by Abigail and Charles, which we documented in a series of blogs.
From the letters and diaries left behind, it appears the relationship between Abigail and Charles was full of care, affection, and mutual respect. The entry in Charles’ diary from their wedding day on Thursday, September 3rd, 1829, is particularly sweet and humorous-–he clearly had eyes for no one but his Abby.
To conserve the firescreen, we first carefully remove the deteriorated watered-silk lining and gently cleaned all elements with a HEPA micro-vacuum. The beads received additional cleansing using swabs and saliva. We were lucky to find a very good match with modern glass beads, which we stitched into place and secured the neighboring thread ends. A few missing crewel stitches were likewise replaced with modern wool yarns. The lining was encapsulated in magenta nylon net and then we stitched it back in place using cotton thread. We were then able to reuse the ribbon with hook-eyes that the Adams National Historical Park is using to suspend the firescreen from an ornamental brass T-bar.
Preserving the Abigail Adams firescreen has a nice historical echo, paying homage to this beautiful physical artifact left by a woman who herself worked for historical preservation.
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.
By Camille Myers Breeze
As the deadline approaches for us to conclude the replication of the Henry Adams bed hangings, we are one step closer to the key component: receiving the digitally printed fabric.
Trustworth Studios, in Plymouth, MA, is the home and studio of artist David Berman. He produces exquisite wallpaper, needleworks, and fabrics from historic patterns and photographs. He is perhaps best known for his line of C.F. Voysey designs which he has brought back to life and made available to today's commercial market.
Joining me for the exciting task of reviewing fabric samples was Kelly Cobble, Curator of the Adams National Historical Park. Kelly is the supervisor of this conservation project and has the daunting task of helping to decide how close to the fabric's original appearance this new fabric should be.
The challenge in reproducing this fabric digitally comes from the fact that it is a silk rep (having a slight ribbed texture) with regularly spaced medallions of white silk floats and a moire, or watered pattern. The fabric is discolored from soot and smoke and damaged from age. The original cochinille pink color is preserved inside seams, however the rest of the bed hangings are a more masculine burgundy tone.
We settled on a favorite sample, with a 7.5% layer of "dirt," or slight darkening applied. We then took all of the samples to the Adams National Historical Park to examine them in situ and see if our favorite was still the best choice.
When we compared the printed samples and the original fabric on the bed where it is to be displayed, the results were completely different. The lighting in the third-floor room is UV filtered and the ceiling is fairly low. We concluded that the sample with no "dirt" applied was perfect. In other words, David Berman's original final product was spot on!
We are very anxious to receive the 30 yards of digitally printed fabric from Trustworth Studios early in August and to finally begin the process of hand sewing the replica bed hangings!
By Camille Myers Breeze
A new year means a new set of exciting projects here at MTS. On the top of our priority list is a contract for our most impressive digital textile printing project to date. We are undertaking the replication of a set of silk bed hangings, which were purchased by Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), son of John Quincy Adams, and his wife Abigail Brooks Adams (1808–1889). In the recent past, these luxurious textiles were deinstalled from the third floor of the Old House at the Adams National Historical Park due to their fragile condition.
In 1999, I was part of a team of textile professionals who published one of the first articles on the use of digitally printed textiles in
museums. Since then, much has changed in the fast-paced world of technology, including in the digital printing of textiles.
In the upcoming months, we will work with a digital printing company in the Boston area to reproduce yardage of a similar fabric using cotton, which can mimic the appearance of silk with much better preservation properties. The digitally printed fabric will then be assembled into a replica set of bed hangings and installed in the third floor bedroom where they were previously displayed.
Stay tuned for more blogs about this project as the work begins in January, 2013.