by Tegan Kehoe and Camille Myers Breeze
A surprising number of historic clothing and textile items we’ve treated at Museum Textile Services in 2013 have been made of rayon -- and we've added some rayon pieces to our study collection, such as the "reliable" rayon yarn we blogged about in April. This has prompted us to refresh our knowledge of this important fiber and take note of its special conservation needs.
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber made of regenerated cellulose. Like naturally occurring cellulosic textile fibers—including cotton, kapok, linen, hemp, jute, and ramie—rayon is used for a wide range of fabrics for household textiles as well as fine and utilitarian fashions. Unlike its cellulose cousins, rayon has also been widely used to mimic fabrics normally made of fibers as wide ranging as silk and wool. It can therefore be difficult to identify rayon when it is found in museum collections.
Rayon exploded in the 1920s as a popular fashion fiber, beginning with socks, lingerie and clothing. The variety of available fabrics and finishes meant that any women could now wear garment types once affordable only to women who could buy silk. By the end of the 1930s, rayon was six times as plentiful as silk in American clothing.
World War II again caused a bump in the production of rayon, both for fabrics and for tire cord--a replacement for rubber, which was scarce. After WWII, rayon saw competition from other synthetic fibers such as nylon, acrylic and polyester.
Rayon is prone to stretching, sagging, and pilling. Despite these problems, trade brands such as Modal rayon became increasingly popular for use alone, or blended with cotton or spandex, for household textiles such as towels and sheets. Early viscose rayon was found to lose strength when wet, but high-wet-modulus (HWM) rayon was released in 1960 as an answer to this problem.
Part II of "Rayon Through the Years" will focus on the technological changes in rayon production... which help account for the many names the fiber goes by.
By Camille Myers Breeze
In this third and final installment of our AWVS blog series, we hope to show how important even a simple textile conservation treatment is for long-term preservation of historic uniforms.
The Wheaton College AWVS collection consists of 20 uniform pieces and accessories, plus spare buttons and badges, a ribbon, a hat band, and some notes on paper. One of the notes reads "Ginnie Scripps Pace's hat--uniform sold to Barbara Owen." To date the identity of the two women is unknown. The uniforms and accessories appear to span a wide date range, based on their materials, which you can read more about in our last blog.
The hats, caps, pocketbooks, ties, and belt were conserved by micro-vacuuming and humidification. They were then finger pressed back to shape. Even a cool iron was avoided because the complexity of the constructions and evidence of prior scorching from an iron. For the time being, the accessories are padded with unbuffered acid-free tissue to hold their shape. Ethafoam and Volara forms are recommended for display and long-term storage.
The dress, jackets, and skirts all benefited from conservation wetcleaning to remove deterioration products, rehydrate the fibers, and realign the creases and folds. Each was first tested for washfastness, since a variety of cotton and rayon fabrics are represented in the group. The jackets and two of the skirts appear to be made of the same heavy rayon plain-weave that gives off a reddish color in warm water. The decision was made to wetclean these in cool deionized water with a single application of a .3% solution of Orvus WA Paste in water.
The remainder of the garments were wetcleaned the same way but with warmer water to facilitate in the cleaning and dispersion of the Orvus surfactant. Each garment was rinsed thoroughly until the water was free of suds or discoloration and then lightly toweled to remove excess water. The uniforms were padded with nylon net and hung to dry. Once dry, the decision was made to lightly iron each garment inside out to remove any remaining creasing. We were discourage from ironing on the outside of thick areas like cuffs and collars by evidence of the same scorching from repeated pressing seen on the garrison caps.
The conservation of the AWVS collection from Wheaton College was distinguished more by what it was not than by what it was. It was not a complex treatment requiring hours of tedious stitching to highly damaged fabric. Instead it was an exercise in modesty that met the needs of the collection and made it available for safe study and display. Above all, the AWVS collection provided an opportunity for learning about history through the intimate media of clothing and textiles.
Click here for Part I and Part II of this blog.
by Tegan Kehoe and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week's post, Jen Nason introduced you to the American Women’s Voluntary Services and the collection of WWII uniforms and accessories we are conserving for Wheaton College. Today we will take a closer look at the garments themselves, and what we they tell us about fashion and rationing during WWII.
1940’s women’s fashions for daily wear were heavily influenced by the war, even outside of the armed forces and support organizations. Women favored tailored blouses, jackets, and knee-length skirts. They were practical, sturdy, and used relatively little fabric, but had feminine details such as shoulder pads and higher hemlines than 1930’s styles. These fashions were sometimes called utility fashion, named after the Utility Clothing Scheme, one of the rationing schemes used in the UK. An exhibit on this topic, entitled “Beauty as Duty,” came to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2011.
An indication not only of the war-time economy but also of the long duration of the conflict is the variety of fabrics found in the Wheaton AWVS collection. Among the collection, we find two pocketbooks, two ties, one belt, five garrison caps, two hats, three skirts, three jackets, and one dress. There are no fewer than 5 different fabrics represented, from 100% cotton plain weave to different styles or types of rayon.
The light-blue cotton skirt, belt, and hat could perhaps be the earliest in the collection. Sgt. Burgess Scott's 1945 article Clothing and the War states that cotton was extremely difficult to come by and rayon was the most common substitute. A manufactured cellulosic fiber, rayon is neither a synthetic nor truly a natural fiber. It can mimic the characteristics of silk, linen, and cotton but rayon has poor elastic regain and was best dry cleaned.
Another interesting feature of this collection is that two of the three jackets have wooden buttons that are painted a gold color to look like metal. During WWII, metal was in short supply, so it was considered patriotic to use substitutes whenever possible and donate metal to scrap drives to be recycled for military purposes. The Wheaton College collection has extra sets of buttons, apparently salvaged from other garments.
Wheaton's AWVS collection is in very good condition and had probably been dry cleaned before going into storage decades ago. Stay tuned for our final AWVS blog, a show-and-tell of the uniforms before and after conservation.
by Jennifer Nason
This month Museum Textile Services is lucky enough to work with a prized piece of American history. We are conserving a large group of WWII women's uniforms and accessories for the permanent collection at Wheaton College.
The American Women’s Voluntary Services, or AWVS, was founded in January 1940. Its founders were intelligent and wealthy international socialites that based the AWVS on an English counterpart of the Women’s Voluntary Services. The founders believed that the United States would surely enter the ever growing war, and thus they formed the American Women’s Voluntary Services as a way to prepare the country for the war. The formation of the group was believed to be premature, as the AWVS was originally thought of as suspicious and an alarmist group.
Nonetheless, when Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 the AWVS already had about 18,000 members. During the war years the number of AWVS members increased dramatically to 325,000. The members provided a variety of services and support; they sold war bonds, and delivered messages, they drove ambulances, trucks, cycle corps and dog-sleds, they also worked in navigation, aerial photography, aircraft spotting, and fire safety.
When the War ended in 1945, the American Women’s Voluntary Services was disbanded. It had accomplished its goal as a service and support provider throughout the war. Most of the members were normal women that spent large amounts of their time away from their homes and loved ones. However, some of these women had famous names, such as Hattie McDaniel, Joan Crawford, and Betty White. Regardless of who these women were, their part in the American Women’s Voluntary Services changed the face of the American home front.
Stay tuned for another blog about our conservation treatment of Wheaton College's AWVS collection.