Four trapunto quilts arrived at Museum Textile Services this winter for conservation. Three belong to Hammond-Harwood House of Annapolis, MD, and a fourth is being donated to the New England Quilt Museum, in Lowell, MA. These wonderful examples beautifully showcase this historic style of quilting that was popular in America in the mid-nineteenth century. The quilts varied in condition, but were all treated in a similar way and exhibit a wide spectrum of this style of whitework.
Similar to other textile art such as mourning pictures, images quilted in these such as urns, cornucopias and flowers hold symbolic meaning and can tell a story. Traditionally, the threads would be moved aside with a needle from the back of the quilt and tiny amounts of stuffing or cording was pushed into the voids made by the quilting pattern. This created a raised effect that was beautiful, yet subtle. Once an area was stuffed to satisfaction, the threads at the back that had been moved aside are again worked back together to make the entry area invisible. One of the Hammond-Harwood House trapunto quilts has a more delicate backing fabric, which allowed it to be more easily stuffed.
This style of quilting is believed to have originated in Sicicly in the the 14th century, and continued to be popular across Italy and Europe through the 18th century. Immigrants brought the technique to America with them and it enjoyed popularity from the early 19th century, peaking mid-century. It became less common by the 20th century, as it was so time consuming and the country was being vastly changed by the industrial revolution. The trapunto quilt belonging to a private collector is a fine example of one made in America in 1823 and prominently has the name “Elizabeth North” across the top, possibly having been made for her as a wedding gift. It also features two urns of flowers and an overflowing cornucopia of flowers.
Cleaning discolored textiles is always rewarding, and restoring the legibility of these three-dimensional trapunto quilts is no exception. Viewers will enjoy seeing the results of conservation when the quilts are exhibited in their museums.
As cellulosic textiles age, hydroxyl groups (-OH) are converted to carbonyl groups (=O), which contribute to a dingy brown or yellow color. The chemical process known as reduction adds electrons to the cellulose fibers, stabilizing their molecular weight and returning carbonyl groups back to colorless hydroxyl groups. The combination of dissolved soils and cellulosic degradation often turn the wash bath the color of strong tea. The reaction of the sodium borohydride with water is also produces hydrogen gas bubbles, and the bath may give off a smell reminiscent of sulfur or chlorine. It is important to agitate the wash bath regularly to allow all sides of the textile to come in contact with the surface of the water where the chemical reaction is taking place.
If you are a textile conservator with experience in wet cleaning and bleaching historic artifacts, you may be interested in our MTS Handout, Bleaching Textiles with Sodium Borohydride, available on the MTS website.
By Jen Nason and Camille Myers Breeze
One of the procedures regularly practiced at Museum Textile Services is the science of wetcleaning. We use the term “science” because it truly is just that.
Many textile conservation labs like Museum Textile Services use a deionized water system. Although water alone is a strong cleaning agent, we may also employ a mild surfactant (similar to soap) to encourage additional soil removal. Occasionally we will also use bleach to improve the appearance of discolored textiles.
The favorite method of bleaching at MTS employs the reductive bleaching agent sodium borohydride (NaBH4). Other methods, such as chlorine bleaching, are oxidative processes. Sodium borohydride can only be used on cellulosic fibers, such as cotton and linen, because it is very alkaline and can damage naturally acidic fibers like wool and silk.
As cellulose ages, hydroxyl groups (-OH) are converted to carbonyl groups (=O), which contribute to a dingy brown or yellow color. Reduction adds electrons to the cellulose, which stabilizes its molecular weight and returns carbonyl groups back to colorless hydroxyl groups. Stains are not generally removed with the addition of sodium borohydride but the overall results are better than wetcleaning with surfactant alone. Remarkably, sodium borohydride is color safe when used at its proper strength, and MTS has safely bleached many embroideries, patchwork quilts, and other colored cellulose textiles
Whether or not you appreciate the science behind conservation, the results of our recent sodium borohydride treatments are quite impressive. The textiles seen here are noticeably brighter without looking over-cleaned. Most importantly, their preservation levels have been improved with a minimum of risk.