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 Tegan Kehoe
Museum Textile Services recently acquired a number of issues of “Needlecraft: The Home Arts Magazine.” The magazine was published in the first half of the 20th century and these examples are from the 1920s and 30s. Several articles feature the same needlecraft techniques as those in some of the textiles that we have conserved!
One example, from the February 1934 issue of Needlecraft, shows crewel embroidery, or crewelwork. Crewel, as the article explains, is distinguished from other styles of embroidery because it is done with wool yarn rather than silk or cotton thread. The result is a bold pattern that can be made with a wide variety of stitches. Most articles in Needlecraft do not include the patterns, which were sold separately, but they do include detailed descriptions of the process. This article describes patterns for a set of bookends, a cushion, and a handbag.
One crewel embroidery object that Museum Textile Services has restored is an early 20th century chair. The embroidery was done by the owner's grandmother, who was no doubt exposed to magazine articles such as ours. The family still uses the chair, so the goal of conservation was to repair and stabilize the fabric for continued use.
Both the chair and the patterns from the magazine are reflective of Jacobean style, which hearkens back to 17th-century England but has stayed popular for crewel embroidery over the centuries. This style was especially popular during the early 20th-century revival of interest in colonial-era crafts. Jacobean embroidery features stylized plants and forest animals, such as the flowers, birds, and butterflies shown here.
More recently, the MTS study collection received a donation of crewel-embroidered curtains made by the mother of one of our clients. The client is downsizing her home and can only fit part of her mother's impressive needlework legacy. What makes this donation all the more meaningful is the discovery that the client graduated from Oberlin College in the same class as Camille's mother!
Stay tuned for more examples of textiles conserved at MTS that we learned more about from Needlecraft Magazine.