At the dawn of the 19th century, a young English woman by the name of Miss Grimshaw created a self portrait out of precious silk and watercolors. In the tradition of memorial embroideries of that time period, a piece of thin silk was first painted, then backed with a stiffer cotton, and finally embroidered through both layers.
The textile underwent quite a journey before arriving at Museum Textile Services. It was brought to America by Miss Grimshaw's son, D. Grimshaw, in 1838. This may be when the embroidery was placed in an ornate fluted frame over a wood board. Later, a paper mat with an oval cut-out was glued directly on top of the painted silk. The frame was again disturbed in the 20th century, as evidenced by some scotch tape holding the layers of board together.
Before conservation, the textile was acidified and brittle from age and contact with the wood board. The frame was weak, had been overpainted, and was losing its plaster.
The first step was to unframe and disassemble the embroidery to get to its core components. What we found inside was a layer of impossibly fragile silk being held together entirely by the stitching and paint.
The silk to which the cardboard mat was glued had long since separated from the center. This allowed the mat to be lifted off, leaving behind a rough oval of silk and silk embroidery threads. Cracks were present in the painted areas and some chunks of silk had detached, revealing the cotton backing fabric.
The proposed treatment was an aggressive one; lining the back of the silk was not possible because the embroidery stitching passes through both the silk and the cotton backing fabric. Instead, a sheer conservation fabric treated with an adhesive film would have to be placed on top of the embroidery to ensure the self portrait remained intact. Adhesive treatments of this kind are not reversible, so they are used only when other treatment options are exhausted.
Before the sheer overlay went on, losses in the silk were addressed using a unique procedure. A photograph of the intact foliage on the left side of the image was flipped horizontally in Photoshop to match the foliage on the right side of the picture. This reverse image was then printed on silk fabric using a color laser printer. (Print-on fabric is available at http://www.dharmatrading.com).
The new silk was placed carefully underneath the shattered edges of the textile to camouflage losses. The adhesive overlay was then completed, locking the old and new layers together. The embroidery was hand stitched to a fabric-covered archival mat board.
A computer-cut oval mat was provided by our frame supplier and a new fluted frame was found that matches the old one almost perfectly. The textile was framed and the frame was sealed with Marvelseal barrier film.
Now that this fragile piece of history has been stabilized and preserved, it lives on to be enjoyed by its owner, Miss Grimshaw's great-great-great-great-great granddaughter!