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
Rarely is a project accompanied by as much provenance and documentation as the dress we recently conserved for a private client.
Carla Meeks, née Marie Caroline Silvester, was painted by Prix de Rome winner James O. Mahoney in 1935. Mahoney was a family friend and possible student of Carla's new husband, Carroll L. V. Meeks (Yale class of 1928), who taught architectural history at Yale University. The painting was passed down through the family and, in 2011, the subject's daughters donated it to the Yale University Art Gallery.
Surprisingly, the gallery declined to accept the green velvet dress Carla wears in the painting, which has survived in remarkable condition for over 75 years. Constructed of silk knit velour with fur-trimmed sleeves and a rhinestone clasp, the dress is both historical in flavor and remarkably consistent with 1935 fashions.
We know from this 1935 photo that Carla and Carroll attended the Yale costume ball with friends wearing medieval fancy dress.
Furthermore, a torn but still-attached label identifies the dress as coming from the prestigious Maison de Linge of Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut.
We do not yet know whether Maison de Linge regularly produced fancy dress but, as its name suggests, it was known for fine lingerie and would probably have taken custom orders from clients.
Cara Jordan was in charge of Museum Textile Services's conservation treatment and archival packing. Cara surface cleaned the dress and stabilized the few small tears. The torn label was repaired with an adhesive underlay and reattached with cotton thread and an overlay of sheer net. The rhinestone clasp was relocated to its original side position. One of Carla's daughters was born in 1936 and believes her mother may have continued to wear the dress into her pregnancy, requiring the clasp to be adjusted. It is also possible that Carla holds her arm in front of her to mask her growing belly in the 1935 Mahoney portrait.
With all of this history, we are certain that the owners will find the perfect institution to which to donate this historic dress.