Museum Textile Services recently conserved and reframed an exquisite early 19th century embroidery of a young woman visiting a caged bird. In the tradition of mourning embroideries, the maker first painted portions of the image onto silk and then used satin stitches and French knots to embellish it. After completion, the silk canvas was stitched to a larger piece of cotton to allow it to wrap around a shingle of wood. The textile was then laced with strips of cotton and jute to maintain tension, which remains good even 200 years later. The textile was framed behind reverse-painted glass in a gilded wood frame secured with hand-cut nails. The mounting and framing system is likely original.
The embroidery itself is in excellent condition. The primary condition issue was the state of the reverse-painted glass. The black paint was no longer adhering to the glass and the flecks of paint had migrated throughout the frame and onto the textile. Another major concern was the wood shingle, which had broken in half and was in direct contact with the textile. Because it is rare for original framing systems such as this to survive, we devised a strategy to leave the textile laced around this wood. The frame was left as-is with its worn gold finish, but the reverse-painted glass was sent to specialist Linda Abrams, who was able to restore the black areas while leaving the original gold and silver paint.
First, the embroidery, glass, and frame were surface cleaned with a high efficiency micro-vacuum to remove dust and paint flakes. The cotton and jute lacings were released from the cotton margin at the top of the embroidery, which was in an advanced state of deterioration. This allowed a piece of four-ply acid-free mat board the size of the wood shingle to be slid between the embroidery and the wood, providing a solid surface and a barrier between the textile and the wood. A new strip of archival twill tape was hand stitched to the failing cotton along the top edge of the textile. The cotton and jute strands were then sewn to the new piece of twill tape, restoring the tension around the board.
Prior to reframing, a barrier of photo-tex paper was cut to the shape of the newly-painted black area on the back of the glass. This ensures that the relatively fresh paint would not bond to the back of the textile as it ages. The glass, followed by the embroidery, were placed into the frame and pinned with stainless steel headless brads. A two-ply acid-free backing board was placed in the frame next, which filled the remaining frame space without pushing unnecessarily against the back of the lacings. The frame was sealed with a barrier of marvelseal. The original hanging hardware was reused and fitted with a new coated wire.
It was such a pleasure to conserve this beautiful embroidery. We hope that it will see another 200 years of history.