By Camille Myers Breeze and Tegan Kehoe
The name “rayon” was coined in the 1924 as a generic term for regenerated cellulose fiber. The “Father of Rayon,” Frenchman Count Hillaire de Chardonnet, discovered in the 1880s that nitrocellulose from rags or wood pulp could be turned into fiber, thread, and fabric. Rayon was the first manufactured fiber, but because it is derived from cellulose, is not considered to be a true synthetic but a “semi-synthetic.” “Artificial Silk” made by the Chardonnet process was popular for decorative fabrics in the early 20th century.
At the same time, the Courtaulds Company in England commercialized a method of regenerating cellulose fiber, resulting in a new fiber called “viscose.” (so named because their process used a highly viscous solution.) Courtaulds forming a subsidiary in America called American Viscose Company, who began producing rayon in 1910.
A third method of extracting usable fiber from natural cellulose was developed by Swiss brothers, Doctors Camille and Henri Dreyfus, resulting in the 1905 invention of cellulose acetate. The Dryfus brothers turned their new material into cellulose acetate film and plastics before producing usable continuous filaments of acetate yarn in 1913. By 1918 acetate rayon was being manufactured at the British Celanese plant in Derbyshire, England, which lends its name “Celanese” to some of the resulting rayons.
By the turn of the 21st century, 24% of the rayon produced in the world is from Grasim of India, by far the largest manufacturer. Other countries making rayon today include Germany, Brazil, Austria, China, Laos, Canada, and the US. Some critics of the fiber will point to sustainability concerns as well as dirty manufacturing processes. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has banned the manufacturing of cuprammonium rayon, sometimes found under the trade name Bemberg, but it is still made in Italy. Tencel rayon, also known by its generic name "lyocell," was developed in Courtaulds Research in the 1980's as a “non-polluting” alternative.
Today, many rayons include bamboo instead of wood pulp. Because bamboo is fast-growing it is often seen as ecologically friendly, but most bamboo rayons are made with the "dirtier" viscose process. The Federal Trade Commission has charged several clothing companies as falsely advertising their rayon as bamboo, partly because it is not clear that the cellulose they use is entirely from bamboo, but also because the FTC feels that the process alters the fibers too much to be considered plant-based. Currently, lyocell is often made with wood pulp from Eucalyptus trees.
We hope you have enjoyed our recent efforts to better understand the history and chemistry behind our recent boom in rayon textiles treated at Museum Textile Services. Please contact us if you have something to add to this discussion.
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 Tegan Kehoe
This lovely sample of wartime-era yarn was recently donated to the Museum Textile Services study collection by Mig Ticehurst of Keswick, Cumbria, England. Ms Ticehurst emailed us about her old yarn, saying "It seems wrong to throw it away. Is it possible that it would be of interest to you?"
We love the slogan on the label of this yarn – “Reliable rayon for dainty garments.” Mig quipped that she had this on hand and unused because she’s:
“...not that keen on making ‘dainty garments'. As children, knitting was taught in school and we were all obliged to knit as part of the war effort. Our family thing was scarves for merchant seamen which were garter stitch and at the time seemed absolutely huge but probably were about two feet wide and about six feet long. I learned to knit and read by the time I was eight as it was the only way to do any reading. There was also a great deal of inventive making of things."
This pastel yarn is not just for baby clothes--any women who wanted to make “dainty garments” for themselves could afford rayon. The pattern below is probably from the 1940s or 50s-–note the milkshake glass in the woman’s hand! The pattern specifies Robin Perle, which is what’s in our little yarn stash. “Perle” describes any high-sheen, two-ply twisted yarn like this or mercerized cotton.
The company logo on our donated yarn indicates that it was manufactured in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Bradford has been a textile hub for centuries but became a boom town early on in the Industrial Revolution, achieving prominence as the “wool capital of the world” by the mid-nineteenth century. Products included mohair, alpaca, cotton, and silk textiles. By the early twentieth century, however, Bradford’s hold on the industry had begun to slip, so some companies stayed current by producing the new synthetics.
Rayon is still being modified and produced today, and it shows up more places than you might think. Stay tuned for the next two weeks for more blogs about rayon and some other remarkable 20th-century fibers that MTS has been conserving.
By Courtney Jason
On December 10, 2012, a shipment of 20 flags arrived at the MTS from Fort Knox, KY. These flags have a particularly interesting history, as many hail from the personal collection of General George Patton. They belong to the General George Patton Museum of Leadership, which is undergoing a major renovation and reinterpretation.
The Ft. Knox flags range from a 11.5" x 17" Confederate Calvary guide on to an 80" x 130" Nazi flag. The collection also includes several WWII Army flags, and a North Vietnamese flag that was recovered from a booby-trapped location. The collection is here to be cleaned, stabilized and mounted for display when the Patton Museum reopens later this year.
So far we have vacuumed the flags with a HEPA filtering vacuum to remove any particulate matter. Next we will humidify those with planar distortions using the Gore-Tex system described in a previous blog about the Orra White Hitchcock textiles from Amherst College.
The majority of the flags will be mounted on aluminum solid-support panels manufactured for us by Small Corp, Inc in Greenfield, MA. Each panel will have a layer of 1/4-inch Polyfelt from University Products in Holyoke, MA, covered with khaki-colored cotton poplin from Phillips-Boyne in Farmingdale, NY.
All of the flags except for the Nazi flag will be pressure mounted on a solid-support panel. They will be centered on the panel and hand stitched to the cotton using a curved needle. Only minimal stitching around the perimeter, along several strategic points in the body, and along the fringe, is required.
A sheet of UV-filtering acrylic will provide the rest of the support for the mount. The museum has chosen Small Corp's powder-coated aluminum frames to complete the mount system. The first batch of eight flags will undergo this process through mid to late April, before being shipped back in early May by US Art of Randolph, MA.
The Nazi flag will receive a different treatment due to its large size. A future blog will highlight this highly-technical process. We hope you're looking forward to seeing more of these flags as much as we're looking forward to working on them.
By Camille Myers Breeze
In this third and final installment of our AWVS blog series, we hope to show how important even a simple textile conservation treatment is for long-term preservation of historic uniforms.
The Wheaton College AWVS collection consists of 20 uniform pieces and accessories, plus spare buttons and badges, a ribbon, a hat band, and some notes on paper. One of the notes reads "Ginnie Scripps Pace's hat--uniform sold to Barbara Owen." To date the identity of the two women is unknown. The uniforms and accessories appear to span a wide date range, based on their materials, which you can read more about in our last blog.
The hats, caps, pocketbooks, ties, and belt were conserved by micro-vacuuming and humidification. They were then finger pressed back to shape. Even a cool iron was avoided because the complexity of the constructions and evidence of prior scorching from an iron. For the time being, the accessories are padded with unbuffered acid-free tissue to hold their shape. Ethafoam and Volara forms are recommended for display and long-term storage.
The dress, jackets, and skirts all benefited from conservation wetcleaning to remove deterioration products, rehydrate the fibers, and realign the creases and folds. Each was first tested for washfastness, since a variety of cotton and rayon fabrics are represented in the group. The jackets and two of the skirts appear to be made of the same heavy rayon plain-weave that gives off a reddish color in warm water. The decision was made to wetclean these in cool deionized water with a single application of a .3% solution of Orvus WA Paste in water.
The remainder of the garments were wetcleaned the same way but with warmer water to facilitate in the cleaning and dispersion of the Orvus surfactant. Each garment was rinsed thoroughly until the water was free of suds or discoloration and then lightly toweled to remove excess water. The uniforms were padded with nylon net and hung to dry. Once dry, the decision was made to lightly iron each garment inside out to remove any remaining creasing. We were discourage from ironing on the outside of thick areas like cuffs and collars by evidence of the same scorching from repeated pressing seen on the garrison caps.
The conservation of the AWVS collection from Wheaton College was distinguished more by what it was not than by what it was. It was not a complex treatment requiring hours of tedious stitching to highly damaged fabric. Instead it was an exercise in modesty that met the needs of the collection and made it available for safe study and display. Above all, the AWVS collection provided an opportunity for learning about history through the intimate media of clothing and textiles.
Click here for Part I and Part II of this blog.
by Tegan Kehoe and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week's post, Jen Nason introduced you to the American Women’s Voluntary Services and the collection of WWII uniforms and accessories we are conserving for Wheaton College. Today we will take a closer look at the garments themselves, and what we they tell us about fashion and rationing during WWII.
1940’s women’s fashions for daily wear were heavily influenced by the war, even outside of the armed forces and support organizations. Women favored tailored blouses, jackets, and knee-length skirts. They were practical, sturdy, and used relatively little fabric, but had feminine details such as shoulder pads and higher hemlines than 1930’s styles. These fashions were sometimes called utility fashion, named after the Utility Clothing Scheme, one of the rationing schemes used in the UK. An exhibit on this topic, entitled “Beauty as Duty,” came to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2011.
An indication not only of the war-time economy but also of the long duration of the conflict is the variety of fabrics found in the Wheaton AWVS collection. Among the collection, we find two pocketbooks, two ties, one belt, five garrison caps, two hats, three skirts, three jackets, and one dress. There are no fewer than 5 different fabrics represented, from 100% cotton plain weave to different styles or types of rayon.
The light-blue cotton skirt, belt, and hat could perhaps be the earliest in the collection. Sgt. Burgess Scott's 1945 article Clothing and the War states that cotton was extremely difficult to come by and rayon was the most common substitute. A manufactured cellulosic fiber, rayon is neither a synthetic nor truly a natural fiber. It can mimic the characteristics of silk, linen, and cotton but rayon has poor elastic regain and was best dry cleaned.
Another interesting feature of this collection is that two of the three jackets have wooden buttons that are painted a gold color to look like metal. During WWII, metal was in short supply, so it was considered patriotic to use substitutes whenever possible and donate metal to scrap drives to be recycled for military purposes. The Wheaton College collection has extra sets of buttons, apparently salvaged from other garments.
Wheaton's AWVS collection is in very good condition and had probably been dry cleaned before going into storage decades ago. Stay tuned for our final AWVS blog, a show-and-tell of the uniforms before and after conservation.