This month at Museum Textile Services we were excited to conserve a set of four concealed garments: a shoe, a shoe sole, a boot, and a bonnet. The objects were found during renovations to a 1725 Ledyard, CT, house, and were located in the floorboards of an attic above the birthing room. The boot and bonnet are 19th century, while the shoe could be even older. The bonnet closely resembles silk crepe spoon caps from the Civil War era.
When items such as these are hidden in secular or religious buildings, they are often placed close to doors and fireplaces, or under floorboards. These areas were considered the weakest parts of the house, where malevolent spirits might enter. Concealed garments are often interpreted as protective symbols. As Dinah Eastop and Charlotte Dew explain in their article Secret Garments: Deliberately Concealed Garments as Symbolic Textiles:
Deliberately concealed garments are often heavily worn and bear the imprint of the wearer. The objects we conserved show many indicators of heavy use including separating layers of leather and abrasion to the fabric at the interior of the shoe, holes, heavily caked on mud and dirt, and evidence of re-soling on multiple occasions. The bonnet was generally deformed and was missing layers of fabric at its interior.
The shoes and bonnet were carefully surface cleaned with a micro-vacuum attachment, toothbrushes, and vulcanized rubber sponges. During the process, we found different types of beans in the toe of the boot. While they easily could have been transported into the shoe by way of rodents, it is also possible that the beans were put there by the people who originally concealed the garments. Beans, seeds, and corn cobs symbolize fertility, and are often found in historic homes along with concealed objects.
After cleaning, the garments were humidified in a Gore-Tex chamber to facilitate reshaping. We were concerned with the leather hardening, or crosslinking, in the presence of water, so the objects were very carefully monitored. When dry, the leather was treated with renaissance wax, a micro-crystalline wax conditioner and cleaner. This did not change their appearance greatly, but will help to coat the leather and aid in its preservation. Support mounts were made for the two shoes and the bonnet from pieces of Ethafoam covered with knit jersey. A custom box protects them all and allows the owner to easily show them to friends.
We are excited that the concealed objects will be returning to the house in which they were found, and continue to tell the history of the home. For more information about deliberately concealed objects, see the the website developed by Dinah Eastop and Charlotte Dew.
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.
As cellulosic textiles age, hydroxyl groups (-OH) are converted to carbonyl groups (=O), which contribute to a dingy brown or yellow color. The chemical process known as reduction adds electrons to the cellulose fibers, stabilizing their molecular weight and returning carbonyl groups back to colorless hydroxyl groups. The combination of dissolved soils and cellulosic degradation often turn the wash bath the color of strong tea. The reaction of the sodium borohydride with water is also produces hydrogen gas bubbles, and the bath may give off a smell reminiscent of sulfur or chlorine. It is important to agitate the wash bath regularly to allow all sides of the textile to come in contact with the surface of the water where the chemical reaction is taking place.
If you are a textile conservator with experience in wet cleaning and bleaching historic artifacts, you may be interested in our MTS Handout, Bleaching Textiles with Sodium Borohydride, available on the MTS website.
The tails are in fairly good condition, aside from degrading silk in the jacket lining and a large tear in the seat of the pants caused by Matt's son's senior prom antics. MTS will first stabilize the tear and then the suit will be dry cleaned. A new button will be constructed to match a missing silk-covered suit button. The suit will be packed in an archival box and safely stored so that future generations will be able to wear John Brown Lennon's tails.
In order to center the mounted embroidery into the frame, someone had taped it to the back of the gold window mat. MTS conservator Cara Jordan was able to be remove most of the tape mechanically with limited loss of silk. Small areas of tape that were more difficult to remove were humidified, allowing Cara eventually to lift the tape from the silk.
In order to remount the embroidery, the orange lacing had to be removed. The thread was cut in a few key spots, after which it was easily unlaced from the silk ground. The orange thread was too weak to reuse, so it was returned to the client. To our surprise, the back corners and an area of deterioration on the front had been glued to the board. Cara successfully released these adhered areas with acetone.
We hope that you are as excited to see this embroidery at the McMullen as we are!
The signatures “BO’BRIEN” and “Lily YEATS” are stitched at the bottom corners of the embroidery. Brigid O'Brien is credited as the designer and Lily Yeats was the maker. Yeats had been involved in the Arts and Crafts movement for many years by the time she made this embroidery. She studied embroidery under May Morris, daughter of William Morris, starting in 1888. In 1902 Lily, along with her sister Elizabeth and friend Evelyn Gleeson, founded the Dun Emer guild in Dublin. Dun Emer focused primarily on tapestry and carpet making. In 1908, the group separated and Lily and her sister founded Cuala Industries which ran a printing press and an embroidery workshop. The embroidery that MTS conserved was created in the Cuala embroidery workshop around 1915.
The Boston College embroidery has several condition issues, including fading due to light exposure, an area of unidirectional loss to the right of the figures, and gummy adhesive tape holding the back of the mounted textile to an acidic paper mat. Stay tuned for our follow-up blog on the textile conservation treatment by Cara Jordan.
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.
The tenth biennial North American Textile Conservation Conference, Material in Motion, took place in New York City from November 16th through 20th, 2015. Camille, Cara and Morgan attended the two days of presentations, visit with several hundred international textile conservators, and enjoyed three nights of events around the city.
The opening reception took place at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center, located in the 1907 Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House designed by Cass Gilbert. Attendees listened to a key-note presentation by transdisciplinary artist Laura Anderson Barbata, who then regaled us with an amazing, high-energy stilt-walking performance with the Brooklyn Jumbies. Their costumes and dances are the epitome of material in motion.
All five current staff members from Museum Textile Services made the trip to Portland, Maine, last week for the 97 Annual Conference of the New England Museum Association. A mere 90 minutes north of our studio, the vibrant and historical city of Portland is a favorite summer destination with great restaurants, bustling street life, and many cultural institutions. The unseasonably warm November weather was an added bonus that made our excursions and dinner treks even more memorable.
The following day, Camille and Kate presented their talk Articulating Bodies: Developing and Disseminating New Tools for Historic Costume Display in Small Museums to a standing-room-only crowd. Also participating in the presentation was author and museum archivist Jennifer Emerson, who Camille met while working at the Denison Homestead in Mystic, CT. Jennifer began the meeting in street clothes and allowed her silhouette to be traced onto a board. Later, she returned dressed in a replica 1814 outfit and her silhouette was again traced.
As attendees learned about the importance of proper costume display in museums, they began to understand how drastically the human figure is manipulated over time. Jennifer's final appearance was in a replica 1876 ensemble complete with bustle and bonnet. The final tracing made clear that understanding the historical silhouette takes some research but results in much more authentic--and safer--costume display.
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