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.
By Camille Myers Breeze
This spring I am hard at work promoting the latest research project at Museum Textile Services on the Use of Sheer Overlays in Textile Conservation. Sheer overlays, such as nylon net, silk crepeline, and polyester Stabiltex, are used in textile conservation to protect an object and/or change the object’s appearance.
There are many benefits of conserving textiles with sheer overlays. They provide immediate stabilization across a large area with a minimum of stitching. Sheer overlays also provide preventative care, as they offer protection from loss if the textile continues to degrade. Most importantly for use at MTS, sheer overlays are easy to learn, and are among the first things I teach intern to do.
This topic is near and dear to my heart, as I have been teaching it at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies in Mount Carroll, IL, since 2012. It may also be familiar to you if you have visited the Resources section of the Museum Textile Services web page. There you will find several MTS handouts on the subject, including our newest, Hot Cutting & Applying Polyester Sheer Overlays.
Other MTS Handouts on this topic include Conservation Netting, about the use of sheer nylon net overlays. I created the Sheer Overlay Score Card to assist in choosing the best sheer overlay, and it is also online. There is even a List of Sheer Overlay Suppliers and a Sheer Overlay Bibliography.
At the end of May, 2014, I will present poster on Evaluating and Choosing Sheer Overlays in San Francisco at the 42nd Conference of the American Institute for Conservation.One of the purposes of this poster is to launch my online survey on use of sheer overlays in textile conservation, in which I will gather feedback from conservators and collections care specialists around the world. The survey data will then assist me in an upcoming publication I am writing on the subject.
Stay tuned for more on this topic, and don't forget to take the online survey!
By Camille Myers Breeze
This beginning of this story may sound familiar to some of you. From a young age, I started absconding with cool things my parents had in their houses, in my case the textiles. When they both downsized after I went off to College, they passed on to me everything I could find space for. By the time I was 35 and Museum Textile Services had moved to its own home, I had a bona fide study collection filling several archival boxes. Since then, family members have sent me everything from wedding gowns to souvenirs and, more recently, we have begun accepting the occasional donation.
I should stop here and make something perfectly clear. We are not a museum. We're not even a non-profit. Museum Textile Services is an independent conservation laboratory with a growing client base and a popular internship-training program. When someone contacts us about making a donation, we make it clear that we can't appraise their items or provide a tax receipt. Nevertheless, donors tell us, they are grateful to have found a place where their clothing and textiles will be cared for and put to good use.
Mike and Midge Burnham were referred to me late in 2012 by my friend Dana, who runs a vintage shop in Newmarket, NH, called Concetta's Closet. Dana had purchased much of their family's 20th-century clothing but knew that the older items were museum quality and not suitable for wearing. Was I interested, the Burnhams asked, in a donation of several boxes of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing? The size of the donation concerned me at first but what eventually convinced that it was destined for MTS was the Oberlin connection.
Some of the oldest donated items belonged to Mike's great-grandmother Cassandra Vernon Washburn Burnham. Cassandra (1849-1935) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. She outlived her husband, the Rev. Michael Burnham (1839-1905), by 30 years, and during her widowhood she became innkeeper at Grey Gables in my college town of Oberlin, OH. Exactly how long Cassandra ran Grey Gables in not clear but in 1930 the college acquired it for student housing. In 1952, Grey Gables became just the second of Oberlin’s still-vibrant student co-ops but it was demolished in the 1960s during a wave of large-dormitory construction.The land on which Grey Gables stood became the Grey Gables parking lot.
Cassandra and Michael Burnham had five children, of whom two survived to adulthood. The couple is buried in Spring Street Cemetery in Essex, MA. Their son, the Rev. Edmund Alden Burnham married the highly successful contralto Ruth Thayer in 1895. Ruth Thayer Burnham's spectacular wedding ensemble, along with other outfits of hers, were also donated to the MTS study collection and will be the subject of future MTS blogs.
Museum Textile Services does not actively seek items for the study collection--we don't have the space or staff, for starters. But the stories these objects tell, and the opportunity for learning that they present, are priceless. For more stories from the MTS study collection, select "study collection" from the search bar on the right-hand side of this page.
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 Camille Myers Breeze
The latest in our series of MTS Handouts is called Displaying Textiles, and is designed to help you choose the best locations and methods for displaying your textiles.
By the time you see visible changes, such as color fading, yellowing, tears, or insect activity, your textile has already been irreversibly damaged. Continuing to display a textile under poor display conditions will accelerate deterioration and shorten the textile’s useful and/or decorative lifespan. Having a textile conservator stabilize the textile can allow it to be displayed again, but only if sensible precautions are taken.
Displaying a textile in a frame with no glazing, or with non-filtering glazing, is harmful to the textile. Anything framed prior to the 1980s will have plain glass or acrylic with no ultraviolet-filtering capacities. All framed textiles should be retrofitted with UV-filtering glazing or stored safely. Even with UV-filtered glazing, a framed textile can be harmed by light, particularly sunlight, which heats up the fibers causing harmful expansion and contraction.
Tapestries, quilts, and other large, flat textiles, can be safely displayed on a wall without a display case if the conditions in the room are suitable. Once a safe location has been determined to hang your flat textile, a conservator can provide a Velcro hanging system. Ideally, two textiles, such as two similarly-sized quilts, will be rotated to allow each one six months on display followed by six months in an archival storage box kept in a safe location.
For more information about this important subject, read the entire Displaying Textiles Handout, which is available with all of our free handouts in the resources section of the MTS website.
by Tegan Kehoe
In Part I of this series, I shared examples of crewel embroidery conserved at MTS and the early-20th-century Needlecraft Magazine article teaching needleworkers how to practice this craft. In Part II, we explore two more textile genres.
The July, 1934, issue of Needlecraft has an article about the timeless art of quilting. It features a quilt with a similarly geometric, symmetrical floral pattern, called “posies round the square.” The patchwork squares in both quilts are interspersed with sections of white quilted background.
The example above shows a quilt from this time period that was recently conserved by Museum Textile Services.The beautiful and intricate quilting pattern in the white section of this quilt is similar to some of the patterns used in the quilt shown in Needlecraft, and to patterns “J” and “G” at the bottom of the page. This quilt was wetcleaned and repaired by us in 2008 so that the owner could continue to gently use it on special occasions.
An article titled “Darning on a Filet Ground” appears in the February 1935 issue of Needlecraft, displaying work using the same technique as a set of place mats that MTS conserved, also in 2008. This craft is alternately called “filet darning,” “net darning” or “filet lace.” The article says that because the process is simple and quick, a set of curtains or placemats would be “by no means an over-ambitious undertaking even for the woman who has only a little time to give to needlework.”
The pieces that MTS conserved were a little more complex; instead of darning onto an existing net mesh, they were executed in filet crochet, which has a similar visual effect. One of the ways to tell the difference is to look at how the edges are done. Needlecraft Magazine explains how to finish the edges of the square mesh net that forms the base of the work by turning the edges under and hemming them. However, in the piece we treated, the edges have a crochet scalloped finish. Perhaps Needlecraft magazine would not have recommended crochet filet “for the woman who has only a little time,” but the effect is quite delicate.
These place mats were made by the owner’s grandmother. They came to us quite stained, and we washed them in Sodium Borohydride, an effective and gentle method of bleaching. At the completion of the project, the owner kept four of the place mats as they are, and had two of the place mats framed to give to her children.
Looking through Needlecraft Magazine is a blast from the past, and is also a reminder of the timelessness of so many of the textile arts that we are fortunate to conserve at MTS.
By Erin Halvey
This year, you may have noticed a small group of athletes in the Olympic Opening Ceremony walking behind the Olympic flag. They were three of four athletes given special permission to compete as independent Olympic athletes or IOAs. Three come from the Netherlands Antilles which were partially absorbed by the Netherlands, and one is from South Sudan. Neither country has a National Olympic Committee so they cannot represent their home countries. The IOC is allowing them to complete as independents.
It has only been a relatively recent phenomenon of IOAs competing. Either, it's a way to get around sanctions (in Yugoslavia's case in 1992) or a way to allow athletes who have been training to work around the political turmoil of changing governments or newly found independence.
Part of the requirements placed on these athletes is that they must compete under the Olympic flag and wear neutral, white uniforms. In 2000, the IOAs from East Timor and in 1992, the IOAs from Yugoslavia and Macedonia were both required to procure white uniforms themselves.
By choosing a white uniform, the IOAs are stripped of any hint of national flags or political statements. White is the color of neutrality; it is both the absence of color (in pigment or dye) and the combination of all colors (in light). The white uniforms allow the IOAs to represent no country and yet all countries at the same time.
Nike has created the uniforms for this Olympics' IOAs. They took pieces of their current collections and customized them with the Olympic logo, the designation of IOA, and made shoes that incorporate the five colors of the Olympic logo. You can read about the specifics of the uniforms (such as the exact model in Nike's collection) at Freshness. They even talk about a special scarf made for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and how it relates back to a Nike program.
Photo credits: Nike via Freshness.
If you liked this article, you might like our other Olympics-related posts.
Erin Halvey is a collections management intern at MTS, is an art nerd, and she also has a website devoted to the art and food she encounters at home or on her travels called A Sense of Place.
by Camille Myers Breeze
I am naturally skeptical about small art books, especially when they’re part of a series. However, on a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art bookstore I picked up Looking at Textiles: A Guide to Technical Terms by former MMA textile conservator, Elena Phipps. I made the $18.95 investment largely because of my familiarity with the author and her previous work including The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830.
The compact nature of the book led me to read it before any of the large and shiny volumes I also purchased for our Museum Textile Services library that day. An approachable 95 pages long, Looking at Textiles has a 15-page introduction followed by 72 pages of fabric glossary illustrated with beautiful textiles, historic images, diagrams, and depictions of textiles in other forms of art.
I have read many, many introductions to books about textiles that aim to summarize the complexity and wonder of this medium in a few pages, and Phipps’ is as good as it gets. As the author puts it, “This book is a guide to help answer [questions] through a presentation of the vocabulary and ideas used in examining and describing textiles. Our aim here is not to present the whole story of textiles but to elucidate some basic and important terms that we hope will increase understanding of the materials and techniques used to create them.”
I learned and relearned countless details about fabric structures from this book, aided by the large and colorful illustrations. Anyone who writes about textiles on a daily basis will find the glossary an excellent tool to have on hand to help maintain the accuracy of terms and descriptions. Moreover, Looking at Textiles is an approachable and unintimidating volume for people who are new to textiles. It will now become required reading for everyone in MTS’s Intern Certification program.
This 2011 book is part of the Getty Publications “Looking At” series, which includes other titles such as Looking at Photographs, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts, and Looking at European Frames.