Museum Textile Services received a special flag recently from our friends at the St. George's School in Middletown, RI. The framed relic, which had hung on campus for decades, is a small American flag made of silk. What makes it extraordinary is that the flag traveled with the then-lieutenant Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett on their May 9th, 1926, flight to reach the North Pole.
The 2- by 3-foot, 48-star flag is machine made of red, blue, and undyed silk. Its 93 years of life had embrittled the silk, and decades of display in a bright office with no UV filtration has severely faded the colors. Just how fragile the silk was became immediately apparent when we removed the stitching holding the flag to an acidic board and a thumb-sized chunk of silk fall away. Flat textiles in this state cannot withstand stitching, and therefore become candidates for adhesive linings.
MTS Associate Conservator Morgan Blei Carbone cast out an adhesive lining for the flag using a 75% solution of BEVA archival adhesive and water onto silk crepeline. The team helped Morgan carefully position the brittle flag, including the small fragment, on top of the silk lining before she reactivated the adhesive with a warm tacking iron. The flag is still vulnerable to abrasion on its upper surface, but it will not break easily again. The lined flag was then centered on a fabric-covered, solid-support panel and pressure mounted behind UV-filtering acrylic. A new black powder-coated aluminum frame from Small Corp, Inc. was chosen that mimics the original black wood frame. Although our procedure is normally to minimally stitch all pressure-mounted textiles, this flag would not allow even the finest of needles to pass through it without exposing un-faded fibers from the back of the silk.
Whether or not Byrd and Bennett actually reached the North pole has been the subject of controversy since the 1950s; if they did, their flight would be the first to have done so. If not, that record would belong to another flight performed only three days later. Byrd was made a commander after his success, and Bennett a machinist (a warrant officer rank), and both received a Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge that December.
The flag now proudly hangs in the office of the new Head of School, Alixe Callen,
where it is now protected and stabilized for another fifty years of magisterial display.
A call last fall from the Nantucket Historical Association brought this spectacular embroidered mantlepiece to Museum Textile Services for remounting and reframing. Made of silk, wool, and metal-wrapped threads on linen, it is attributed to Susan Colesworthy, c 1765. Referred to as a ‘fishing lady’ embroidery, it is one of a series of works that stands out in the realm of American Colonial needlework for its focus on women’s courtship and agency.
Most works of early New England embroidery are samplers, meant to showcase skill, or practical items like wallets and linens. A smaller quantity are pastoral scenes and art pieces, meant instead to display affluence. The known fishing ladies probably number around twenty examples and were made across the length and breadth of New England between 1730-1790. Almost all known examples use the same motif of a woman at a fish pond who is holding a rod and has a basket full of fish at her feet, looking toward a male figure who seems to be interrupting her idyllic (and successful) work. The two are dressed luxuriously and surrounded by rolling hills. An embroidered mantlepiece is a larger work of art, meant for ostentatious display. The Nantucket example, which is intact and not a fragment, may have been intended as part of a triptych, like the MFA example appears to be.
Author Andrea Pappas in her seminal work “’Each Wise Nymph that Angles for a Heart’: The Politics of Courtship in the Boston ‘Fishing Lady’ Pictures,” theorizes how the series represents the fleeting time during courtship in which women have control: when a man has been ‘hooked’ – declared his intent and offered his hand – and the woman may accept or reject him. Various artists illustrate this in different ways, with figures, background, and background activities altering to suit their purpose. We know that Susan Colesworthy never married, and yet she gave birth to a daughter in 1773 – perhaps she so firmly believed in the moment of freedom emphasized in her embroidery that she never wanted it to end.
Fishing lady embroideries invariably show these women as skilled, with baskets full of fresh fish that were caught before the man ever wandered over. This motif stands out clearly when compared with contemporary prints of fishing activities made by male engravers, in which women are shown being helped and overseen by men.
The Nantucket embroidery was humidified and blocked to reduce the inherent slant of overcast, or tent stitching. MTS Director Camille Myers Breeze then mounted it to an acid-free, fabric-covered board with hand stitching. To complete the treatment, Morgan located a modern frame in a similar style as that seen on the MFA's fishing lady mantlepiece. Sarah Colesworthy is one of the few Colonial American women whose names managed to remain with their work over the generations, and we are fortunate to play a role in her embroidery's preservation.
The inaugural MTS Learning Lab took place on Saturday, April 6th at our Andover, Massachusetts, textile conservation studio. The topic, Fiber & Fabric Identification, attracted 8 attendees from across New England and as far away as Kansas and Wisconsin.
MTS Director & Chief Conservation Camille Myers Breeze started the morning off with an in-depth presentation about fiber origins. The attendees were given 24 samples of natural and synthetic yarns to create a fiber-reference card while discussing their behavioral properties. When examined in their staple forms, yarns can be compared for strength, elasticity, texture, and shine, which illuminates why they are used for different kinds of fabrics and clothing.
The attendees were taught how to use bright-light microscopes to identify fiber slides Morgan taught them to make from fiber samples. They were especially excited to learn safe fiber-sampling techniques using clothing and textiles from the MTS Study Collection, which they can practice after returning to their home museums. All of the microscopy demonstrations were made easier with our new LabCam for iPhone, which allows for easy group viewing and instant photo capture using our AmScope T690C-DKO microscope.
In the afternoon, the class switched gears to discuss fabric structures while creating sample books of modern and historic materials. Many of our swatches were generously provided by our friends at Testfabrics, Inc. The day concluded by gathering around examples of textiles and costumes commonly found in museum collections for a hands-on conversation about why understanding what artifacts are made of is a key to their preservation.
These dresses are important artifacts of pre-war Jewish life, and we were honored to be given care of them for crucial cleaning and repair. Their wear shows how valued they were, and their survival is amazing given the terrible times that they weathered. Margaret and Mark went into hiding in 1942 and were separated from their son Harry, then just a year old, who was found and sent to a concentration camp; the couple were constantly on the move and encountered terrible events every time they tried to catch their breath. Watch their oral history recording here.
Even though we have the provenance of these clothes, there’s always a mystery to be found! The seams of the beaded dress were let out as much as possible at some point in its life; this is particularly notable because the dress has more seams than usual, so it allowed for more room than a typical alteration could create. As they are now, the dresses are two entirely different sizes. Did Margaret wear the dress later in life? It does make sense that the less formal departure dress would have been the one worn again, as wedding dresses were rarely repurposed by the original wearer. It’s also possible that the dress was altered another family member. As one of the few things she chose to bring with her during those turbulent years, Margaret Merin may have seen fit to lend her dress to another woman with too little of her own.
In honor of our 20th Anniversary, Museum Textile Services is proud to announce the first in a series of educational and outreach programs. The MTS Learning Lab opens up our Andover, Massachusetts, studio up to learners who want to study aspects of collections care and conservation using our equipment and our study collection. Our full-day classes are priced at just $150 each or $500 for all four.
The first of our Saturday classes, Fiber & Fabric Identification, will be held on April 6th, 2019, and is ALREADY SOLD OUT. A second date has been added for AUGUST 3, 2019. The instructors are Camille Myers Breeze and Morgan Blei Carbone. Participants will spend the day learning about the origins of fibers and their transition into fabrics. Using both burn tests and polarizing-light microscopes, participants will learn how minute characteristics of each fiber impact a textile’s behavior and preservation. Students will take home a fiber sample card and fabric swatches. Classes are limited to 10 so register soon.
Our classes are designed for anyone from textile collectors and specialists to museum volunteers and emerging professionals. If you have any questions, please contact Leah Cereillo at 978-474-9200 or email Leah@museumtextiles.com
In October 2017, Jim Hamilton, Amherst College alumni and author of The Writing 69th, began researching for his newest book, The Black Cats of Amherst. Upon this visit to the college’s archives, he found an embroidered silk banner folded up in a box along with fragments of a red and green ribbon, Croix de Guerre medal, fourragère, and long flag staff ribbons. Hamilton would soon learn of the significance of this banner and military accouterments with respect to the history of the Section Sanitaire Etas-Unis 539 (S.S.U. 539) known as the Black Cats of Amherst. Recognizing that the banner would need professional conservation, Mike Kelly, Head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College, contacted Museum Textile Services to assess the condition of all the objects. Now aware of the scale of the project, Hamilton turned to the Amherst alumni to begin an, ultimately successful, fundraising campaign to save the Black Cats’ banner. The double-pointed banner is made from ribbed cream silk lined with cotton, two-sided, embellished with silk and couched metallic embroidery. The two panels are assembled by machine, trimmed with metallic bullion fringe around the perimeter. The hoist edge features three leather straps with buckles used to secure the banner to a staff.
The Black Cats was an ambulance unit formed in Amherst, Massachusetts, shortly after the United States officially joined World War I, June of 1917. They trained in Allentown, Pennsylvania and sailed to France in August of the same year, serving alongside several French army divisions. Ambulatory unit S.S.U. 539 adopted the black cat as the mascot of the unit, which they thought of as a good luck charm; contrary to the bad luck stereotype typically associated with the feline. The black cat emblazoned the unit’s vehicles, banners, and correspondence, becoming the unifying symbol which has endured beyond the end of the war. The Black Cats returned to the US in April 1919, proudly adorned with multiple military commendations for both individual and unit achievements. A group of 22 Black Cats made a symbolic march back to Amherst College on April 23, 1919, where they were welcomed home by college President Alexander Meiklejohn and Dean George Olds. The unit colors: an American flag, and two silk banners (one bearing the unit’s iconic black cat); were presented to Dean Olds who accepted them on behalf of the college. The banner to be treated at MTS does not appear in the photography from the day and it is presumed that it was made and presented to Amherst at a later date.
Addressing the condition issues of the banner and components was complicated, requiring thorough support within the confines of the project. The ultimate goal of treatment was to stabilize for safe display and be delivered to Amherst in time for the 100th anniversary of the Black Cats’ return march in April; a challenging, though certainly not an impossible task. The greatest challenge was addressing the shattering silk and detached fragments on both sides of the banner, while minimizing additional damage, and particular care to not accidentally sew the two sides together. An additional obstacle was mounting the banner to a solid support that included a viewing window which would allow the wording on the French flag side to be seen after treatment was completed. The cream silk was in poorest condition on the French flag side; actively breaking with more overall detached fragments. On the American flag side, silk deterioration and loss is limited to the bottom of the banner, coinciding with discoloration of the cotton lining near the bottom-most leather strap. The top-most leather strap was broken, though the fragment was retained. The green and red ribbon paired with the medal was in very poor condition, having broken into several pieces. All metal components were moderately tarnished.
Treatment was relatively straightforward, though several puzzles required solving. Camille undertook the task of re-aligning the fringed red and green ribbon which was in a number of disassociated pieces. The fragments were encased in a silk crepeline sandwich and consolidated with the archival adhesive, Lascaux. The shattered silk of the banner was a compound challenge as either side had to be addressed independently but with caution to the opposite side. The silk was carefully flipped, rearranged, aligned, and secured with nylon net to the entirety of the face of the front and reverse. Stitching was strategically placed at the edges of all design elements, voided areas of lost silk, and along the border. Both banner and accessories were mounted to padded and fabric covered aluminum panels then framed with UV-filtering acrylic to create an ideal display environment; both supportive and accessible for viewing. The panel for the banner did get a custom window cut out to allow the text on the reverse to be seen, all covered in Mylar to protect the still delicate silk.
We close out our series of three MTS Blogs on the subject of Fanny Appleton Longfellow's Spanish-style dress with an exploration of the synthetic dyes available in the 1850s.
If the color of the dress is not due to a natural dye, another potential material is the first of the coal-tar, or chemical, dyestuffs: picric acid. Its proper formulation was discovered in 1845, and factories existed for its production by at least 1855. Contemporary findings note that it was more colorfast than any of the vegetable dyes discussed previously, but subsequent research proved that it was not up to the standard of mineral and chemical alternatives. Despite this, it continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century on a variety of materials, and the vibrancy and purity of the color on this dress could be attributed to it.
Another option, aniline dyes, were both bright and colorfast, which made them extremely popular in a very short amount of time. Textile conservators at Museum Textile Services determined that the Longfellow yellow silk is colorfast in water, like an aniline dye. If it were dated to just a few years later, it could feasibly have been one of the first silks dyed this way; however Charles Mène’s "aniline yellow" was created in 1861, the same year that Fanny Appleton Longfellow died.
The last contemporary possibility is a mineral dye. At least one was in use for yellows by 1820: chrome yellow, which the modern reader will recognize as the color of American school buses. It comes from a mineral called crocoite, which was first discovered in the 1790s and is a standard paint color still used by modern artists. The French chemist Vauquelin began by synthesizing pigments from the mineral, and it took thirty years for a breakthrough on chemical dye use. By 1820, dyers were able to achieve a deep and striking yellow with lead chromate (a combination of lead acetate and either potassium chromate or dichromate). The name ‘chrome yellow’ derives from these chemical mordants rather than from appearance or a comparison to nature, and thus does not seem to have been used in fashion magazines like Godey’s and Peterson’s until much later in the century. In the 1850s, the brightest of chrome yellows were probably referred to as ‘canary’ or ‘sulphur’ yellows. The term ‘chrome yellow’ does appear occasionally, but only in reference to paint pigment for craft projects and home décor. It was a popular choice all around; within only a couple of years of its initial manufacture, George IV of England chose it to color the wallpaper of his Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
These articles have given a historical overview of the most likely dyestuffs; without in-depth analysis, it can be very difficult to tell what a fabric was colored with. Swatches can aid visual identification, but in a case like ours, where quercitron can create the same colors that weld can, there is an obvious difficulty. There are various techniques that are able to break this barrier, FTIR and mass spectrometry, but all require more resources than what we have at the MTS studio. Low tech, non-invasive dye identification is an area sparse in scholarship, and often historical research can be a conservator’s--and a curator's-- best bet.
In the 1850s, the color yellow could be created either with chemical dyes or with dozens of different vegetal dyes. The four natural dyes most often found in dyer’s manuals of the time were quercitron bark, weld, fustic, and turmeric. Of those, quercitron was the most common due to its combination of strength and economy. Weld, a popular yellow dyestuff for centuries, was still used a great deal. Turmeric would have been the most expensive option, but is definitely not the culprit here: its hallmark is a warmer, golden color. The last option, fustic (both ‘old’ and ‘young’), does not yield so vivid a shade as this, nor one so colorfast.
Additional reading: Hansen, Heather Nicole. The Quest for Quercitron: Revealing the Story of a Forgotten Dye. Master’s Thesis, Winter 2011. University of Delaware.
An award this year from the Friends of the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters, a National Historic Site, meant that the staff at Museum Textile Services have gotten intimately acquainted with a dress so central to this Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that it was worn by several generations of occupants over the span of a century. Made of bright yellow silk in pristine condition, the dress is adorned with black velvet and fragile lace trim over deteriorating layers of cotton bobbinet. During the textile conservation treatment, we took the opportunity to learn more about this dress in the Spanish style.
Certain elements of Spanish dress were well known enough to be co-opted for formal dress in France, England, and America. An 1855 Godey's story describes a hostess choosing a "fancy costume...of a Spanish lady"--the same description that Fanny herself uses. Ardern Holt's 1887 book Fancy dresses described; or, What to wear at fancy balls gives a number of Spanish-styled outfits, and a common theme--besides the high comb and the mantilla—is the use of black trim and lace, paired with a bold color. That Fanny favored this aesthetic is suggested by an 1834 portrait of her with a black lace mantilla against a red figured velvet.
The over-arching category of "Spanish Lady" costume, according to Holt, featured a "short satin skirt (white, red, yellow, or rose) with black lace flounces headed by bands of velvet or gold; low bodice of the same...high comb; lace mantilla fastened over it with red and yellow roses." An 1895 glass plate photograph of Fanny's youngest daughter Anne Allegra Longfellow (1855–1934) shows Anne wearing the dress we are conserving and matching this description almost perfectly, down to the mantilla and comb.
Further confusing the dating of this dress are additional images from the 20th century, one a painting and another a set of photographs. Around 1940, a portrait was made by American painter Marguerite Stuber Pearson of a young woman in the Longfellow parlor. Her hairstyle and face are strikingly similar to pictures of Fanny Appleton, who died nearly a century earlier in 1861, at the young age of 44. The Spanish dress has undergone some alterations since the glass plate image from the 1890s. Three tiers of black Chantilly lace can clearly be seen covering the stark white bobbinet on the skirt, as well as on the sleeves. Other additions we found, such as a pair of Naiad Dress Shields in the underarms, suggest the dress was also worn in the 1910s or 20s when that company was at the height of its popularity. Perhaps for a celebration of the centennial of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birth in 1907?
So could this be the same dress Fanny writes about in her 1839 letter? The evidence points to no. Judging from its silhouette and construction, this dress dates to the middle of the 19th century, probably between 1855 and 60. It has a three-tiered skirt, characteristic of the mid 1850s, and box-pleats, which experienced a renaissance around 1860. The deep bodice point and wider sleeves also grew more popular at the end of the 1850s. The 120” diameter hem was stiffened with a ring of plaited wood, possibly hickory, implying that it was made before the hoop crinoline came into popular use in the 1860s. Could Fanny have worn the dress before her untimely death in 1861? The answer is yes. In all likelihood, she admired the Spanish style enough to have more than one sumptuous dress of black and yellow in her lifetime.
Stay tuned for additional MTS Blogs about the dress's most striking feature—its bright yellow silk.
It's that time of year again! Fall is here and we are looking back on all of the exciting and amazing things that took place at Museum Textile Services over the course of the last year. This issue of our annual magazine is 50 pages long and has more features than ever, including tips and links.
Thank you for making this year the most diverse and fulfilling in our 19-year history!
Camille, Morgan, and Leah
Get the Blog