Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why you should care about textile conservation, part 1

Do you have one of Grandma's old quilts in a closet or cedar chest somewhere?  A baby's christening gown that's been passed down through the generations?  A wedding gown carefully cleaned, boxed and saved for a future bride?

Most of us do hold on to and cherish the meaningful textiles that are passed down through our families.  We do our best to preserve them the best way we know how, but we may have misconceptions about what that entails.  In the area of textile conservation, as in any scientific field, knowledge and best practices are constantly evolving.   I know a little bit about conservation, but recently I had the chance to update and deepen my understanding by attending a workshop at Brenau University in Gainesville.

The workshop was presented by Lori Gann-Smith, Chair of the Department of Art and Design.  Lori has been trained in conservation principles and techniques in order to care for the Brenau Historic Clothing Collection, which numbers over 3000 items.  
Lori Gann-Smith, Chair, Dept of Art and Design, Brenau University
Lori taught us how and when to use the most commonly used stitches in stabilizing textiles:  running stitch, backstitch, and pick stitch.  We also learned how to stabilize tears or holes in fabric with mesh or net underlayments and overlayments.  And we practiced span stitch (also known as self-couching or "Frankenstein stitch") for slits or tears.  We used contrasting thread on our samplers for visibility, but in actual practice one would choose a color that blends with the piece.  Here's my sampler:

It's clear that the aim of these stabilizing treatments is simply preservation, not aesthetic enhancement of the textile.

The workshop was offered in conjunction with an exhibit, Behind the Seams:  Caring for Historic Clothing, about the University's ongoing efforts to research and preserve its textile collection.

Among the examples of "loss"--irreversible damage and deterioration--that researchers uncovered was this jacket discolored by mildew:

This jacket is an example of "inherent vice"--pre-existing conditions in an object's materials that will cause it to deteriorate.  Inherent vice can involve dyes or dye mordants that discolor and eventually damage the fabric.  Some fibers such as cotton or silk will by their nature deteriorate over time.  Here's a jacket lining whose silk has "shattered."

The research undertaken as part of the conservation process can turn up interesting information.  Brenau student researchers discovered that this opulent velvet gown had actually been remade several times and speculate that it may have been a theatrical costume.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 19, 2016 at the Simmons Visual Arts Center in Gainesville, GA.

The chief enemies of textiles aside from "inherent vice" are light, extremes and fluctuations of temperature and humidity, dust, dirt, and insects. In a future post I'll share some tips on how we can protect and preserve the textile objects in our care.

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