45th Annual Meeting – Textile Session, June 1, “Agarose, Two Ways: Successes and Challenges in Large Scale Gel Application” by Dana Goodin

The Textile Specialty Group audience got a real treat with Dana Goodin’s talk on using agarose gels on tapestries.  Dana, who works at the Textile Conservation Laboratory at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, used agarose gel on two tapestries in two different ways.

The first was a Baumgarten tapestry dating to the 1910s.  It, and many others, were discovered on the walls of a townhouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan after a developer purchased the property.  In previous years, the room the tapestries were in had been rented out as a studio apartment.  (As an NYC resident myself, you can only imagine the envy this inspired in me!)  The tapestries were attached to the wall around the perimeter with nails.  Stains from leeching plaster were prevalent and the lining had fallen down behind one tapestry, resulting in ballooning and a large slit at the bottom.  A square had even been cut out of a tapestry to access a utility box!  The tapestries were de-installed in 2013 and brought to the Lab, where there were laid flat in a humidity tent.  The humidity was maintained between 52% – 58% for many months.  This was not enough, however, to restore flexibility to the desiccated silk elements of the tapestry.  Since the silk in the tapestry was in such poor shape, it was feared it would disintegrate during wet cleaning.  It was therefore decided to clean, and of course humidify, the tapestries through agarose gel.  Dana told us that the Textile Conservation Lab would usually use a 1% density gel if the material were smooth and could later be rinsed under suction.  Because this was not an option with the silk, it was decided to also rinse the cleaned tapestry with agarose gel and deionized water.  For cleaning, 3.4% density gel, ¼” in thickness, was cast with Orvus.  The Orvus solution was 5ml to 300ml water.  The entire Baumgarten tapestry was cleaned with gel, although the wool elements received thicker gels and were rinsed under suction, rather than with gel.  The treatment was a great success: the appearance was incredibly improved and the tapestry regained enough moisture that it could afterwards be rolled without worry.

Clearly, this treatment required a lot of agarose gel, the cost of which escalated quickly.  Not to mention the time spent casting it.  Therefore, Dana and the other conservators at the Lab tried out reusing the gels.  Tests were performed on white China silk and it was found that after three rinses/soaks of the gels in Orvus, no soiling was redeposited on the test silk.  This was a great find, although it was concurrently found that the gels could only be reused three times before disintegrating.

The second tapestry Dana spoke about was an Agam tapestry from the 1970s.  It was made from white wool yarn and a variety of wool/synthetic colored yarns.  It suffered from hard glue residue on the top and bottom 2” of the tapestry, which previously attached a lining.  Complications arose from the fact that the red and black yarns bled.  The face of the tapestry was cleaned via dry surface sponging, but obviously that did nothing to address the glue, which was so hard it couldn’t be sewn through.  Tests showed that amyl acetate removed most of the glue.  Application methods tested were with blotters, cotton linters, and agarose gel.  The agarose gel proved the most effective.  Gauze was placed below the tapestry, then the gel was draped over the glue, before being weighted.  Although effective, this proved very time consuming.  To speed things up, Dana and the other conservators decided to apply the amyl acetate directly to the glue and then drape the gel over these sections with weights on top.  2% gel was used for this, and left on for one hour.  This process was repeated until as much glue was removed as possible.  The treated areas were rinsed with deionized water, and the tapestry received a new lining and a Velcro hanging mechanism.

I don’t think I’m overstating things by saying these were two awesome treatments.  Thanks for sharing them with us, Dana!

45th Annual Meeting – Textile Session, May 31, “Learning From Treatments That Did Not Go As Planned” by Suzan Meijer and Marjolein Koek

Involving a beautiful dress from the late 1860s and stunning before and after photos, Suzan Meijer’s talk was a definite crowd pleaser.  Her talk focused on a silk moire dress in the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.  (Now on my Top Ten list of places to visit, as it has over 10,000 textiles, the largest collection in the Netherlands!)  Treatment of the dress was spurred on by the museum’s launch of an expanded website that would allow digital access to select objects in the collection.  This dress was selected because it is one of the few examples of the late 1860s pre-bustle period remaining unaltered.  However, its selection meant that it would have to be dressed on a mannequin for extensive photography.  The dress had been kept in hanging storage, covered, for decades, and Suzan spoke of the truly delicate condition it was in: the silk was split throughout the skirt, and shattered in many places across the bodice.   These damages far exceeded those outlined in the last condition report from 1950 (which may have been partially caused by the dress having been worn to a party at the museum in the early 20th century!).  Although wear and long-term hanging storage undoubtedly contributed to the poor condition of the dress, Suzan noted how the moire production process would also have contributed to the degradation of the silk.  Moire is produced through calendering, which involves heat and a lot of pressure.  Tests showed that the silk may further have been weighted slightly, as small amounts of aluminum and iron were found in the fibers.  But despite structural issues, the silk was phenomenally un-faded!  The dye came back from the lab as 50% barberry and 49% unknown purple, red, and violet components.  One could easily see why the museum was eager to have this dress appear on their website!

However, to make this possible, it was determined that the skirt had to receive a full lining, and that the full lining would have to be adhesive since the silk was so delicate.  Unusual for the period, the bodice and skirt of the dress were attached.  Suzan said they hoped to apply the adhesive lining without clipping any of the original stitches but that attempts soon proved this impossible, due to the tight cartridge pleating at the waist.  Therefore, the decision was made to remove the skirt from the waistband so it could be laid flat.  Evacon R, an EVA adhesive, was applied to silk crepeline.  The adhesive coated silk crepeline was then attached to the interior of the skirt using heat reactivation, between 65-75 degrees Celsius.  When this was completed and the skirt began to be re-pleated, it was noticed that some of the slits were popping.  To fix this, nylon net was used as an overlay along the top few inches, sewn down to the underlying silk crepeline.

As for the bodice, it lacked both boning and lining, which proved fortuitous when repairing the shattered silk.  As with the skirt, adhesive-coated crepeline was used, but rather than a full lining, patches were applied.  Again, net was used as an overlay and stitched through to the crepeline.  However, unlike the skirt, small areas of the silk were missing, rather than just split.  Toned Japanese paper was used to fill in these losses.  After the stunning photograph was taken, available here, it was time for the dress to go back into storage.  Obviously, hanging storage was no longer an option, so a large custom box was made in which the dress could be stored flat.  A small “shelf” and tray was built into the box to accommodate the separate belt.  Suzan says that how surprising the condition of the dress was when treatment commenced led them to re-think their hanging storage.  Covers were removed and the garments moved farther apart so that any downturn in their condition would be noticed immediately.  I wish I had before photos to truly illustrate the amazing transformation this dress underwent.  Good job, Suzan!


44th Annual Meeting, Textile Session, May 15, "The Creation of a Digitally Printed Reproduction Sleeve for and Eighteenth-Century Painted Silk Dress", by Miriam Murphy and Alexandra Barlow

When I heard the title of this talk, I must admit images of laser scanners and super computers came to mind.  And while the technology is doubtlessly impressive, I was relieved to learn that it is far more accessible (and much less sci-fi-esque!) than I had originally imagined.
The dress at the center of this talk was a silk taffeta Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1780, that had been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976, sans one proper left sleeve.

The dress on display in 2004's Dangerous Liaisons exhibit. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.
The dress on display in 2004’s Dangerous Liaisons exhibit. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

Because the silk was hand painted, the best option for recreating it in the 1970s was to hand paint a new sleeve as well.  However, after four decades, and three exhibits, the reproduction had become damaged.  Before being featured in the 2015 show China: Through the Looking Glass, it was decided a new sleeve would have to be made.  For the 2004 show, Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century, an entire reproduction petticoat had been digitally printed, so it was not a technology with which the Met was unfamiliar.  Digital printing has also, in recent years, been used to create fabric for mounts, upholstery for chairs, and a dress for a historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.
The first step in the process was to get a good digital image of the fabric, ideally through scanning.  As luck would have it (or so they thought) a flat pattern piece of the same fabric was at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.  Unfortunately, it was soon discovered that there were subtle but definite differences between the two.  Because of the 3-D nature of the dress, scanning was not an option, so digital photography had to be used instead.  The petticoat was selected for this process, rather than the present sleeve, because it offered a large, flat expanse, and the majority of the pattern repeat.  The image was taken at the Met’s photography lab and sent to Dyenamix textile printing, for image manipulation. This proved more difficult than expected because the undulations of the petticoat, visible in the photograph, had to be removed, and the full pattern repeat stitched together.  Another stumbling block was what part of the repeat to print?  Should they go with a mirror image of the extant sleeve, or could it be assumed that such expensive fabric was used conservatively, without an attempt at symmetry? Ultimately, the former path was selected.
The next step was to find a suitable base fabric.  Although the fabric texture can be printed, the best results are achieved when a close match is found, which was a challenge since 18th century taffeta was finer than that available today.  When a good approximation was sourced (from Manhattan’s Garment District), both white and ivory was purchased.  Dyenamix first sent the fabric to Jacquard in California for pretreatment, to prepare it to accept the ink.  When the fabric returned, it was ready for the printing process. The printer prints ¼” at a time, going over each section eight times.
It took many attempts and many weeks to get the colors exactly right. Most of the early attempts were too bright and saturated, qualities prized by industry clients, but not by conservators. Once the fabric was printed, a pattern was taken from measurements and multiple mock-ups were made before the final sleeve was constructed. All-in-all, the process took six weeks and $2,400 (not including the time of the Met staff) to complete. Interestingly, roughly half of that seems to have been because Dyenamix did the image manipulation, judging by a similar project done in the Met’s upholstery department.
The subject of the talk, center, on exhibit in China: Through the Looking Glass. From QMIN magazine.
The subject of the talk, center, on exhibit in China: Through the Looking Glass. From QMIN magazine.

Dyenamix had claimed that their inks were archival and because the dress needed to be ready for exhibition, no further tests were performed beforehand. However, after the exhibition closed, the fabric was given the Oddy test, which it failed. In response, the sleeve was removed from the dress and stored separately.
I would be interested to know what caused the sleeve to fail the Oddy test: was it the pretreatment done by Jacquard to ready the silk for the ink, or the ink itself? This process is a great tool for any conservator to have and (as always!) more research is desired!

42nd Annual Meeting – Textiles Session, May 30, “In Consideration of the Thangka” by Denise Migdail

Any talk with the word “thangka” in the title is one I’m sure to attend.  I’ve been hooked on these incredible graphic pieces since seeing one entitled “Protectress Riding a Zombie”.  Because who couldn’t like an art form that depicts riding a zombie?  So I was very happy to hear that Denise Migdail of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum was giving a talk entitled, “In Consideration of the Thangka”.  The meat of the presentation revolved around the method the Asian Art Museum has developed to store and display the 154 thangkas in their collection, which, I have to say, is very clever.  But more about that later.
Denise began with a quick overview of what a thangka is: a Buddhist image used for meditation and/or teaching.  Although most are painted, they can also be appliquéd, embroidered or even woven.  Denise’s colleague, Jeff Durham, assistant curator of Himalayan Art, says that “thangka” translates to the highly technical term “flat thingy”. However, any conservator who has worked on one will tell you that’s an unfortunate misnomer.
The idea to revamp the storage system came with the 2000-2003 move of the museum from its former home in Golden Gate Park to its current home in the Civic Center.  The museum received an NEH storage grant and decided that they wanted to eschew their previous hanging storage for flat storage because a) low-binder paint b) fragile silks and c) wooden hanging dowels.  Although this project started before Denise’s arrival, she has been elemental in its development since she came on staff in 2006.  She found from experience that the beautiful glass cases installed in the new museum were incredibly hard to access.  Only one pane of glass could be moved at a time, allowing relatively small access points for objects that can get really, really big.  The staff realized that the boards the thangkas were stored on would aid significantly in getting them into the case.  So hey, why not keep them on the boards during display as well as storage?  Many different types of mounting boards were experimented with, including Tycore, (takes up a lot of space and is pretty expensive), Coroplast (sharp edges and flexes a lot) and blue board, (still flexes, especially at large sizes). D-Lite boards were ultimately deemed the best option.  Navy velveteen was originally selected as a show fabric for both its tooth and complementary color.  The thangkas themselves were variously tied, pinned, or stitched to the boards.  Eventually the decision was made to start using standard-sized boards because reusing is a great way to go green, and also to save money.  Unfortunately, this meant that piercing the boards by tying the thangkas to them customized them too much.  Since other rotations in the Asian’s galleries were currently being mounted with the aid of rare earth magnets, it was decided they would be a good solution for the thangkas too. Kimi Taira, employed at the Asian and writing an entry for the AIC objects wiki at this time (http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Magnet_Mounts), contributed much. The D-Lite boards translated well to magnet mounts, since they were rigid enough to support steel to attract the magnets. And since the gallery display was concurrently being updated, the navy velveteen was replaced with cotton flannel and a show-fabric surround.  When a thangka had a bottom dowel, L and U hooks held to the board via magnets offered support.
Denise finished up her presentation by talking about some specific treatments they did on certain thangkas.  The one I found most interesting was the recasting of a missing dowel knob.  They made a RTV (room temperature vulcanized rubber) mold using the remaining dowel and cast a new one in resin, which was then painted.  The end result was quite impressive.
At this time, the Asian Art Museum has three standard board sizes, with minor variations.  Many thanks to Denise Migdail for sharing this great green solution with us! Look at this link to the Asian’s website for pictures and a great video clip: http://www.asianart.org/collections/magnet-mounts