45th Annual Meeting—Textiles Session, Tuesday May 30th—“Making the Mold: A Use for Fosshape in Upholstery Conservation” by Kirsten Schoonmaker and Abby Zoldowski

After much ado and various delays, I am happy to post about Kirsten Schoonmaker’s fascinating presentation!

The task at hand was creating consistent custom upholstery packages for eight Heppelwhite shield back chairs. Belonging to the Philip Schuyler Mansion State Historic site, the chairs are part of a suite of Heppelwhite pieces, which all date between 1790 and 1804. The pieces were on display when the site opened to the public in 1917. They were removed from the house in 1926, and were recovered in the 1950s, altering the profile and the show fabric. After returning to the mansion in the 1970s, the chairs were again recovered, this time in a Scalamandre fabric.

As 2017 marks the centennial of the Philip Schuyler Mansion, it was decided to return the chairs to their former glory. The chairs were suffering from saggy backs and over-stuffed arm padding, and the seats in the set featured two different profiles. Removal of the replacement show fabric and additional layers of padding on the arms of one of the chairs exposed some of the original show fabric, informing the decision regarding new show fabric. Still, a decision had to be made regarding the upholstery profile. A modern, all-archival materials solution was considered, as was the possibility of leaving all of the remaining period materials intact and part of the piece. In the end, it was decided to remove all of the additions from the 1950s restoration onward. In the case of the chair backs, whose structural condition was compromised the most, the conservators worked from the bare frame. Kirsten presented the process piece by piece, with illustrations and photographs to clarify her descriptions (a very important element for audience members with little upholstery experience like me!)

The new shield back upholstery required complex curves, which are hard to achieve when carving ethafoam. Kirsten explained the interest in utilizing the adaptable qualities of Fosshape to recreate the proper silhouette for the new upholstery packages. Both the customized shape and the resistance of set Fosshape to changes in relative humidity made the material desirable. Fosshape 600 was used to test the creation of a new chair back. The conservation team created a plywood cradle and used air-dry clay to create molds of the front and back curved pieces. The fosshape was draped over the mold and steamed to follow the correct shape. The front and back layer were then sewn together with a layer of polyester batting sandwiched between. The unified piece was then covered in muslin (and eventually a new silk fabric). Two application approaches were tried with the new shield back packages, and the effectiveness depended heavily on tack placement.

Kirsten noted several factors to keep in mind for any future experimentation using Fosshape in this manner. Addressing the inflection points and tacking edges in the mold stage would improve the process. Also, experimentation to determine Fosshape’s self-adhering qualities could prove useful in future projects. The notion of using a 3-D scanner to create a printable mold in the future could speed the process along even more. In the end, there are plenty of possibilities to take away from this fascinating project.