The conservation of textile objects

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  • THE CONSERVATION OF TEXTILE O B T E C T S J

    o endeavour, in a short article such as this, to give advice on the conservation T or restoration of textiles, is almost as difficult as trying to give a quick answer to the question: How can diseases be cured? Even if I had more space I would find it hard to expound general rules, for the question is too complex. The various problems depend, not only on the nature and size of the objects concerned and on the fibrous material, but also on local conditions, on changes in climate, etc. The operational procedure has to be tried out from case to case. All I can do here is to set out some fairly general points of view, based on experience acquired mostly in a Nordic country.

    The oxygen in the atmosphere affects all organic substances, but in varying degrees. Textile materials are probably more subject than most others to the ageing process, i.e. they weaken, disintegrate and are finally destroyed. However, the speed of this process varies considerably according to the nature of the fibres and local conditions.

    Animal fibres-mainly wool and sill

  • I as surgical operation or the active treatment we call conservation. When a conservation method is begun, however, it should be followed up by successive observations (fig. 3 8 - ~ 4 ) . This work of analysis and description is of great im- portance, partly because it may affect

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    39. Tablet oven" braid from the Birlra burials. This silk braid was inserted with gold and silk alternately, the latter of which has preserved the silk warp. The burials at Birka (Viking age, 7th-10th centuries LD.), which was an important trading centre in Middle Sweden, were ,exca- rated in 1871-1881. But it was only in 1932 that the present writer started investigating the textile fragments. (Agnes Geijer, Birka III. Dit Texfilf...E am derz Griberiz, Uppsala, I 93 8.) 39. Ruban tiss aux cartons provenant des spultures de Birka. La trame consiste de fils dor et dargent alternts; largent a protgt la chane de soie. Ces spultures de Birka (poque Viking, I X ~ et x e siicles), qui fut un important centre commercial de la Sutde centrale, ont t fouillees en 1871-1881. Lauteur du prsent article na commenc quen 1932 ttudier ces fragments de textiles. (Agnis Geijer, Birka III. Die Testi&~de am act1 Grbern, Uppsala, I 93 8.)

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    40. Woven braid from Birka. A lump of clay was dissolved by dropping water on it, then detaching the remains of silver, silk and woollen yarn ; the now missing marp-threads were pro- bably linen. By means of a water-colour brush the threads were spread out on a sheet of glass and replaced in their correct position. After drying, the braid was pancaked on to a silk veil and fixed between two sheets of glass. 40. Ruban provenant de Birka. Ces restes ont kt dgags dun morceau dargile dissous ax ec de leau, puis on a dtach les tils dargent, de soie et de laine; les fils de chaine qui manquent ttaient probablement e n lin. Au moyen dun pinceau, les fils ont t tals sur une plaque de verre et remis dans leur position correcte. Aprs schage, ils ont pu &tre plaqus sur un voile de soie qui a t plact ensuite entre deux plaques de verre.

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    decisions concerning subsequent mea- sures to be taken, and partly because it may no longer be possible to carry out such investigations in the future.

    The various measures adopted for active conservation or restoration can be grouped under the following four headings, set out here in what seems to be the most logical order:

    fore& bodes from large pieces atzd complete garmetzts. Extreme prudence is to be recommended when those parts which, rightly or wrongly, are considered to be less valuable, are separated, either temporarily or permanently, from a larger whole. This operation must always be preceded by thorough examination. It is to be noted that small details can be of vital significance for historical attri- bution, and that it is important to distinguish between original parts and possible additions.

    2. Cleatzitg, i.e. removal of impwties which / m ~ damzge the textile fibres a d spoil the objects appearatice. In general, cleaning is the most important operation for the conservation of an object, but it can also be the most dangerous, particularly if it is done by a person without the necessary experience or manual skill.

    Water is good, not only for the textile fibres but also for the dyes. In some cases, however, water may have certain disadvantages, e.g., for fabrics dyed after ISOO, or for quilted and lined fabrics. In these cases, it may be necessary to use a chemical solvent such as benzine, trichloroethylene, etc. ; but no excessive use should be made of such products, which destroy the natural greasy properties of the fibres and leave them dry and brittle. Not all kinds of water can be used, especially very hard (calcareous) waters. Since the water has to be soft, rain water or lake water can conveniently be used. Ordinary tap water varies in quality and should be analysed before being used. The safest procedure of all is to use distilled water. If the object is very dirty, a non-alkaline detergent may be used, provided it does not contain any bleaching substance.

    Careful washing can give astonishing results from the aesthetic standpoint. It not only gets rid of the dirt but makes the fibres swell so that the threads become more flexible and recover their natural sheen. This treatment thus conserves the fibres in the true sense of the word. Fabrics which have become crumpled or distorted regain their original shape and flatness (without ironing) and the result is lasting if the fabric is left to dry against a smooth surface such as glass.

    In general, not only large objects but also small fragments can be cleaned by the water method, which may range from the meticulous cleaning of fragments-with the use of a dropping-bottle, a water-colour brush and blotting paper-to washing with a sponge in a large basin, the sponge partly replacing the dropping-bottle. The result, however, depends largely on the skill of the operator.

    3. Chemcal trentnletzt t o streigtheti the fibres. According to information received from abroad, various experiments have been carried out with chemical products in order to prevent textiles from becoming brittle and splitting, but particularly to provide a fixative bacldng for more or less tattered fragments. For the renovation of woollen fabrics, several laboratories use glycerine, the hygroscopic properties of which increase the softness and elasticity of the fabric, giving it a fresher appearance.

    When disintegration has reached a point where the fabric tends to harden and fall apart, it is, however, necessary to apply a direct support to strengthen the textile material. For this purpose, various kinds of plastics have been used more or less successfully. The plastics, however, have a serious disadvantage : they are hard to dissolve and can be removed only by means of solvents which may be harmful to the textile fibres. Furthermore, the treatment and glueing carried out with these products have the effect of depriving the fabrics of much of their flexibility and elasticity, which is a great disadvantage from the aesthetic and practical standpoints.

    I. Remo~~al

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    The Stockholm laboratory for textile conservation recently received a Coptic tunic which badly needed strengthening by impregnation. The treatment applied yielded satisfactory results, not only in this particular case, but also in several other cases. It consists mainly of the application of a water-soluble cellulose, linown as Modocoll. Further experiments and technical testing are still being carried out.

    4. Application of a niechanical support, for instame to he4 a damaged fabric to bear its own aIeiglJt, thm moidhg the risk of sp/ittng; s i d scppv-fs also mzke k possible to ,fix separate fragnievzfs it1 positioit. Various additional meaures. In practice, it is not always easy to satisfy both the need for the conservation and purely aesthetic considerations. At the best, the same procedure may both protect the fabric and improve its appear- ance, whereas, in other cases, preference must be given to what is the essential task, i.e. conservation in the strict sense. The point to be stressed in this connexion is that the efforts made to preserve a fabric in its entirety must not adversely affect its original qualities nor modify its characteristics. The protection of the original nature of a fabric is essential. This rule, which should be scrupulously observed, is unfortun- ately often neglected. A skilful complementary restoration may do much to give a true impression of an ancient object of art, which the fragments alone would be unable to provide; but such restorations must be done with the utmost care and must be backed up by a sound knowledge of the history of art.

    A thorough understanding of ancient objects-i.e. familiarity with the nature and the historical and technical development of textile art-is an essential qualification for determining which of the measures-particularly those set out under points I and 4-are to be adopted. The choice of any one of them may be an irrevocable step, and thus demands careful consideration on the part of the person responsible. He should ask himself-or a chemist-what the physical and chemical consequences, including the long-term consequences, will be. He must try to leave the door open for the application of new and possibly improved measures and for further research.

    The ancient textile objects still in existence-a &minishing fraction of what existed in the past-are pieces of historical evidence which are more or less rare and more or less indispensable for research purposes. In this connexion, it should be stressed that the practical work of restoration presents the best opportunity for fundamental studies-which may lead to real discoveries. In the case of valuable textiles, technical analyses, accurate photographs and reports of the measures under- taken should be an obvious necessity for the benefit of contewporary and future research students.

    The conclusion to be drawn from what has been said above is that the work of conservation has, and must have, a twofold aim. It calls for close co-operation between historical research and practical conservation work, from which both are bound to benefit. The development of historical research on textiles-a field to which the historians and archaeologists are devoting more and more attention- shows that it is essential to seize every opportunity to carry out intensive technical studies and analyses.

    In discussions on the practical methods of conservation, it has been recognized that, as a matter of principle, a choice could be made either for the textile methods or for the chemical methods, i.e. sewing or glueing. It has also been said that the latter method, which is new, is the only rational one. This is, indeed, an oversimpli- fication of the question. Sewing and glueing have been in use for generations, and both have produced bad results because of insufficient knowledge leading to lack of consideration or-to put it more gracefully-excessive zeal.

    It is, however, undeniable that each of the two methods can produce good results-provided they are adapted to suit individual cases. We have already stressed

    $1, 42. Silver trimming from Birka. Two of the three siIver trimmings on their silk strips (tip. 42) having been detached, this lump was left intact to save the surrounding silk embroi- dery in sitti and show the fine structured fabric. 41, 42. Passement en argent de Rifka. Deux des trois tresses ayant i t i enlevies (fig. jr) , le support solide a t gard pour conserver in J-itzi la broderie en soie qui lentoure et montrer Ia texture dune toile trks tine.

    43. Woollen fabrics from Birka. About JO bu- rials contained small pieces of very fine v-oullen fabric. The two small pieces shovn have two different types of selvedges (the beginning and the edge) yielding important information about the type of loom used. 43. Tissus de laine de Birka. Une cinquantaine de tombes contenaient de petits morceaux de tissus en laine tris fine. Les deux petits mor- ceaux reprtsents avaient diffkrents types de lisires (le dtbut et la bordure), ce qui donne des renseignements inttressants sur le type de mtier utilis.

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    44, 4j. Cushion from the reliquary of St. Canut, in Odense Cathedral, Denmark. The wrinkled and torn I rth century silk was smoothed with water and transferred to a supporting fabric, to which it was attached with sparsely couched silk threads. Photographs taken before (fig. 44) and after (fig. 41) the restoration done in 193.1.. 44, fj. Coussin du reliquaire de saint Canut dans la cathdrale dOdense au Danemark. Le tissu de soie du XI^ sikcle &ait tordu et dchir. Dtfrips avec de leau, les fragments ont tt: dkposs sur un support auquel ils ont i t& fixs par des points longs et lches. Photos avant (fig. 44) et aprbs (fig. 4 ~ ) la restauration effec- tute en 1934.

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    the necessity of avoiding procedures the results of which would be irreparable. Unfortunately, most of the glueing methods used up to the present fall in this category. Therefore, moderate strengthening with needle and thread is to be preferred.

    Even this latter method, however, can cause irreparable harm to the object if the needlework is too solid and the stitches too close to be removed without damaging the fabric. The universal rule, gently does it, is particularly appli- cable to the conservation of textiles. The .I I

    sewing must be done with fine needles and yarn by a person with a light touch, the stitches being loose and fairly long; excessively short stitches on a very limited number of threads subject the latter to strain and finally to breakage.

    It is regrettable indeed that tight sewing or too much embroidery have caused damage to many textile pieces. Such examples, however, do not invalidate the contention that sewing methods give excellent results. I would even venture to - - conclude that, in principle, sewing, either used alone or combined with some chemical treatment, is the method to recommend.

    On the strength of my long personal experience with a large number of different -textiles, I strongly advocate wide co-operation between all persons concerned : the historical scholars (archaeologists, art historians, museum curators), the chemists and the manual workers-and that these latter need to have a thorough profes- sional knowledge of textile materials and techniques.

    While emphasizing on the local level the importance of well-organized team-work, the author nevertheless is convinced of the necessity of an even wider co-operation- an international co-operation. Thus may we succeed in saving the textile treasures which are part of our cultural heritage.

    [Translated from Swedish]

    C O N S ERVATI O N D E S O B J E T S T E X T I L E S

    par A. GEIJER 1

    ONNER en quelqu...

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