Conservation & preservation of Historic Silk - JenniferHein Textile Conservation

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Questions answered about Textile Conservation and the need for education. What can collectors and curators do to preserve textiles(or historic objects) more effectively? Why do you continue to work in this field if you know you cannot "catch up" with the demand?


  • 1. Jennifer Heins Conservation Background and PR For Preservation Outreach For Museum Objects 1) -Why did you get into the clothing restoration business? It is considered conservation. Restoration would make something appear to be as good as new or replaces components. Conservation takes the remaining components and stabilizes the existing materials so that they are presentable for short-term exhibits. 1b) Why & how did I become interested in Conservation ? As a fine arts craftsperson I studied historic ethnic fabric construction techniques in order to make more interesting new art work. I was a weaving undergraduate at Ohio State then a graduate student in New Jersey. I studied and produced small samples of historic fabrics with the time consuming methods that were used until the 1940s to make lace, hand spun yarn, tapestry techniques and even fancy handsewing & needlework before the sewing machine in the 1860s. At that time I was visiting New York City museums to see Fiber Art. On my visits I always visited the ethnic historic textile and lace exhibits. As a crafts person, it is easier to see the larger, gross threads used in ethnic costume construction since they did not begin to use power industry looms which allowed for thinner yarns. I began repair work on my own weavings then realized that I could spend several days repairing old textiles that had taken the original maker years to construct. I felt that my time would be better used to prolong the life of these beautiful historic fabrics. I have rewoven small segments in a Frank Lloyd Wright upholstery or replaced small hand sewn lace sections in collars so that it is barely noticeable. This is considered restoration. After my textile design experience, I began an internship at the Cooper Hewitt Museum near Park Ave. in New York City. I spent a year helping a museum technician take photographs of the beautiful Morris designs in their collection and I began an exhibit mount project for Scalamandre fabrics. I decided I could never construct anything as beautiful & at that point became interested in Museum Studies & conservation of historic fabrics. 2) -How long have you been doing this? Since 1988 or 20 years now 3) -What is the hardest part of your job? The hardest part of my job is starting a difficult project then deciding when it is best for the object to finish. orig. From: Rachel Johnson [mailto:] To: Date: Mon 06/17 Subject: Interview questions Rachel, I decided to make sure you realize these are good questions.... I gave it a try.. You will have to edit. -After watching me evaluate the dress last week. - Anything I type may appear in the article. - Please write answers in a conversational way. OK I tried. call 631-1888 if questions. Rachel Johnson.
  • 2. Jennifer Heins description of SILK STABILIZATION, COST & CARE 6/02 What can collectors and curators do to preserve textiles (or historic objects) more effectively? Several basics include: a) Remove all historic objects from plastic bags, even cardboard boxes are better. Plastic makes organics sweat, mold them decay. b) Do not wash garments unless you are positive it will help. They have us spot test any treatment 1st. Black, brown & red fabric have unstable dyes. Only white linens & cottons are safe to wet clean. Then bleach is not recommended because it weakens and stiffens the fabric structure so that it will tear much easier, like old sheets. c) Never dry clean anything over 20 years old. It is a chemical wash bath process similar to a washing machine. It tumbles the clothes then to dry it, they use a great amount of heat to vaporize the chemical. About 220 degrees. This heat creases and damages the fabric then it is taken out & wet heat is applied by steam pressing to flatten it This is always a negative process and should be done less frequently even to contemporary clothing. d) Do not store historic objects you would like to preserve in an attic or a basement. The heat dries it and the moisture lets it decay and mold. 5) -Why does it cost (more) to restore (silk )pieces? It doesnt usually, except if one of the above processes such as dry cleaning or washing have been applied to fabric & it has caused negative results such as fabric sheering or dye bleeding. The additional problem with silk fabric is because all silks are processed in metallic baths to weight the fabric when it is manufactured. It does not usually age well but we continue to use it because silk has a smooth hand or feel and it drapes beautifully. The third reason, objects are in poor condition is from the heat caused from light during a long exhibit. This has dried & made the organic material brittle. Silk dresses are the thinnest organic material that we try to save. Exhibit damages were not understood until more recently when the Smithsonian completed studies because of their object damages. 6)-Does it seem like you'll ( ever) be able to see significant progress in the Conservation field? I already have seen change & progress. In the last decade the USA has more of a need because objects do not show organic aging problems until they are 150 years old. The collections in the USA begin with the 1850s objects collected more heavily, with very rare objects before that time except along the coasts. We were not as needed until recently. I usually ask, What do you think you would look like if you were 150 years old? Our skin is a thin organic material with a structural support. Most objects are made from organics such as wood, paper, leather and fabrics. Fabrics such as Silk, wool & cotton are protein materials. They age more quickly because they are usually thinner than wood or leather and more flexible and less supported than paper. The document frame is a support structure similar to the undergarment support structure I described that should be used for garment exhibits. These supports release the stress from the organic material and help it age more slowly.
  • 3. Jennifer Heins description of the conservation of split silk. 6/ 02 SILK DRESS STABILIZATION 6b) Why do you continue to work in this field if you know you cannot "catch up" with the demand? I hope with more preservation efforts, that we will be able to catch up. There are several thousand Conservators in the USA with less than twenty in Indiana. A new awareness for Preservation is beginning to be developed in museums and these efforts will slow the need for conservation or restoration. The Getty in California & the Smithsonian in Washington DC have been studying care & treatments in the USA. They have developed Preservation and IPM treatment suggestions. These include pest prevention so the materials do not get eaten, mold prevention so they do not decay and isolating various materials so the chemistry of the decaying plastics, photographs or leather do not affect all the materials near it. In the last few decades, museums have also been trying to keep their objects more comfortable in heated & air conditioned spaces so they do not dry out, melt or crack. Far too many small museums continue to store objects in attics or in basements. 7) -Briefly describe the process you will use to (preserve) Mary's dress (one in the case). This is a similar process to any split silk problem. The dry cleaning of weakened dry exhibit silks should never have been done. But if it has taken place to a historically significant object then the process to restore some semblance of fabric can be undertaken. You are correct in saying, that this is not done very often because of the cost. Usually the objects will continue to be boxed and exhibited very rarely. After witnessing several long term silk exhibit problems, I decided to study at the Canadian Conservation Institute, where they have completed aging techniques to determine the choice of adhesives to use with various organic materials. Silk in this condition requires the use of a thin adhesive on backing to reinforce the split silk so that it appears to become a continuous piece of fabric. This treatment will allow the garment to be dressed out for display. At this point, the dry fabric is too brittle to sew through and needs a solution to lubricate the threads. When it has dried, then a fine polyester microfiber, Stabiltex will be secured to the back of the original silk satin fabric, to reinforce the cross threads or weft so that it appears to be yardage again. (This paragraph can be seen as the short description.) The final step includes a soft mount, display dress form, similar to those now on display on the 3rd floor. It is supported internally and the stress from hanging is lessened because of the body form & undergarment pads. To avoid future abrasion wear from handling the Smithsonian stores dressed out manikins in large covered containers, but with more limited space this padded mount form has been designed to hang in your closet. For continued preservation, it should be covered with a sheet & rotated into storage in the closed closets. The fabric will not be restored to its original appearance or softness and should be in rotation exhibits, with the understanding that any light creates heat which creates damage to the organic structure of the fabric.