Textile Conservation

TPST bannerWhat comes to mind when you think about preserving our history?

We’re familiar with preserving famous paintings, architecture, furniture, and historical documents, but where do textiles fit when you think of history?

Because textiles are thought of as utilitarian, they rank at the bottom when conserving history comes to mind.

But, how can you think about your personal history without including memories of your wedding dress or your child’s christening gown?

Recently, I sat down with Melanie Sanford, Chief Conservator/Principal of Textile Preservation Services of Texas to talk about her business and what we as textile artists and consumers can learn from her expertise.

Firstly, Melanie wanted to emphasize the distinction between conservation and restoration.  Conservation is the goal of keeping the object intact “as is,” but also to stabilize and slow further deterioration. Sometimes the damage to a piece is part of its history. For example, the Chicago Museum of History owns Mary Todd Lincoln’s cape, stained with blood.  It is conserved, not restored.  Restoration is identified as changing the visual and physical integrity of the object to make it look new.

Melanie’s expertise is in conservation, as well as the history of textiles. Her training began with a study in fashion design at Baylor University. She found she preferred historical garments as opposed to the chase of the current trend in fashion design. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Baylor, she received her Masters of Science in textile conservation from the University of Rhode Island. Melanie was both an intern and an Assistant Conservator at the Textile History Museum’s Regional Conservation Center in Lowell, Massachusetts. Melanie returned to Texas and in 2003 founded Textile Preservation Services of Texas. Its clients are approximately equally divided between museums (both public and private, large and small) and private citizens. Preservation services are available for almost any textile, excluding upholstery and rugs (due to their size). Each treatment is individualized according to the piece and the outcome desired by the customer.

Projects currently under way in the company’s Allen office include a large tapestry and a “stars and bars” flag from the 1800’s. The tapestry’s warp threads had deteriorated in places, leaving small holes. While the tapestry was hung, these weak structure points were causing more stress on the surrounding fibers. The tapestry’s weft threads (the design part) are a blend of wool and silk. The conservation for this piece required the replacement of the warp threads with DMC embroidery floss to stabilize the structure and prevent further damage. I was curious why a new type of fiber was being used. Melanie explained that fibers from the date of the tapestry could not be counted on to reduce further damage, and could possibly create more damage. Using older fibers would have been considered a restoration, not a conservation project. The goal of conservation is much like that of bioethics– first, do no harm . Sometimes if previous conservation efforts are damaging, they are removed. At other times, the previous conservation becomes a part of the history of the piece. When I have a mystery piece of fabric in my stash, the go-to identification technique is the burn test. For those of you not familiar with this fun, learn about how to conduct the test here at this Threads Magazine article. For a conservationist, textile fiber determination is done with a microscope. If the microscopes at the conservation office are not powerful enough, and determination of content warranted, a sample is sent to a university and or lab that specializes in identification. Want to know more about identifying fibers? I found a great article and slide show on fiber types.

While Textile Preservation Services of Texas is located in Allen, TX, Melanie is also a conservator gun for hire. She worked in New York for five months in 2014 the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. James was thought of as an “architect of cloth.” If a fabric was meant to be used in a stiff manner, James would soften it with steam and bend it to his desired shape. He molded the understructure of a garment and then covered and manipulated fabric to accommodate that understructure. He was the first to create the strapless gown. Over time, the fabric wants to return to its original form and pull away from its understructure. In speaking engagements to aspiring fashion designers, Melanie reminds them to understand and respect the inherent qualities of each textile if they want their designs to last. And therein lies the issue, most of us view textiles as utilitarian or disposable, rather than a part of our history. Although the James exhibit is now closed, you can view the video on the museum’s website using the link above.

If you want to extend the life of your textiles, whether they are cherished family heirlooms, clothing in our closet or simply our stash of yet unsewn fabrics, Melanie has this advice:

• Avoid large shifts in temperature and humidity. The ideal range is around 65 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity. If that is not feasible, try to as stable an environment as possible.

• Keep the fabric clean and avoid pollutants. Do not eat, drink, or smoke around textiles and keep work surfaces clean. Wash your hands and avoid transferring makeup and oils by not touching your face. Avoid lotions and perfumes, and remove jewelry to avoid snagging. Vermin are attracted not only to fibers themselves, but also to residue (sweat, food, etc.) on clothing. Clean items before storage.

• Ideally, store your fabric either flat or rolled, or in an archival storage box. Gaylord Archival is a good source of archival materials.

• Natural materials (wool, cotton, linen) have a longer lifespan than manmade materials. Textiles made with chemicals (spandex, lycra) start to degrade the moment they are produced. If you are creating a garment intended to be an heirloom, think about the inherent lifespan of the fiber.

Textile Preservation Services of Texas is available by appointment only. Contact Melanie at info@conservingthreads.com . They do not offer appraisal services, but other services include cleaning, stabilization, display, packing, mounting, exhibit installations, custom mounts, custom mannequins, and disaster recovery.

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