Lyrical, structured, bold, colorful, whimsical, meticulous, commemorative, and even “crazy," the quilts currently on display in First Glance/Second Look: Quilts from the Denver Art Museum Collection cover a staggering amount of design territory. Enticing the viewer’s eye to the back of the gallery is a striking grid of red and black interspersed with a rainbow of other colors.
Drawing closer, it becomes clear that a number of historic souvenir ribbons are incorporated into this patchwork along with many different multicolored, patterned silk fabrics. Many of the ribbons are souvenirs from reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization which was started in support of Union veterans of the American Civil War.
As a fellow in textile conservation at the DAM, I am part of the team tasked with ensuring that the DAM’s textile artworks are displayed safely and to their best advantage. In order to ensure that the quilts in the exhibition would be safe during handling and display many, including the GAR quilt (as I began informally referring to it), required conservation treatment.
Working in PreVIEW, my first step in the conservation of the quilt was examination, upon which two major things became clear:
- Many of the printed silk souvenir ribbons and multicolored silk patterned fabrics exhibited severe “shattering," and
- An extensive amount of repair had been previously done to deal with this issue. Some of these previous repairs were not ideal for displaying and handling the quilt in its current condition.
Shattering is a common problem with historic silks. Metal salts were often used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to impart a desirable “rustle” to silk used in dressmaking and to add heft to silk sold by weight.
Unfortunately for their long-term preservation, these metal weighting agents can wreak havoc on the delicate silk fibers, often leading to inevitable and irreversible losses, which was the case with many of the silks in the GAR quilt.
The previous repairs had utilized overlays of fine nylon net stitched to cover the shattered areas. Stitching support materials directly to the woven elements of textile artworks is an effective and easily reversible way to stabilize fragile elements but must be carefully planned and considered to prevent further damages. The use of a sheer overlay like net is often a good option. This technique can prevent movement and abrasion of the most fragile elements and safely be stitched into adjacent stronger areas of the fabric. Get the right color match, and nylon net can blend visually with the material beneath. For many of the previous repairs, however, the yarns beneath were not adequately aligned or secured, allowing for abrasion and loss during handling for display and storage.
My treatment goal was to identify the previous repairs that did not fully support the shattered silks, remove the old net, align the fragile yarns beneath, and stitch on a new net overlay.
The old overlays were easily removed; the real challenge came when aligning the fragile loose yarns of the shattered silks, and keeping them in place when stitching on the new overlays. Untangling these yarns was a delicate task. Very fine and somewhat embrittled, they seemed to retangle with every movement. Insect pins proved an invaluable tool for anchoring their alignment.
Once aligned and protected, the shattered silk elements are more stable, and the visual disturbance is greatly reduced. Now, after taking in the impressive overall design of this quilt, viewers can truly appreciate the details of the still-intact historical ribbons and colorful patterned fabrics.