This could have been my vocation in a different life.

True confessions. Every time I spend any time in the textile conservation space at the Denver Art Museum, I want to be a textile conservator. I love what they do--such a mix of research, history, science, and art. 

I was able to go to Preview Open Window, the Wednesday morning talks led by Allison McCloskey (and currently her fellow Emma), last week. I never know what they'll be working on when I get there, but it is usually something that is going to be displayed somewhere in the museum soon. So the added benefit is that I get to go and see the piece finished and on display at some point in the future.

This time it was an 18th Century wall cotton covering. Somehow I didn't really have a concept that people used printed cloth to cover walls before they used paper. Of course it makes sense when you think about medieval tapestries being wall coverings and that moves logically to using fabric which is printed (and much less expensive). This textile had been wet cleaned which is somewhat unusual for them to do especially given the size of this piece. They build a special tank in the basement of the museum to do this.

Allison described how cellulose breaks down over time through acid hydrolysis. That acidic byproduct is quite water soluble, so they can remove those brown marks that happen with old cotton with wet cleaning.

18th century cotton wall covering, Denver Art Museum collection

The images were taken from five continents. We spent time talking about how these wall coverings were usually tacked to the wall, how they were often repaired with patches from other fabrics, and how repairs are done by the museum to allow the textile to be safely hung.

Detail of 18th century wall covering, collection of the Denver Art Museum

The other piece they showed was a 19th century Tibetian Thangka. This was the conservation fellow Emma's project and she talked at length about her study of this art form, her respect for the piece as a religious object, and the technical aspects of hanging something as fragile as this for display. The Thangka was face down as Emma was working on reattaching the painted canvas to the surrounding fabric.

19th century Tibetan Thangka, face down

Emma was reattaching the painted canvas to the surrounding fabric using hair silk. It was so fine I could hardly see it (photo to the left). The painting was face down on a glass table and I attempted to take a photograph through the glass, with rather poor results. The conservators were able to show us an image on the computer.

Braid of very fine silk used to resew painting to ground

Restitching the painting to the surrounding fabric using the old stitch holes.

Emma described the lengthy process of dyeing silk to replace patches on the inside of the lining and I was thrilled to be able to enter a discussion of acid wool dyes. Emma and Allison talked about the washfast and lightfastness of Sabraset acid wool dyes and I was so happy to hear them reinforce what I have been saying all along. They are the best acid dyes for protein fibers available.

Painted side of Thangka through the table glass.

Dye samples in silk

Below Emma is showing the front of the textile the painting is sewn to. The patches she was dyeing were to match this fabric.

Emma spoke about evidence of exposure to smoke from the butter lamps in the piece and it certainly made me imagine this article in a monastery somewhere high on a mountain in Tibet.

I was able to get a sneak peak at a tapestry being prepared for display also. I did not write down the name of it and it escapes me now, but it was in good shape and will be displayed sometime soon in an as-yet-unannounced exhibit.

Slit sewing people. It is easier on the loom and from the back! I also enjoyed a discussion with Allison about how much stronger tapestries are that hang from the warp. These large pieces all hang from the weft (they were woven sideways) and that puts tremendous strain on the slits. It is hard to tell whether this is the original stitching or if these are repairs made later, but the slits are where the tapestry often fails.