Quilts Under the Microscope Gallery


Protection & Preservation

Inherent Vice

Improper Care

Inherent Vice

Click images below to view greater detail and information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.

Silk Shattering

This early 20th-century quilt is the victim of silk shattering, an inherent vice that is the result of irreversible chemical damage caused by the process of weighting silks. The degree to which the fabric has deteriorated can be seen along the image’s horizon line, where conservators carefully added a silk crepeline overlay to reinforce the fragile area and prevent further fabric loss. Where silk shattering was complete, a colored underlay was added to simulate its former beauty. The edges were rebound in navy blue bias strips, and the entire quilt top was stitched to an inner muslin backing to provide stability.

Special Display Considerations (Quilted Petticoat & Chintz Dress)

Despite some small soiled areas and a few minor abrasions, this silk petticoat’s excellent condition allows it to be displayed on a mannequin. Extra polyester batting positioned just below the waist and a muslin petticoat help alleviate stress to the waistband and ties. Padding in the hip area supports the extra pleated fabric and evoke the wider fashion silhouette popular during the late 1700s.

The petticoat has been paired with a chintz dress also from the late 1700s. Like the petticoat, the dress is in very good condition and is fully supported by the specially padded mannequin.

Fabric Disintegration

What color are the disintegrating areas of both this quilt and the child’s dress?

It is the brown areas - the fine stripes in the dress and the background of some of the chintz appliqué fabrics in the quilt. The brown fabrics are breaking down because an iron mordant was used in the dyeing and printing process.

To create affinity between fiber and dye, an iron mordant (ferrous sulfate) was used in specific parts of the fabric’s pattern. When iron-mordanted fabrics are not rinsed properly, the residual iron serves as a catalyst and causes oxidative degradation resulting in fabric decomposition. The weakened fabric may be stabilized with netting or a sheer fabric underlay or overlay, but there is no way to stop the decomposition.

Discharge Bleach Damage

Dyeing and printing of textiles is a complicated process. Red calicoes were frequently achieved by dyeing the ground red using madder in a Turkey red process, then removing or discharging the red color in some areas by printing them with a bleach compound. Turkey red discharge prints could be illuminated with other colors instead of leaving the discharged areas white. For example, blue and yellow were often added to the white areas. If the discharge printed fabric was not properly rinsed to remove the chlorine bleaching agent, or if the bleach was too strong, it weakened the fabric, resulting in complete disintegration of the white areas over time.

Properly caring for the textile will slow this process, but cannot entirely stop the deterioration. Closely regulating temperature and humidity and reducing light levels and length of light exposure will slow the chemical reactions that result in fabric degradation.

Special Display Considerations

As much as we might like to see the entire textile instead of only a small part, sometimes for the protection of the object or due to available space, curatorial staff will decide to display only a portion of a textile. Since the damage caused by discharge bleach is the focus of this piece, displaying it folded and draped over a padded roll seemed appropriate. This mount provides the necessary support and distributes the weight of the quilt across the entire width of the roll, while highlighting the desired area of the object.

The base of the padded roll is an ordinary cardboard tube 40 inches wide. Since ordinary cardboard is not an inert, acid-free material, the tube was wrapped first with Marvelseal, an aluminized polyethylene film, that serves as a barrier between the acidic cardboard and the object. Next, it was covered in a layer of polyester batting, then encased in muslin as an added layer of protection and to give it a finished look. The muslin also provides enough surface friction to prevent the quilt from easily sliding off the roll.

Mordant Damage

Dyeing and printing on textiles is a complicated process. Not all dyes will adhere to all types of fibers. Mordants were required to fix natural dyes onto both cotton and wool fabrics. Unfortunately, iron mordants are corrosive and eventually cause the fibers to degrade. Holes begin to form, causing the fabric to weaken. Dark colors such as brown and black are often the first affected because the iron mordant and tannic acid used to achieve these colors are especially damaging to cellulosic fibers like cotton.

Properly caring for the textile will slow this process, but cannot entirely stop the deterioration caused by some mordants. Closely regulating temperature and humidity and reducing light levels and length of exposure will slow the chemical reactions that break the molecular bonds between mordant and fiber resulting in fabric degradation.

Ink Degradation

The use of ink, instead of embroidery, to sign blocks for signature quilts became very popular from the 1830s to the 1890s. During this time both homemade and store-bought inks were used. Unfortunately, many of the inks were highly acidic. Common 19th-century ink recipes called for ferrous sulfate, nutgalls, sulfuric acid, and a plant gum -- all of which are acidic compounds. Cellulosic fibers such as cotton and linen are easily degraded by acids, in a process called hydrolysis. Hydrolysis causes the fibers to lose flexibility and weaken over time. Heavy use and oxygen in the air further accelerate ink degradation.

Nothing can be done to stop the ink from destroying the fabric. Consequently, the most important task is to record accurately the information that is legible before further deterioration results in the complete loss of an inscription. Taking clear photographs of each inscription for future reference and compiling written records of the inked signatures are two good methods for preserving the information.

Weighted Silk

When produced by the silk worm (actually a caterpillar), silk fibers are encased in a coating of seracin, which must be removed before the lustrous strands are reeled and woven into a fabric. This process, called degumming, can reduce the weight of silk by 25 percent. Since silk was sold by the pound, 19th-century producers compensated for the loss by soaking the degummed silk in metallic salts. Overweighting was disastrous for silk fabric; the highly abrasive nature of the metallic salts caused the silk to “shatter” or split apart.

Shattered silk is what conservators refer to as an “inherent vice,” a problem linked to the manufacture of the fabric. Nothing can be done to remove the metallic salts or stop the damage they cause. Proper care and storage can only slow the inevitable deterioration.

The crazy quilt and komebukuro (rice bags) contain pieces of shattered silk. A few pieces of fabric in the crazy quilt are missing warp or weft threads; the red ruffle is very fragile and beginning to split and tear. The black heavily weighted fabric of the large komebukuro is disintegrating, and much of it has been lost. To prevent complete loss of fabric, the affected areas have been stabilized with a protective scrim. (Not all silk was excessively weighted as evidenced by the fabrics that are in good condition in these objects.)

Pest Damage

Hungry rodents and insects damage textiles. Pests are especially attracted to food stains and destroy the textile in the process of eating the food stain. Moths and carpet beetles will attack even clean textiles; moths have significantly damaged areas of this crazy quilt. Look closely at the ruffled border -- you can see numerous small holes and squiggly tracks left by a clothes moth.

In the home, store clean textiles in living areas, not the attic, basement, or garage, and inspect regularly for signs of insects. Museums have integrated pest-management plans that attack pest problems on many levels. A good plan seeks to prevent infestation from occurring, isolates new incoming objects that may introduce unwanted pests, provides for regular inspection of collections and monitoring of storage areas. Should an infestation occur, the plan describes the protocol for confinement and method of treatment for the object.

Special Display Considerations

Museum curators and conservators strive to achieve a balance between pleasing presentation and adequate support for a weak object. Displaying this crazy quilt on a slant board, rather than hanging it vertically, reduces strain and potential damage, especially to the fragile, split, and pest-damaged ruffle.

To show museum visitors how inherent vices damage textiles, curators decided to display the badly damaged komebukuro. However, before being put on exhibition, the disintegrating areas of weighted silk were protected with a sheer scrim. Underneath you can still see where some of the fabric is missing, but the support helps stabilize the remaining fragmented fabric.

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