How textiles are stored greatly impacts their future condition. Creases created by folding textiles become deeply engrained; stress along these folds can create breaks in the fibers, eventually leading to tears; discoloration from light exposure, internal chemical degradation, and exposure to acidic environmental factors like wood furniture, non-archival paper, etc. intensifies along the exposed surfaces and edges. Archival storage materials and methods can mitigate these issues by, for instance, padding out folds with soft tissue or rolling the textile on a tube as appropriate for its construction and condition. Conversations between the curator, object owner (if the object is loaned to the museum for exhibition), and the conservator determine if treatment is necessary when the object is no longer “readable”—or easily understood for its intended purpose—because of damage. Conservation treatment may address some of the more aesthetically disfiguring condition issues, like discoloration, spots, or stains, without causing unwanted change to the object. These decisions are not taken lightly, as any treatment may change the chemistry, appearance, or structural integrity of the object, and are undertaken with the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Code of Ethics as the guiding principles.

Photograph of textiles laid in display cases and hung vertically in a museum gallery.

Installation view of Tablescapes: Designs for Dining at Cooper Hewitt. Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution.

Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Tablescapes: Designs for Dining features textiles designed by Marguerita Mergentime. The majority of these textiles were generously loaned to the museum for the exhibition. While they had a previous life as domestically used tablecloths and napkins, the textiles are structurally in excellent condition with the vibrant, printed patterns still clear and bright. The linen and cotton textiles did, however, hold strong creases from being folded (as these sorts of textiles are generally stored folded in the home), with overall yellowing and brown discoloration along some of the creases. Initial testing also indicated that the textiles had an acidic pH (a marker of the chemical deterioration of the fibers, the result of which is loss of strength, stiffness, and color change), but that the dyes used to print these textiles were, for the most part, non-soluble in water and detergent solutions. We decided to move forward with cleaning and humidifying many of these textiles, with permission from the lender, in order to display these objects at their aesthetic best and to improve their longevity by removing acidic byproducts of aging.

Green Spencerian napkin, before treatment. Note the brown discoloration along the deep creases.

Napkin, Spencerian Alphabet, American Folk Art Collection, 1939; Designed by Marguerita Mergentime (American, 1894–1941); Manufactured by Edmund Dewan Company (New York, New York, USA); Screen-printed linen plain weave; Lent by Mergentime Family Archive; Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

The green Spencerian napkin was particularly yellowed overall, with noticeably different shades of yellow in the folded quadrants. In comparison, its red counterpart was deeply creased but maintained an overall even shade of white linen. The red napkin was humidified and dried with flat weights to relax the deep creases. The green napkin was instead fully wet cleaned, which was anticipated to have the triple beneficial effects of reducing discoloration, relaxing creases, and shifting the object to a more neutral pH. The napkin was fully immersed in a bath of deionized water and a commonly used mild detergent solution called Orvus® WA paste. The application of detergent foam, the bubbles of which help lift and trap soiling, was done with minimal sponging to both the front and back. Multiple baths and rinses with water were done to fully remove the detergent. The napkin was then dried, with layers of absorbent blotter paper, under very low suction on the suction table to apply even pressure and to speed up the drying process. As a result, the napkin is now an even brighter white than when first assessed with diminished creases. As the display case in which it is exhibited is quite shallow, with a potential for a strong static pull, it was pinned to a fabric-covered padded board to ensure it stays in place for the entire exhibition.

Composite image of two photographs of a square of textile being cleaned with water and detergent.

(left) Napkin submerged in wet cleaning bath. (right) Wet cleaning bath, with detergent suds sponged on napkin.

Green Spencerian napkin, after treatment: Napkin, Spencerian Alphabet, American Folk Art Collection, 1939; Designed by Marguerita Mergentime (American, 1894–1941); Manufactured by Edmund Dewan Company (New York, New York, USA); Screen-printed linen plain weave; Lent by Mergentime Family Archive; Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

This napkin, along with many other beautiful textiles designed by Marguerita Mergentime, are on view in Tablescapes: Designs for Dining through April 14, 2019.

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