Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Reticule Rescue Operation

Clearly I have not been inspired to work on the blog for a while, but I haven't been idle! I've been seeking out new additions to my collection and snapping up some really great things. I can't say that I needed these things, or even that I have space for them, but it seems that the more I learn, the more I want good examples of different time periods, accessories, garments... you get the idea. I seem to want at least one good example of everything. That is a bit problematic for the budget though, so I try to rein myself in by turning on Hoarders marathons when I peruse eBay. Only truly special or truly cheap finds make the cut.

An overall view of my most recent find; an elaborately embroidered whitework reticlue ca. 1795-1825 with the name Ann Porterfield on the front. The back depicts an urn holding flowers, which was a very popular motif in the early 19th century.

Today's feature is my most recent acquisition, a fragile but amazing embroidered bag with the name "Ann Porterfield" written front and center. This bag is not in the best of shape, but I tend to love items all the more when it's clear that they survived because they were loved, not because they were too impractical to use and were therefore relegated to storage. After all, I don't plan to pack it with my wallet and keys and go out on the town; its purpose in life at this point is primarily to serve as an object for my adoration. I'll probably study it, too, and maybe find a way to exhibit it, but mostly I'll stare at it while suppressing the squeals of glee trying to erupt from deep in my belly. Did I mention that I think it it was probably made between 1795 and 1825? Yeah, it's that old. Thus the glee.

I plan to do some research on Ann Porterfield to find out more about her life if I can, but first, I'm going to do something I don't always do and make a special support for storing the bag. I have several reasons for making this a priority. First, I am about to give a little talk in a workshop about costume storage, so it'll be nice to have a small example on hand. Second, and most importantly, my inner curator tells me that this item really needs the attention. As I've mentioned before, I have enough education in conservation to fill me with a dreadful knowledge of the agents of deterioration and I can see them at work on this bag. Here is a little condition assessment:

The reticule's ruched sides and gathered top are a source of concern 
because folds and wrinkles create weak points in the delicate fabric. Also,
Use of the drawstring closure has worn through the string's casing in some
Material: Very lightweight cotton with white thread embroidery, probably also in cotton. Cotton is a plant, which is cellulose based, which is inherently acidic. Luckily cotton is fairly stable though, so acidity isn't my biggest concern.

Structure: The ruched sides and gathered closure of the reticule create wrinkles that are lovely additions to its style, but unfortunately every fold and wrinkle is a source of stress. When the folds are pressed (like when laid flat in storage) the stress leads to fiber breakage and weak points. Ever fold and re-fold paper to rip it cleanly when you didn't have any scissors handy? Same concept.

This seems to be how the reticule was stored for a long time.
You can see the crease left by folding in the overall photos
Folded Storage: On a related note, the bag seems to have been folded for storage. It arrived folded into quarters in an envelope, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was often stashed that way, or at least folded in half. Even when unfolded, this unnecessary and harmful crease remains.

The Inscription: "Ann Porterfield" was written on the bag with a fountain pen, and I am ever so glad it was. But (there always has to be a "but", sorry) that means that this incredibly fine cotton has been subjected to pressure by a sharp, pointed metal object. More weak points! Why not just write your name with a scalpel, hmm? As if that's not scary enough, the ink used probably has iron in it. Just think about this for a moment. Yes, that brownish appearance of old ink is, in part, created by rust. Rust! The all-important inscription on this heartbreakingly beautiful piece of needlework is rusting.

The inscription is also a weak point. Note the separation of the fabric along the line made 
by the bottom of the "f" in "Porterfield."

At this point I sort of want to do that thing where you put your fingers in your ears and go "lalalalalalalaa!" so that I don'y have to think about it anymore, because there is nothing to be done about it. The chemical reaction that causes iron to rust can be slowed or even halted if deprived of such things as moisture and oxygen, but frankly, I don't have an anaerobic chamber in my closet, and the cotton carrying that rusting signature is, in fact, a material that has the annoying habit of sucking water molecules out of the air around it. We call that "hydroscopic" in the conservation biz, but you probably just know it as that "absorption" thing that any decent bath towel is supposed to do. So let the rusting continue...

"Other Damage" montage. A brown spot of unknown origin is featured at top left, while the top right offers a close up of a nasty rip in a zig-zag along the fabric grain. Some unidentified spongy discoloration is shown on the bottom left. In the image on the bottom right you can see a variety of small holes, including a split along the fabric grain and some round spots that may represent old pest damage.

The Unknowns: I'm kind of ready to throw up my hands and give up at this point, so before I lose momentum I'm just going to lump all of the other issues together here under the general topic of, "something bad happened, I don't know what." First, the bag has been ripped near the opening. At least I can work some magic there by just not ripping it any more. Second, there are some small holes where the fabric wore too thin and split, or a bug ate lunch or something. Again, probably avoidable in future. Finally, there are a few different categories of discoloration going on. The general overall yellowing is probably from exposure to acids; most likely something it was stored in like tissue, a box, a drawer, or a trunk. A few small brown spots could also be acid damage, but then again, they could be iron stains or bug poop. I really don't want to know. Finally, there are some brownish smudges that look sort of spongy on one side. That could be old mold stains, or contact with some acidic thing in that one spot, or even oils from the skin. Let's just call all of these issues "character" and move on.

So, time to stop whining about past abuses to this little lovely and take action! What am I going to do about it? Well, I'm not going to wash it, or try chemical intervention with stains, or sew the holes shut. Frankly, I think it's too thin for any of that and even using 'conservator approved' materials, my inexperienced hands would do more harm than good. Instead, I'm going to swaddle Ann Porterfield's Regency reticule like a newborn baby in the most safe and comfy acid-free nest it has ever known, and then I'll wrap it in a buffered tissue security blankie to keep the evil acids away. Check in next time for the after photos.

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