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Textile stabilization

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Dec 16, 2021

Textile stabilization is a conservation method for fiber and yarn-based cloth intended to mitigate damage, prevent degradation and preserve structural integrity. Stabilization is part of a broad set of techniques in the field of conservation and restoration of textiles typically undertaken by a specialist or textile conservator. Appropriate treatment is determined through risk assessment and close examination of a textile’s characteristics and the nature of the damage. Organic and synthetic fibers become weak due to age, handling, and environmental exposure and display physical deterioration such as fraying, planar distortion, loss, and change in surface character.[1] Treatment involves reinforcing tensile strength and reintegration of parts for aesthetic, functional, and historic preservation. Methods can include stitching, darning, reweaving, and the attachment of supports through overlays and underlays.[2] Hand-sewing follows the mantra of “gently does it” using fine needles, supple yarns, and a light touch.[3] Heavily damaged and fragile fabrics often require stabilization through adhesive consolidation, though this is less common. It is essential that conservators consider physical and chemical compatibility along with future treatability in choosing a stabilization technique.[4]

A conservation method
Coptic tunic tapestry fragment displaying characteristic physical deterioration that is treated through stabilization techniques.

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The fibers that make up textiles impact the types and rate of deterioration. There are four fiber types.[5]

  • Plant: Stems, leaves, seeds
  • Animal: hair, wool, silk
  • Synthetic: rayon, cellulose acetate, triacetate, natural rubber, nylon, polyester, polyurethanes
  • Metal: gold, silver, copper alloys

Decisions about appropriate textile stabilization are most effective when the fibers are identified. The primary method of determining a fiber type is through polarized light microscopy. Simple compound microscope, solubility, and chemical tests can also be employed.[6] The Museum of Fine Arts Boston created a Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online that includes a fiber reference image library that can aid in fiber identification.[7]

Textiles deteriorate naturally as the fibers age. Managing the rate of deterioration is the goal when caring for textiles. External forces can increase the amount of deterioration in fabrics. In addition to aging, the following agents contribute to decay. [5]

  • Light and temperature impact the speed of deterioration, especially in combination with other agents of decay.[5] Exposure of any length to light causes fading. Light both visible and UV can bleach and dry textiles as well as fade color. It is recommended that light is kept at 50 lux for textiles while on display.[8] The length of exposure to light is determined by the type of textile and the object’s current condition.
  • Physical agents of decay include the natural breakdown of biological material, which causes fabrics to become more brittle as they age.[5] Humidity is a factor that impacts textile fibers. Loss of moisture decreases the elasticity and increases brittleness.[5] An environment that is too humid encourages pest activity and the growth of mold. Pests affect the physical makeup of textiles by eating fibers, and this destabilizes the fabrics. Pest activity can also discolor materials. Mold weakens and stains textiles.
  • Chemical deterioration of textiles is caused by a variety of interactions. For example the interaction of fibres with metals, pollutants, adhesives and other even other fibers can cause deterioration. Oxidation of metal threads or adornments can discolor and tarnish textiles due to the chemical reaction between the oxygen in the air and the fibers. Pollution impacts textiles. Pollution can come from the environment or the actual textile manufacturing process. These pollutants include pollen, mold, skin cells, ash, dirt and metal dust. Sources can include the museum exhibit and storage materials and air coming in from outside the museum. [5] Materials used in storage may chemically react with the natural off-gassing that occurs as textiles decay.

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