The month of May saw me performing ‘stealth conservation’ on an interesting quilt from Texas, believed to have been made at least a hundred years ago. It had been handed down to the great granddaughter of the maker, and its conservation was to be a lovely surprise gift from her husband, to celebrate the birth of their first child.
It had an interesting, asymmetrically pieced top, assembled with a mixture of hand sewing and machine stitching. A central area of nine-patch blocks was edged with blocks combining fabrics in diagonal bands of varying size. Many of the fabrics were plaids and checks, with a sprinkling of florals and solids. The backing was a lovely deep pink cotton, and the entire piece had been hand quilted in a pattern of overlapping arcs.
The quilt was in pretty good shape for its age, but had several areas needing attention. A number of fabrics with black or brown areas had fallen apart, leaving holes, as in the solid black area of the plaid shown at left.
In areas where only some of the warp or weft yarns were black, as in the gingham fabric at right, many of the black yarns had disappeared, leaving the white warps and wefts behind. This weakened fabric had, not surprisingly, failed entirely in spots, and some quilt batting had been lost.
What was going on here? If you have old quilts, you are likely to have seen this before – losses and breaks only where fabrics are dark brown or black. This phenomenon is referred to as inherent vice. Something integral to the material is causing it to fail over time. In the case of fabrics like these, the most common cause is the use of iron mordants during the dyeing of yarns or fabrics. Mordants are materials used to help “fix” dyes to textile fibers, and many brown and black colors were achieved using metal salts as mordants. Metal ions remain associated with the dyed fibers, and they oxidize (rust!)over time. The natural aging of cotton fibers generates acidic breakdown products, which only speeds up this corrosion.
For this quilt, the decision was made to replace only those fabrics whose overall structure had failed, For small areas of loss, as in the pink and black plaid sections, a hair-thin filament thread was used to consolidate weakened areas by anchoring them to an inserted black support fabric. Compare the photo of the plaid above to the same area after consolidation, and the shredded gingham above to the block after fabric replacement:
Missing sections of cotton batting were replaced as repairs were made. Hand quilting was reinstated wherever it had to be removed for repairs, using the original needle holes where possible. After a gentle wet cleaning, this heirloom was ready to be passed on for another generation.