Behind the Scenes at the DAM

A Look Inside the Textile Conservation Process

In the beginning of the summer, I began working at the DAM. Since then, I have been reviewing objects selected for upcoming textile art exhibitions to determine the conservation treatments that will be required and ensuring that necessary supplies and equipment are on hand to perform the treatments. I am undertaking the conservation of textile-based collections in the Margaret Page Conservation Laboratory in the lower level of the Hamilton Building. 

The Margaret Page Conservation Laboratory has already been outfitted for treating artworks on paper, as well as some work on paintings and objects. Textile conservation treatments share many of the same needs as those for works on paper. In addition to a clean work environment with stable temperature and humidity, some essentials used in both paper and textile treatments are large working tables, flat storage, rolls of acid-free tissue and other protective materials, an exhaust hood and portable air extraction systems for working with solvents, and purified water for aqueous treatments. With a few additional supplies, the lab is now ready to accommodate a full range of textile objects as well.

All treatments begin with a full examination and written documentation of the condition of the object, along with a detailed proposal of any recommended interventions. If the curator (or owner) approves the treatment proposal, high-resolution digital photographs are taken to record the object’s state before treatment. Established professional protocols are followed to ensure that the photographs remain a permanent visual archive documenting the treatment.

A common treatment step is fiber identification using a polarized light microscope, where very small fiber samples are taken (from a loose yarn or inconspicuous location on the object) when the materials used are not otherwise known. The shape of the fiber both along its length and its cross-section are examined along with other optical properties to identify the makeup of each sample. This can provide valuable information for interpreting a work historically as well as for making decisions about treatment.

Surface cleaning to remove damaging particulate soils is often performed with soft brushes, variable-speed museum vacuums with HEPA filtration, and micro vacuum attachments. Without these precautions, even this basic treatment step can cause damage to a fragile object.

Stabilization and repairs are carefully planned, since these interventions can easily cause additional damage if not well executed. The way that treatments will hold up over time is a prime consideration. Materials and techniques used in treatments are selected to be minimally interventive, or to disrupt the original construction of the object as little as possible, and visually compatible with the object. If needed, support materials are custom-dyed with tested, stable dyes to achieve the best visual match.

Supports and mounts for exhibit, whether for a large tapestry or a small sewing roll, are designed to evenly distribute and support the weight of the object and present it at its best. Finally, all treatments are further documented with a written treatment report and digital photographs so that this information is available to those working with the object in the future.

Specialized equipment and supplies allow for detailed attention to each object and the best possible care for the textile collection.

Allison McCloskey is the associate textile conservator at the Denver Art Museum. She has been at the DAM since 2012. She recommends visitors see the Northwest Coast button blankets and the Hummingbird Copper Dress by Dorothy Grant and Robert Davidson in the level 2 Native American art gallery in the North Building.