The Textile Conservation Lab is responsible for caring for the Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Arts collection, as well as fiber and fabric based works across all other areas of the collection. Objects range from archaeological textile fragments to modern upholstered furniture, and include lace, decorative needlework, woven and printed fabrics, quilts, coverlets, rugs, tapestries, ethnographic garments, historic western costume, contemporary couture and contemporary fiber art. The lab frequently collaborates with colleagues in other conservation specialties, particularly the objects conservation lab, owing to the broad range of materials encountered among these works.

Object Examination, Documentation and Treatment

The condition of each textile and garment entering the Museum’s collection is assessed and documented along with details of its structure, method of manufacture and component materials. These records are retained in association with each object and are updated to reflect every event the object experiences in its life at the museum. Details of cleaning and repair procedures and the rationale for the particular procedures undertaken are recorded. Written documentation is often supplemented with record photography and before, during and after treatment images. In order to avoid subjecting objects to excess exposure, the lab works closely with the museum’s Registration Department in maintaining records of exhibits and loans, as textiles are particularly vulnerable to light catalyzed degradation.

Exhibition Preparation

A large portion of work in the textile lab work focuses on preparing textiles and garments for exhibition. Conservators ensure that each object is supported in a manner that protects it from stress, strain and distortion exerted by the forces of gravity, while at the same time presents the piece in an accurate and aesthetically pleasing manner. As with all of the art exhibited at the IMA, the department strives to understand and honor the artist’s/maker’s original intent when presenting the textile or garment on exhibit. This concept applied to costume and fashion arts demands the creation of historically accurate silhouettes. Conservators also always fit the mannequin to the garment, rather than the garment to the mannequin, to maintain the physical integrity of the garment being displayed. For these reasons mounting historic costume and works of fashion art can be particularly time consuming.

Collections Care

In addition to individual object treatments and exhibition preparation the focus of the Textile Conservation Lab is on preventive care, because once a textile becomes damaged or degraded it generally cannot be returned to an unblemished appearance and structurally robust state. The primary goal is to prevent damage and degradation from occurring in the first place, rather than relying on a program of repair once damage has occurred. Conservators work closely with collections maintenance personnel in creating an environment optimum for preservation of the collection. This is accomplished, in part, by providing a controlled storage environment, in which temperature and relative humidity are maintained at 70° F and 50% and lights are kept off as much as possible. The staff also designs and fabricates custom storage housings and accessories to support objects in their intended configuration, to aid in providing for safe handling and study, and to incorporate additional protective features as needed on an object-by-object basis.

Research and Technical Analysis

A broad range of early man-made and modern synthetic materials exist within the Textiles and Fashion Arts collection. The IMA’s new conservation scientist and science laboratory will make it possible to precisely identify these materials and conduct research to determine optimal treatment and collections care protocols for some of these challenging-to-treat-and-maintain materials. The department is planning for significant strengths in the ability to analyze organic materials, which will make the IMA’s Textile Conservation Lab unique in its ability to access this level of scientific support.