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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.
Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This post in the Family Treasures series is part of a group that addresses caring for textiles in your home and was written as part of the First-Year Textile Conservation Block. This post was written by Allison Kelley, a first-year objects Fellow, and Rachel Bissonnette, a first-year LACE (Library and Archives Conservation Education) Fellow.
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Second-year WUDPAC student Sarah Towers reupholstering a chair from the Biltmore House Collection. (Image courtesy of Genevieve Bieniosek.)
If you own cloth- or leather-covered pieces of furniture, you are the owner of an upholstered object. Certainly, there is variety within the upholstered objects in our homes, but no matter the value, sentimental or otherwise, we all are likely to have pieces of upholstered furniture we care about. What then, can be done in the name of preservation to keep these objects in the best condition possible? One way to find good preservation practices is to look to the methods museums use to care for their upholstered objects and find ways to apply them at home.
Upholstered pieces of furniture in a museum are often accompanied by a sign that reads “Do Not Sit” or a ribbon tied across the armrests to discourage visitors from doing what the object is inviting you to do - take a seat. This is the major point of deviation between at-home and museum collections. People must decide for themselves what role their objects play in their lives. If you happen to own a historical or fragile piece of upholstered furniture, perhaps the only role that object plays is an aesthetic one. For most people, the furniture in our homes is intended for use. When this is the case, there are still actions you can take to protect your upholstered objects.
Though it is tempting to “plop” yourself down after a long day, this can put sudden impact stress on the frame of your upholstered furniture. Measured sitting and handling will go a long way towards preventing any accidental damage. Another factor to consider is limiting the access that unsupervised pets and young children might have in rooms with upholstered pieces. A comfy seat cushion might be the perfect place for a cat to knead a soft surface, like “making biscuits”, but not at the expense of the upholstery.
Left: The result of an over-eager dog anxiously awaiting the return of his owner and using the arm of this chair as a chew toy. (Image courtesy of Allison Kelley.) Right: This couch has experienced a heavy dose of light damage. The original color is still present where the seat cushion protected some of the upholstery. (Image courtesy of Amanda Kelley.)
One direct action that museum collections take to preserve their upholstered objects is to limit light exposure by setting low light levels for displays and storing objects not on view in the dark. This is an extreme measure to implement in a home, but there are many ways to limit the light exposure that may cause dyes to fade or fibers to degrade. For pieces that are only used occasionally, you can make use of slipcovers to protect the object from light and dust. It could be a fun project to make a custom-fitted cover if you have spare fabric lying around, but placing a clean sheet or a shawl over the object works just as well.
Upholstered objects that see everyday use could be placed in areas that do not receive direct sunlight. As an added measure, curtains or blinds could be kept closed when the room with upholstered objects is not in use.
Museums regularly practice integrated pest management (IPM) to control pest activity and prevent pest damage to their collections. Not every pest is going to cause damage to your furniture, but there are a few common fabric and wood pests to look out for such as carpet beetles, clothes moths, powderpost beetles, and dry wood termites. An excellent online resource for practicing IPM in your own home is the website MuseumPests.net. They have a reference library of images for identifying pests.
When monitoring their collections, museum staff members look for tell-tale signs that you can look for too. “Exit” holes seen in wood are the result of pests that have eaten through the wood and exited in their adult form. If exit holes are observed, it is important to determine if you have an active infestation. Look underneath your furniture for any sawdust-like material, this could be insect excrement, also called frass (it is often the same color as whatever the insect ate). You should also look for egg casings. If pests are eating your upholstery, in addition to frass, you may observe signs of grazing where the fabric looks more threadbare. If you suspect you have an infestation, quarantine your object immediately. If the infestation is confirmed, fumigation will be necessary and you should contact a conservator, and/or exterminator in your area familiar with pest eradication.
Left: This leather upholstered chair at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum exhibits extensive exit holes on the legs of the frame, evidence of a prior pest infestation. Pictured here are Sarah Towers (l) and Conservator Gisele Haven (r). (Image courtesy of Jess Chloros.) Right: A demonstration of careful vacuuming with a covered nozzle. (Image courtesy of Rachel Bissonnette.)
Regular cleaning is a major component of IPM and the general maintenance of upholstered furniture. Dust and dirt can act as a food source for pests, so you want to keep your furniture clean. The best way to clean an upholstered object is vacuuming; this is exactly what museum professionals do. It is best to use a multi-speed vacuum on the lowest effective suction setting with a nozzle. Cover the nozzle with thin fabric, such as cheesecloth or gauze, to capture dirt. Try not to drag the nozzle across the surface and be sure to clean in a consistent pattern to ensure comprehensive cleaning. If staining has occurred, you will need to contact a professional. Stains can be avoided if you do not consume food or drink near your upholstered object. If something is spilled, blot the surface immediately with a paper towel to absorb the liquid. Repeat this until you have removed as much liquid as possible. It may be tempting to use heat to speed up the process or household stain removers to reduce stains, but these actions can have unintended consequences such as causing shrinkage or setting in the stains.
It is important to also remember that even though your leather upholstered furniture may look like it is impervious to damage, leather can crack, fade, and flake if it is not cared for. Follow the same cleaning procedures and do not use leather dressings or oils!
If significant staining or damage has already occurred, you may be planning to reupholster your object. We strongly recommend contacting a furniture conservator if you wish to reupholster. It may be important to save evidence of the current upholstery. Evidence of use, such as old upholstery, is an integral part of preservation because it helps to tell the whole story of an object’s life. It helps to tell the whole story of an object’s life, which we hope is made longer by these recommendations!
We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.