Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Guest Post - Rachel Dalton

Conservation VS Wet Finishing in Textile production

by Rachel Dalton, July 2nd 2018.

I have always been interested in historic textile production and the connection it had to the lives of the weavers, spinners and dyers that produced stunning cloth and clothing. As a weaver I strive to reproduce these items and admire their stamina and fortitude with every shuttle throw and threaded heddle. However, I was never happy with my finished results.

before wet finishing - individual threads are obvious and unstable

after wet finishing, the cloth is stable and cohesive

I worked for many years creating and reproducing historic textile clothing for both living history groups and museums. The nuances of a seam placement in relation to to the jacquard print, or shaping a garment again fascinated me. I am a trained museologist and have worked on conserving textiles and artifacts. I've re-woven threads of a raveling WWI nurses uniform under a microscope and stabilized textiles. Creating a conservation plan and executing was both part of my training and my job. Inspecting minute details of the cloth was required and would change both the execution of the conservation and the outcome. Cloth that had been woven 100 years ago was well worn and fragile, but one could tell it had been well used and stood up to the rigors it had been woven to withstand. In my own weaving I attempted to reproduce the patterns and styles I was well acquainted with. The cloth was never appropriate. It was too loose, the fibers remained independent of one another in a single piece of cloth. A complex clothing item was never going to be possible with the items that I was weaving. I chalked it up to inexperience and a forgotten knowledge taken to the grave by the textile masters of yesteryear.

Youtube was well perused and so many books were bought and absorbed. Magic in the Water was purchased and watched repeatedly. I watched as Laura took out life's frustration on her web while wet finishing a piece. How the piece changed in her hands to a homogeneous, cohesive fabric. I filled my water bath and added my web. I followed the steps outlined and waited, with baited breath..... my piece was still not 'finished'. Wet finishing was my kryptonite and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. When I attended Lvl 1 of the Master Weavers program taught by Laura in Cape Breton in May of 2018, I thought I was a pretty decent weaver in my own right. I learned SO much, but was anxiously awaiting my "light bulb" moment.
Wednesday afternoon, Laura pulled out the samples, the blue scarf and the buckets of water. Here, here was Magic in the Water being presented before me. I watched and repeated the steps with my own samples I had woven that week. Laura watched and evaluated as I carefully placed my samples in the water and allowed them to fully saturate. As I cupped my hand and worked across the surface of the fabric drawing the water gently through the fibers to cleanse grease and dirt. As I carefully rolled each piece in a towel to remove excess water and gently flopped each piece onto the table as Laura had demonstrated. She watched as I looked at my sad little piece, that was not magically becoming what I needed it to become. She watched as I stared at it, willing it to do something - anything. She watched as my conservator brain couldn't absorb her knowledge.
After I worked the process as I did, she approached and offered insight. I reworked my pieces as she suggested while she watched from a slightly closer distance. This time, when I gently flopped my damp web onto the table to full it, she laughed at me! I was informed I was too gentle and the fiber needed to be taught a lesson. She gave me the authority to beat the snot out of my web. And I did. And it worked. It was my lightbulb moment. I was over the moon. I literally danced in the middle of the room. I hurt my shoulder fwacking the fiber so hard. I ran down to the weaving room, finished weaving the remainder of my samples and ran back to wet finish them and hot pressed each piece which flattened the fibers and made it shine. The wet finishing had worked. I couldn't stop petting it. I could cut into that fabric and create a garment. I could sew an item for my home, my children or a museum. It could be used and passed on. I found a hot press and bought it on the spot.
Textile conservation was NOT the same as continuing the creation of a textile with wet finishing. Conservators are tasked with doing as little as possible to a piece to protect it from itself, outside influences and time. Reworking threads and gently washing a piece to remove years of grime which can affect the stability of fibers on a microscopic level. To mitigate risk of a piece to ensure it's possible to display and research. For the retention of the knowledge of the makers or the idea it supports. Wet finishing is not necessarily the opposite of this idea, it's a concept that a woven piece off the loom is no more a finished fabric than the skein of yarn used in it's creation. Wet finishing is yet another step in the process to create a fully functioning fabric.
When wet finishing, you're not "washing" your fabric as a finished piece would be washed. The original makers would wet finish the piece that I was now conserving. This is the concept I was completely missing. A handwoven wool blanket or coverlet wouldn't be bashed against the table repeatedly or thrown into the washing machine for fear of felting (as we’ve all had happen at least once to that one hand knit sweater). I label all of my hand woven items with washing instructions, "hand wash in cold with gentle detergent and lay flat to dry". Wet finishing is not conservation and it’s not washing a dirty, used piece. It’s yet another step in creating the finished material.

No comments: