Textiles: Where Science and History Meet

September 18, 2014 · Collections ·

We are hosting our second Home School Day in October and an e-mail was sent out to the staff asking for program and workshop ideas for the day (if you want to know more, head here).  Not surprisingly, my mind immediately went to textiles.  And while a program that focused on learning about the history of textiles would be fun, I thought it might be a bit more interesting to talk about the science behind textiles and how conservators need scientific understanding in order to preserve textiles for the future.  What’s that you say, history and science together?  No way!

It has been so much fun developing the workshop.  The first step has just been to give myself a little refresher course on all of the textile science I learned in graduate school.  I realized I needed to re-orient myself with the basic chemical properties of textiles because it is one thing to just know that what you are doing is right because you just know that this textile will react this way to that thing…but it is an entirely different story to need to explain to a group of teenagers why it is that we do what we do when we do it!

Dress. 1861. Gift of Mrs. C. P. Moies and Mrs. Herbert Baeder. 1972.3.5.

Dress. 1861. Gift of Mrs. C. P. Moies and Mrs. Herbert Baeder. 1972.3.5.

Currently I have a document listing out over twenty different activities and experiments we can do, plus a myriad of things that would be interesting to discuss…the difficulty definitely comes in the next step, as I decide what exactly we will be doing with our 45 minutes!  I’ve also been doing a lot of looking at what “chemical” experiments we can do to identify synthetic fibers that are completely safe and use regular household items…like sodium carbonate diluted in hydrogen dioxide (aka: washing soda mixed with water).

Molecular Structure of Cotton

Molecular Structure of Cotton

On the docket will certainly be various ways to conduct textile identification as that is the single most important thing a textile conservator has to know.  If you don’t know that you are dealing with wool and you accidentally get it near a mixture containing an alkali (like lye)….your textile will literally disappear because animal fibers dissolve in alkali.  Not good if you have been charged with making sure that wool item lasts for the next 200 years!

Wholecloth Quilt. About 1787. Gift of James Goldie. 1952.76.0.

Wholecloth Quilt. About 1787. Gift of James Goldie. 1952.76.0.

Some other topics up for possible inclusion include things like: discussing the chemistry behind natural dyes; properties of fibers and why certain ones were used in certain historical applications; how the first synthetic dyes and fibers were created; how a textile’s environment may affect its survival; and one of my personal favorites, inherent vice.

If any of those last topics seem particularly interesting…let me know!  I can’t wait to show a new group of young minds how exciting and interesting textiles can really get.

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