Vintage, beaded African art: can I even think about cleaning these on my own?
April 25, 2007 5:35 AM   Subscribe

I have a couple of intricately beaded African ceremonial sashes, ca. 1960, that need cleaning (desperately! profoundly!), but I can't afford professional art restoration at this time, and don't trust non-specialists to clean them. Can I (should I?) try to do something (anything?) on my own?

Based on my web searches, I believe they are Yoruba, and based on what the guy who sold them to me told me, I believe they are from the '60s. They look like this and this, except more intricate - more like the work here, on a canvas-like backing, except thinner. The backing and the thread, from what I can tell, both appear to be cotton, and quite delicate because of age...

They weren't in great condition when I bought them around 15 years ago, and now they really, really need cleaning. Can I give them a plain water bath in my bathtub and dry them on towels out of direct sunlight? Or anything else? I would rather donate them to a museum than ruin them - but I'd much rather keep them... and I don't even know of a museum here that would be interested.

If necessary, I'll just leave them alone, but they really do need some kind of cleaning, and I'm not at all the type to expect antiques to be pristine, so I'm not talking about trying to get out every stain (on the canvas backing)... but they've probably never been cleaned (not, at least, while I've had them), and they are way past due. I'd love to hear from anyone who has specific knowledge of vintage textiles or who has dealt with a similar situation.
posted by taz to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are some universities that have courses in old textiles (that is, restoration, etc). If you live near some larger universities/colleges you should find out if any of them have programs like these. You might be able to find students willing to clean them for free, just for the experience.

Also, if there are any textile experts on MeFi I have no doubt that posting a picture or two of the items it question would make answering the question a lot easier, so they would have a better understanding of their current condition. Of course, I'm just interested in getting a look at them . :-)
posted by Deathalicious at 6:07 AM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you've probably already googled plenty, but here is a very informative website on preserving and taking care of textiles, with a page on cleaning them. It seems to recommend using a vacuum cleaner on a low setting and using a brush to remove dirt and dust on the material. As regards to washing, they say:
Washing a textile is an irreversible process. If the dyes bleed, the fabric shrinks or disintegrates this cannot be reversed. It is essential that an appropriate washing solution and an appropriate cleaning method are used to prevent damage to the textile. If you plan to wash or dry-clean textiles, particularly dyed textiles, you should first consult a textiles conservator.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:15 AM on April 25, 2007

Response by poster: Deathalicious, I totally identify with that curiosity, so if I don't get it together to post an image in this thread (we've just moved, and are all discombobulated), I'll email you later with pix - if you post an email in your profile, or if you email me, so I that have your address.
posted by taz at 6:17 AM on April 25, 2007

Best answer: Try these people. IANAC (I am not a conservator) but I have worked with them. I wouldn't wash the sashes in water. You could gently rub the backing with cornstarch and them brush it away to remove some of the dirt and clean the beads individually with Q-tips moistened with spit. Yes, spit - the enzymes in spit help remove the dirt and yet it doesn't damage anything fragile.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:50 AM on April 25, 2007

taz, your success in cleaning these yourself will depend on accurately identifying the materials of the backing textiles and the beading, which will determine what processes, if any, are going to be "safe" for cleaning. Unknown fabrics are usually identified by flame testing small samples of fiber picked from inconspicous areas such as selvage edges. A few beads might also be removed, and subjected to testing with various solvents, to ascertain their stability for color and finish.

The structure and construction of the sashes probably contributes to the likelihood of success of cleaning as well. If the fabric is cut on the bias, it will be less dimensionally stable than if cut on the warp, but bias cut woven fabrics will drape better. High quality garments also have construction threads which are compatible with the cloths used, i.e. cotton or polyester thread used with cotton fabrics, polyester or nylon thread used with wool, linen thread used with linen fabric, etc. This helps keep the garment dimensionally stable when subjected to solvent cleaning, but in craft handiwork, such niceties may or may not have been observed. Ideally, for museum grade conservation, construction threads, especially for beadwork, would also be sampled and flame tested.

Finally, depending on previous exposures and storage conditions, your sashes may already be suffering from bacterial deterioration, particularly if they were constructed with 60's vintage synthetic materials. Nylon of that era was considered "rot proof" and incorporated no biocide additives, and since then bacteria which are quite good at digesting nylon have evolved and found happy homes, along with natural mildews and yeasts, in textiles all over the world. There's not much you can do to reverse the damage caused by such bacterial agents, except for reconstruction activities, but you can apply various biocide agents to control future problems. Part of what a textile conservator does in the evaluation process is to do a microscopic survey for such growths and damage, along with ultraviolet and infrared scans to search for other biological contaminants, which must also factor into selection of cleaning methods.

Working carefully, you could certianly do some testing yourself, to assess the likelihood of getting good results in cleaning the things, and you'd also learn a bit more about them than you seem to know at this point, regardless of whether you decide to clean them or not. You might also approach specialist commercial cleaners in your area who do wedding gown preservation and theatrical costume cleaning, as their services, while more expensive than standard dry cleaners, are no where near the cost of professional textile conservators.
posted by paulsc at 6:56 AM on April 25, 2007

The Smithsonian (search on 'greece') point to the Technological Education Institute of Athens as having Degree programs and training in conservation (textiles? - I know not). It *might* be worth your while making enquiries with them - who knows, maybe they would take it on as a project [I actually think approaches to the education places locally are the best bet in a 'for free' sense].
posted by peacay at 7:10 AM on April 25, 2007

if you post an email in your profile

Done! Let the spam commence!
posted by Deathalicious at 12:47 PM on April 25, 2007

Response by poster: okay, deathalicious - I'll email you when I find my camera and take a couple of shots! (You can always get a gmail or yahoo webmail address for this kind of stuff... and not worry about spam!)

Hiya, Peacay! The Institute is a good idea; we'll see what we can find out there. Also, that makes me realize that I actually have a lot of contacts involved in costuming (mostly theatrical) who may know who to speak to here.

MGL: Spit! So cool! I tried a little corner, with a q-tip and saliva, and it really works! Of course, they're big, and this will take a while, but I figure I could spit and dab a little every day. :) I'll contact the Stanford group and see if they are willing to offer advice.

By the way, something I came across after searching for "conservation" and "saliva":
Spit and Polish
Not only does the Army believe in spit and polish, but so do art conservators at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In an article by Steven Litt of the Newshouse News Service, we can read that the mild enzymatic solution in saliva have been used for centuries by conservators to clean paintings. Apparently scientific studies have shown that cotton swabs dampened with saliva can safely remove "certain types of grime, particularly on varnished surfaces. The enzyme mixture in saliva not only works to break down our food, but also to break down dirt. For example, it was used to clean a discoloration from years of cigarette smoke from "Oedipus at Colonus," a 1798 French painting by Fulchran-Jean Harriet, before going on display at the museum.
Nice! Unfortunately the original article no longer exists, otherwise, I'd link to it.

I'm a little worried about the cornstarch idea, though, because I have the fear that any little bit that doesn't get completely brushed away might attract insects (since these aren't going to be protected in glass cases or similar).

Paulsc, this material is definitely not synthetic. All the other similar pieces I've found on the web that specify the backing material say "cotton" or "hand loomed fabric" or, specifically, "aso'oke" (a particular type of handloomed Yoruban fabric). This actually looks like it very well might be hand-loomed, but it's organic, whatever it is. The beads themselves are glass, so the most vulnerable aspect is really the cotton thread attaching the beads.
posted by taz at 4:16 AM on April 26, 2007

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