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Seeing in Different Ways: A Liz Magor Backpack Project
Seeing in Different Ways:
A Liz Magor Backpack Project

Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)

Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)

Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum
Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)
Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 2)

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 1)

After treatment
Oscar Cahén: Innovative Conservation
for an Innovative Artist

Rigid Water Gels: New Treatment Options for Paper Conservators

Structural Remedies for Canvas Paintings

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 4: Digital-based Material

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 3: Photo-based Material

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 2: Paper-based Material

First Steps
Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 1: The First Steps

Natural Dyes
The Use of Natural Dyes in Textile Conservation

A Relocation Project

Challenges of Preserving Contemporary Artwork

Preserve Your Investment through Art Conservation

A Project Completed: Heritage Preserved

Old and New Methods for Cleaning Paintings

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I? Part 2

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I?

The E.J. Hughes Mural: An Expanded Project

Is She or Is She Not an Emily

Treating Art with Sensitive Media

Malaspina Mural: An Update

For the Artist: Testing Your Materials

Conservator as Art Historian

Alum Sizing and the Art of W.J. Phillips

Treatment of an Elizabeth Keith Wood Block Print

Structural Treatment of an Emily Carr

The Treatment of a Monumental Wall Hanging

Changing Images

Preserving a Rare Record

Gold Leaf: Imitation and Genuine

The Case Against Canvas Backings

Heritage Colours: Research Discovers Original Colours

Lighting Your Art: Balancing Seeing and Protecting

The Double-Sided Emily Carr Painting

Choosing a Period Picture Frame

How to Identify a Picture Frame

Stretching Canvas and Restretching Artwork

Mounting Textiles

Aging Paintings:
Some Causes and Effects

Chine Collé Prints

What's Your Favourite Color?

Backing Removals

Rips, Holes and Tears

Filling in the Gaps

DIY – Preventative Care of Paintings

Frame it Right

Fire, Water and Smoke-Damaged Paintings

Inherent Vice

Saturated Problems:
A Water-Damaged Painting

Moldy Paper

Conserving Time

Conserving Paper: Dos and Don'ts

Repair of Textiles

Conserving Wood

Rescuing Endangered Murals

Repairing Acid-Matte Burn

Art Services & Materials
Exhibition Openings & Events

Conservation Corner Back

Nuuchaahnulth ceremonial curtain

Nuuchaahnulth ceremonial curtain, after treatment

The Use of Natural Dyes in Textile Conservation

by Rebecca Pavitt
Fine Art Conservation

Nuuchaahnulth ceremonial curtain

Nuuchaahnulth ceremonial curtain, before treatment

Detail of curtain

Detail of curtain, after treatment

Like many other industries, textiles are going green these days. Natural dyes are enjoying a resurgence because of their sustainability and relative non-toxicity. For a recent textile conservation project I decided to use natural dyes to get “just that right colour” to repair some major losses in a First Nation Nuuchaanulth ceremonial curtain which was displayed at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery earlier this year.*

As can be seen in the photographs, the ground fabric of the curtain is discoloured and stained, with large losses. One of the advantages of custom dyeing is that the dirty-cotton colour so often needed to match historic textiles is just about impossible to find in fabric stores. “Dirty linen” is not a popular shade. Fortunately for me, the Canadian Association for Conservation had sponsored a natural dye workshop at Vancouver’s Maiwa Handprints last year, which I attended. Now was the time to put my new skills to the test.

Dyes do not bind well to cellulose fabrics like cotton and linen, so the first step in the process was mordanting. Mordants, from the Latin “to bite,” are chemicals that allow dyes to attach to cellulose. The mordant binds to the cellulose, and the dye binds to the mordant. Tannic acid is the mordant which attaches best to cellulose and is always the first to be applied. Other mordants, such as alum or ferrous sulphate (iron) can be applied afterwards to expand the colour palette: tannic acid gives an overall yellow tone to the fabric, alum brightens colour and iron dulls it.

All of this means that a single dyestuff can yield many colour variations, making it possible to zero in on a particular shade if one is willing to run a lot of tests. I began by making two large test swatches: cotton mordanted with tannin followed by alum, and cotton mordanted with tannin, followed by alum, then by iron. I made a series of test dye baths using materials I thought would give good “yellowy-beige” colours, including calendula, black oak, coffee, osage orange and cutch. Black oak top dyed with cutch, on a tannin-alum-iron mordant base, gave just about the right colour. I dyed a large batch of fabric using the test results as a guideline, and came up with a very satisfying match. This was rinsed well, dried, ironed and used to make underlay fills for the areas of loss, stitching the edges in place with a very fine polyester thread.

One concern with using natural dyes in conservation is light stability. The textile industry is also concerned with this, and has found that antioxidants improve light fastness. Tannic acid is an excellent antioxidant, but the textile industry is putting their money on ascorbic acid – good old vitamin C. Improving light fastness is a worthy goal, but one can also look at light sensitivity as a good thing: naturally dyed infill fabrics act as canaries in a coal mine. If the infill fabric fades perceptibly, then the historic textile is being exposed to too much light.

*See backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains, February/March 2010 issue.

Previously: A relocation project
Next issue: Organization: the first step towards preservation


 Wed, Nov 3, 2010