Sunday, July 30, 2017

Traditional Upholstery Conservation: Uncovering Evidence




American Victorian Louis XV Bergere circa 1850
I have spent the past few weeks doing upholstery projects.  I finished conserving a rather large marquetry armoire and wanted something different to work on.  Upholstery allows me to hammer and that relaxes me...

You may have read my post recently about how modern museum methods are causing traditional upholstery methods to be lost and the craft of upholsterer subjugated to that of the frame maker.  As I was working on restoring upholstery I thought it would be a good educational post to demonstrate how I approach conserving upholstery in my business.

I had to recover two English Georgian Lolling Chairs, an early crewel wing chair, some embossed leather Belgium side chairs and a nicely made circular Victorian bergere chair.  All of these are now completed and the last one, the Victorian chair, provided me with detailed step-by-step photos of the seat conservation.

In general, I follow as close as possible the methods used by the original upholsterer , conserving the springs and stuffing material, except the cotton batting.  I replace the damaged elements using materials which are as close as possible.  Jute webbing, spring cord and twine, burlap, muslin and cotton batting are added as required.  If necessary, new 100% sterilized horsehair is added where previous stuffing was lost.

Here is a photo sequence of the procedure as it normally happens:

Bottom "Cambric" 
Usually a black muslin (called "cambric" is used underneath the seat.  This acts to keep dust from falling out during use.  These days it is a cheap fiberglass material which I detest.  I use more expensive black cloth when I can find it.  However, this chair was recovered at some point and the worker used burlap.

Replaced Jute Webbing
Removing the burlap exposes the springs, which are sewn to the jute, but only in a few places.

Evidence of Original Webbing
Under the replaced jute webbing is a fragment of the original webbing.  This narrow webbing was common during the 19th century.

Webbing Removed
Now you can see the failure of the burlap on top of the springs.  This is usually what happens when the cord breaks or the burlap tears.  The stuffing falls into the spring package and is damaged.  I always tell clients to stop using the seat when this happens and bring it to me for conservation before it is damaged beyond repair.


Back Foundation Still Good Condition
On this chair the original upholsterer did a fantastic job of building the back foundation.  It is not easy to work on circular backs and his work has stood the test of time.  I plan on leaving it in place as it is still serviceable.

Maker's Mark 
This chair was probably made in a large workshop where the number system was used on different styles of furniture.

Torn Burlap/Hair Dislodged
This is a close up of the torn burlap and the horsehair falling out of place.

Previous Conservation Stitching
This photo is sideways.  It clearly shows the original burlap and stitching used by the worker to create the front edge of the seat.  At some point another upholsterer was asked to recover the chair and he added stitches to the edge to hold it in place.  His stitches are the newer twine.  I was the first person to remove the seat foundation, which lasted 150 years.

Back Layers/Original Burlap and Stitching
This shows clearly the layers of the back upholstery.  The fabric is lifted up and the cotton batting is pulled aside.  You can see that someone added white horsehair to the original black horsehair.  Also the original burlap is stitched and tacked around the edge of the frame.  Undisturbed.

White Hair added by Previous Conservation
Now that the springs are clean on the bottom, it is time to remove the top foundation.

Original Burlap/Spring Cord/Twine
The horsehair foundation is removed and the original burlap is exposed.  It is rotten and must be replaced.  Note it is stitched to the tops of the springs.

Seat Foundation Removed/White Hair Added Previously
This is the complete original horsehair seat foundation, with white hair added later.


Underneath Seat Foundation
This is the underside of the seat foundation.  Care must be taken to remove all tacks from the edges.
It can be cleaned with a vacuum or actually washed and dried using TileX as a detergent.  If necessary it can be fumigated by a professional.

Original Spring Cord Undisturbed
Chair with seat completely removed.  The original spring cord is left in place.

Back Foundation Stitching Original
Again, the back is fine.  Just leave it in place for future upholsterers to admire.

Same Mark on Seat Frame


Cleaning With Alcohol/ Fresh Shellac Added
A quick cleaning with alcohol and a fresh coat of shellac restores the wood nicely.


Springs Sewn to Jute Webbing (4 knot)
It is important to stitch the springs to the webbing.  They must be placed carefully in a vertical position.  I use a curved needle and tufting twine.

Springs Sewn to Webbing
This shows the bottom with all the springs stitched in 4 places.

Original Spring Cord Pattern (8 knot)
The original spring cord in place.  I noticed that the outside springs are missing the diagonal cord.  This contributed to a weakness in the front center of the package, where the burlap broke down.

Note Method of Holding Springs
The proper technique for tying the springs is to hold them at different levels on the seat edges.  This makes the spring sit flat on the top and move directly up and down under load.  If the top only was tied then the middle of the spring would bulge out sideways under load.

New Cord Added over Old (8 knot)
I use Italian Spring Cord and tie each spring with 8 knots.  All cords are also knotted where they cross.  I added cord directly over the original cord.  I also added the missing diagonals which will provide more support to the front center.

This Will Last a Century More
Some might call this "overkill" but I want it to last under use for a long time.

New Burlap Cut to Fit Around Arms
To cut fabric around a wood element use the "Y" cut.

New Burlap Sewn To Springs
The first layer of burlap is added, tacked to the top of the frame and sewn to the springs.  If I were building a new layer of fresh horsehair I would also use twine to hold the hair to the burlap.

Lead Weight Holds Seat in Place for Tacking
One of the tricks I use in upholstery is to add a heavy weight to the seat while I am fitting the fabric or stuffing in place.  This tends to simulate the person sitting on the seat and allows me to pull the material from all sides without it moving around.  Note I added new burlap to the top of the seat foundation and this burlap layer is carefully tacked to the outside top edge of the frame.

Seat Conserved Ready for Fabric Selection
I use tufting twine to hold the seat foundation in place.  Since it is stitched to the new burlap it will work properly and not shift around.  I left all the older stitching in place and I suspect that the next worker who uncovers this seat will understand the various methods which were used to create it as well as the process used to conserve it.  It will survive as an historic artifact with all the evidence conserved in place.  In addition it will be providing comfort for the owner for many years to come.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Curious Collector Cabinet

Beautiful and Functional But Why?



I need your help.

A few weeks ago one of my old clients came in with this curious box.  He hangs out at estate sales and finds things on Craig's list and is always looking for something unusual.  He often discovers amazing things.

After all, isn't that one of the reasons we collect stuff?  Not that we need it.  If we need something essential we go out and get it.  If I need gas I go to the gas station.  Not much excitement there...

On the other hand, when I travel I always take time to explore old used book stores, antique stores, used tool shops and even, in some cases, thrift stores.  It's the lure of the unknown which keeps me searching.

So this client walks in with this box.  It is amazing.  Made of Brazilian rosewood with boxwood trim. Made by a professional, probably British.    It is about 11 x 12 x 22" in size.  I think it' either British or even American since the writing on the drawers is in English.

The locks, keys, hinges and screws all indicate a period before 1850.



Mid 19th Century Script?

The secondary wood is Spanish Cedar.


Lift Top With Two Trays Inside

The front has double glass doors and the top lid lifts up.  There is a lock on the glass doors and a second lock on the lid.  Whoever had it wanted to keep the contents secure.

When you lift up the top there are two trays in a till.  A very shallow tray on top of a deeper tray.  The deeper tray is missing a divide which would go from side to side.



What Are These Trays For?

Inside the double glass doors are 4 fake drawers over 6 functional drawers, each with turned ivory pulls.

The amazing and curious feature is how the drawers are divided into strange and complex compartments.  I have no idea how these compartments could be used.  My only guess is that there was a fad of collecting exotic sea shells in the past.  Perhaps these compartments could be designed for shells.



When I Saw These Drawers I Was Speechless 

However, as the drawers are fairly deep and the compartments rather small, it would be difficult to reach some of the contents.



What Would You Keep In These???

Please help me find out what this is.  If you have any idea just post in the comments.

Understanding the lost mysteries of past cultures is why we explore.