Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Advanced Vacuuming

This week I vacuumed one of MOHAI's most significant, and most fragile artifacts: The Petticoat Flag.

No, the image isn't flipped. I'll get to that in a sec.
The story of the petticoat flag is that it was made during the "Battle of Seattle" in 1856 -- a conflict between U.S. troops and Native people. During the fighting, settlers fled to a nearby blockhouse for shelter. A group of women decided to spend the time sewing this flag, using strips of red wool and white linen from their petticoats. The blue may have been a petticoat or a blanket, and the hang loops on the top are made of printed cotton. (About the orientation: It doesn't look nice on both sides so we can't just flip it over. It was originally meant to hang vertically which would have put the stars in the upper left corner).

Textiles weren't cheap or easy to come by in those days--certainly not for women in a small pioneer town. Add to that the fact that they were probably giving up clothes off their bodies for this task, and I find the story very touching. 

Stirring historical context aside, this thing is super old and in not great condition. The linen has yellowed, the blue fabric is thin and shredding to bits, and the red wool has survived multiple assaults by hungry bugs. That picture above is old, and just looking at it makes me shudder. Since then it underwent serious conservation work and that sucker is now stitched down flat on a padded board. None of this casual, wrinkled "I unfurled this with a swish of my wrists" look. That isn't even the scariest picture we have of it: 

Horrifying. I can hear the fibers weakening from here. 
Now we avoid touching it or moving it whenever possible. Instead of taking it out of its display at the old museum and packing it, the entire display was rolled onto the moving truck. Once inside the new museum, the old case was opened and the flag was carefully whisked into its new home. The new case is tightly sealed and has this special glass that is opaque until you trip a sensor and then a dim light makes the flag fleetingly visible. 

As I was gazing at it in its new home, I started noticing all this dusty crap on it. At first I panicked because I thought it was frass (aka bug poop), the telltale sign of insect activity. But I had checked it very carefully before it left the old place. How could it have exploded in bugs during one moving-van ride? My next theory was that it was dust from the old plexiglass cover that slid onto the flag as the cover was removed. That made more sense considering some of the "stuff" appeared to be glitter, and we all know that no bug is magical enough to poop glitter. 

Problem was, the only artifact vacuum we had on site didn't have the knob where you could control the amount of suction. And seriously, if any artifact in the collection needed to be vacuumed on low, it was this one. So basically "vacuum the petticoat flag" was on my to-do list for about two months before I finally found an opportunity to have someone schlep the variable speed vacuum to and from the new museum for me. But this week I did it and it was actually a little less terrifying than I expected. I also gave the white edge of the padded board a good clean, so if it does turn out to be bug activity, the frass will be visible immediately. 

Although if that happens, you'll probably see me fleeing to the nearest blockhouse.

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