Microscopy in Textile Conservation
A 19th century Japanese Buddhist priest's robe called a kesa, was required for display at the National Gallery of Australia. The robe is a flat textile composed of an organised patchwork of silk brocade fabric, which is lined with purple silk taffeta. These robes are generally worn over the shoulders and hand held in place by two loops attached to the reverse face.
Upon initial examination, the robe appeared to be quite dirty and sooty on the right hand side. It was hoped to clean the robe, by vacuuming and then by solvent cleaning. Microscopy was used as the first examination tool to assess the condition and construction of the robe before treatment commenced.
Small particles of dirt trapped between fibres are often removed during vacuuming. Sections of the brocade were woven with a black silk thread that, under magnification, was seen to be brittle with many broken fibres. The fragility of this fibre prevented any vacuuming from being carried out.
Further examination discovered padding layers beneath the lining. The microscope revealed the padding was not woven but was a thick paper layer. The complex structure of the metallic threads was also revealed. A base paper layer had been coated with lacquer and then laminated with a thin metal foil. The presence of the lacquer prevents the use of solvents to clean the sooty stain as the lacquer could dissolve. Water is also unable to be used as the paper fibres would swell and weaken.
Under the microscope, sections of the brocade were discovered to have been in-painted where a design mistake had been made. This also prevented solvent and water applications as the paint could be damaged or removed.
During conservation only a few minor repairs were carried out on the lining. Without the insight achieved through the use of microscopy, standard conservation treatments could have caused further damage to the robe. A complete understanding of the construction of all artwork is essential for good conservation practices.
Click on images to enlarge