By Deborah Martinez Martinez, FACC
The labor of grandma’s hands reflects in the utilitarian handiworks of her day—doilies crocheted with thread, yarn table covering, the ubiquitous armchair doilies. Sadly, preservation of these items is often not possible because the idea of conserving such craftwork was second to the need for keeping one’s family warm, clean and comforted.
Quilts, las quiltas, in the slang of southern Colorado and New Mexico, was often the most visible of such works. Such pieced works are often overlooked because they were ordinary, everyday housewares. Of course, the word quiltas in New Mexico is also used for heavy bed coverings of handwoven woolen sheets embroidered with Colcha. Some of those works weigh more than a hundred pounds if heavily embroidered and the value on them is extreme. Go see some of these magnificent art works at El Rancho de las Golondrinas in Santa Fe.
I remember a quilt made by my mother-in-law (may she rest in peace). She lived through the depression and every piece of fabric was reused until it fell apart. The quilt, nicknamed the “Mama Mia,” literally had four to six raggedy old blankets inside of a new, but plain, outside cover tied together with yarn every square foot or so. It was for the winter and kept us warm. We could take it apart to wash and then she’d kindly reassemble the Mama Mia.
My own grandmother sewed quilts, including a double wedding ring quilt, equal to any you would see at the annual Quilters Guild show at El Pueblo History Museum.
Families sometimes fight over these treasures, but more often than not, because they are out of style or raggedy, they are discarded as so much junk. On the other hand, grandpa’s bench or other handmade item would survive the trash can. The difference? My theory is that grandma’s hand work was common, ordinary, and often, one of many. Grandpa’s work was probably one of a kind.
The preservation of such pieces has occupied entire museum staffs and countless, precious pieces have been lost before scientific methods of preservation were discovered and used. Those scientific methods are often no more than common sense and can be used in any home devoted to preserving such craftwork of los antepasados. Here are some ideas and recommendations on preserving fabric works.
STORING: To store embroidery, tatting, knitting, crochet or quilts, loosely ROLL them in NON-ACIDIC paper (such as rice paper) and store them in a cool, but no damp, place. That’s all there is to this “scientific process” but many wonderful craftwork has been lost due to moisture, fold lines, and acidic tissue paper. Don’t EVER wrap anything in newsprint as the inks are acidic and will fade the fabric or eat into it. Tissue paper also has chemicals that weaken the fibers. Purchase a bundle of tissue or other papers from such companies as Gay-lord Archival. There are other companies.
NEVER fold handwork for any length of time since folding fabrics weakens the fibers. Mildew is also a major culprit and the demise of cloth works.
To identify each piece of stored handiwork, use a cylinder of paper to note the name of the artisan, date of the piece and the materials used. Also note the occasion which caused the piece to be created (wedding, baptism). DO NOT write on the paper which encloses the piece because the ink may stain the cloth. DO NOT ADHERE TAPE to the piece because the tape adhesive may contain acids and cause discoloration to the cloth.
DISPLAYING: A grouping of framed handwork is a very attractive way to display cloth works (like doilies, or hankies). For a grouping of odd-sized pieces, use matching frames. Antiqued oak frames are very nice and can be purchased in any discount store.
Another method of displaying larger pieces such as quilts or shawls is to use stretcher bars or painters’ stretchers. Stretchers can be purchased at art supply stores or department stores. The technique involves stapling the cloth to the frame which can cause damage to older pieces. To avoid this, one recommendation is to sew several cloth tabs to the piece, then staple the cloth tabs to the frame.
To make a stretch frame, use 1” x 2” pieces of wood if the frame is smaller than 2 feet in size. For larger frames, use 1” x 3” pieces of lumber. The corners should be mitered to fit together properly.