The Use of Fixatives in Conservation Treatments: a textile case study

Textiles can be decorated and embellished in countless ways. Something many of these embellishments have in common is sensitivity to water. They include water-soluble dyes, threads that were insufficiently rinsed after dyeing and can therefore stain adjoining threads and fabric, degraded silks, metallic threads wrapped around paper cores, gelatin or cellulose nitrate sequins, easily corroded metal components, and matte or loosely bound pigments.

Tests may identify sensitive materials before treatment, but not always. A particular worry surrounds samplers, in which threads of even the same colour might come from different dye lots and sources. Spot tests can easily miss the one area where a colour is not waterfast. Moreover, dyes or colours that tests show are stable can end up solubilizing with prolonged water exposure – as can occur during washing. The large unembellished areas of decorated textiles can also show stains and discolorations on the ground fabric. In the past, these could not be cleaned, either, because of the water-sensitive elements.

Today, new and completely removable fixatives have made their way into the conservator’s toolbox, allowing many of these “unwashables” to be safely cleaned. One example, cyclododecane, is a favourite of mine. This evaporating wax, applied with a kistka (the tool used to decorate Ukrainian Easter eggs), is useful for protecting relatively small detailed areas such as embroidery. It is available as a spray, too, useful for fixing larger areas.

Cyclomethicone is another new fixative. It is a very slow-evaporating organic liquid with virtually no solvency power, and it can be brushed or sprayed over larger areas to make them water resistant.

The linen ground fabric of the sampler pictured here was quite soiled, but the silk embroidery threads were too fragile to subject to water cleaning. I therefore used a kistka to apply cyclodocecane to the front and back. The sampler could then be safely washed with neutral detergents and chelating agents. I then applied a protective alkaline reserve to the linen ground fabric, without touching the silk embroidery threads. (The latter, being protein, are best kept at a neutral to slightly acidic pH range.)

Conservation is an ever-changing discipline that borrows and adapts technologies from far-flung sources. Cyclodocecane is used industrially to produce flame retardants, and cyclomethicone is used in the cosmetics industry. I’m always grateful for the curiosity and imagination of my colleagues who search out solutions for our profession and find them in such disparate materials.