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Inside the conservation lab: Rescuing a fire screen

December 3, 2013

Fire screen treatment
Mellon Conservation Fellow Fran Baas works on delicately stitching the torn fabric back together.


Fire screen conservation
This before-treatment photo shows the large tear in the fabric of the fire screen.

Sometimes an object practically opens its mouth and cries out for help.

That was the case with this embroidered fire screen at Rundlet-May House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A complex tear in the yellow wool background, while not new, was quite disfiguring and had the potential to get worse. Because Fran Baas, Historic New England's Mellon conservation fellow, has a particular interest in textile treatments, the bird’s day finally came earlier this fall. 

Made between 1840 and 1849, the fire screen is an example of Berlin Wool Work, a style of embroidery developed in the early nineteenth century that used a very soft wool spun in the central region of Germany. The wool was taken to Berlin, where it was dyed brilliant colors reflecting popular German taste.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Berlin Work patterns became the favorite designs of embroiderers in both England and the United States. The most popular Berlin Work designs were wreaths or bouquets of flowers, birds, ribbons, landscapes, and lush pastoral scenes.

Installed fire screen
After treatment, the fire screen was returned to Rundlet-May House, where visitors can see it in the parlor.

The conservation treatment of the tear involved removing the yellow textile from the mahogany frame, lining it with a thin support fabric, aligning the tear and stitching it with hair-thin threads, cleaning years of accumulated soot, and remounting the textile.

The faded and shattered pink silk backing material required a different treatment. Because the silk was damaged beyond repair, it was removed, preserved, and replaced with satin fabric. The satin was pleated and stitched to a thin, rigid board that serves as a dust barrier and reduces the need for tacks in the original wood.  

This was a multifaceted, collaborative project. We are proud as peacocks to bring the bird back home to Rundlet-May House!

Read more about conservation projects at Historic New England.

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Inside the conservation lab: Rescuing a fire screen