Inside the Conservation Lab: Headless hats, shoes without feet

Dec 1, 2017

Historic New England’s conservation team is preparing a selection of cherished hats and shoes for the upcoming exhibition, Head to Toe: Hat and Shoe Fashions from Historic New England, opening June 1, 2018, at the Eustis Estate Museum in Milton, Massachusetts.

Each object requires its own custom-made form to support its structural integrity. Our team works to ensure that each form is aesthetically subtle and allows the uniqueness of the object to speak for itself.

Ethafoam, an inert, closed-cell polyethylene foam, is the primary material used for our hat forms. The ethafoam is cut and shaped, using serrated knives and Surform shavers, to fit the size and shape of the interior of each hat. A layer of batting is then sown onto the ethafoam surface for a smooth, soft, and finished effect. Finally, a show fabric is placed over the entire form for a completed presentation.

Fosshape and Vivak are the main materials we use to create shoe forms. When Fosshape, a thermoplastic polyester, is steamed, we can manipulate the opaque, felt-like material into the desired shape. It then hardens in that position, giving the shoe the support it needs. Vivak is a transparent plastic material that is heat-activated. When low heat is applied with a heat gun, the material can be molded and shaped before it becomes rigid again when cooled. The type of shoe determines which material we use.

In addition to building mounts for the exhibition, our team is busy with various conservation treatments to improve the appearance and stability of the objects. These treatments include consolidation of friable (or easily crumbled) surfaces, humidification and steam treatments to misshapen materials, dry and wet cleaning, and mending and re-adhering detached, or broken, components.

Please make sure to come by and see the finished product when Head to Toe: Hat and Shoe Fashions from Historic New England is on display at the Eustis Estate beginning in June. We will be happy to share our little corner of history with you!