Tag Archives: whitework

Whitework at the Kentucky Museum

Another exhibition I saw on my recent visit to the Kentucky Museum in Bowling Green was a presentation of the museum’s collection of 19th century whitework. I learned that whitework encompasses quite a few techniques – weaving, quilting, tufting, and embroidery. The common factor is that the work is white on white.

Many of the pieces have been recently conserved by Margaret Ordonez, who taught conservation for many years at the University of Rhode Island. She has retired, and is back in her native Tennessee where she has set up her own textile conservation service. Margaret presented her work at the Costume Society Symposium, giving us a good look at the work involved in conserving the pieces.

The building housing the Kentucky Museum was built in the 1940s, and this room was once an old-school type display area with shelves to hold artifacts. Some time ago it was renovated to make a gallery specifically for the display of textiles. Today it has areas that are enclosed in glass, slanted boards to more safely exhibit textiles, and raised platforms. I especially loved that many of the quilts and coverlets on display were shown as they were meant to be seen, dressing beds.

To visitors passing through an exhibition like this one, it must seem that people of the past sure did take great care of their stuff. What’s not seen are the many hours of cleaning and stabilization it takes in order to be able to display a two hundred year old textile. Part of this exhibition actually addressed the process of conservation, and there were several unconserved bed coverings on display.

This embroidered counterpane was made by Sallie Darrough and is in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society. As you can see, it had not been cleaned. This is closer to the condition textiles of this age are most likely to be found.

So how does one clean a fragile old textile? Because these are cotton and cotton/linen blends, wet cleaning is appropriate. That does not mean Margaret threw them into the washing machine. Conservators use large tables with an edge (like a very shallow tub) for wet cleaning. The textile is spread out on the table and water and cleaning agents are introduced. This is a job for a chemist, as it’s important to use things that will not do any further damage.

Not every conserved textile ends up looking brand new. Stains can be stubborn, and lightening and neutralizing it is sometimes the best that can be done. There are also rips and holes to deal with. Often the best solution is to back the textile with a similar fabric and use stitches to stabilize the rip.
This is a closeup of a whole cloth quilt made circa 1805 by Rebecca Smith Washington. She used a technique that mimicked British woven quilts. This quilt looks to be made of cotton, but Margaret’s microscopic analysis shows this to be a cotton/linen blend.
Some of the bed coverings were simply one layer of fabric that were embroidered.

Others were tufted, similar to the 20th century colonial revival bedspreads made in north Georgia.
This coverlet is woven, and it’s the only piece in the exhibition known to have been made by enslaved workers. According to family history, this was woven by enslaved workers for the wedding of Mary Strange in 1823.
It was fun to see a few items of white clothing in the display cases. According to the family story, these linen trousers were worn by Abraham Miller in 1800 for his wedding.

Often, artifacts are donated to museums along with long-told family stories. This early 19th century Empire style dress was said to have been worn by Catharine Whitesides on her wedding day. But Margaret was not born until 1824, and by the time she married the dress would have been twenty-five or so years out of fashion. Perhaps it was worn by her mother.

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