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Conservation of Flood-Damaged Upholstered Furniture

August 11, 2015

Water had dripped from the ceiling onto the right corners of the back and seat, leaving water stains with dark tidelines at the edges.

In August 2014, the metropolitan Detroit area experienced heavy rains and flooding, and several artifacts in Henry Ford Museum’s furniture display were damaged by water and debris. Two of the artifacts were upholstered, and required extensive conservation treatment to stabilize them and make them suitable for continued exhibit. A generous grant from The Americana Foundation enabled conservators to accomplish this work.

Our “Turkish Settee” is part of a suite of furniture dating from 1885-1895. Its elaborate original fabrics and trimmings are faded and somewhat fragile, but it makes an important statement about the style of the times, so preserving them is important.

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We did not want to entirely remove the fragile upholstery, so the damage was treated in place. The dangling fringes on the sofa’s arm were wrapped to keep them out of the way during treatment. After vacuuming through fiberglass screening, we detached the fabric and trims in the damaged areas by removing the tacks holding them to the wood frame. Sheets of Mylar were placed beneath the affected areas, and the stains were saturated with distilled water and blotted repeatedly. The tidelines gradually diminished, and the areas were rapidly air-dried, using a hair dryer.

Before treatment, after treatment. The pattern in the brocade looks less crisp in the damaged area, because the water caused bleeding of the red dye, and unfortunately there is no remedy for that problem!

To finish the treatment, the fabric and trimmings were reattached to the settee using stitching rather than tacks.

Another severely damaged upholstered piece was an important Window Seat made by Duncan Phyfe, dating from 1805-1820.

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This graceful bench no longer had its original upholstery, so its loss could be compensated by choosing a period-appropriate new fabric.

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First, the furniture conservator removed the old upholstery, and cleaned the wood and brass elements. After waxing, the window seat went to the textile conservation lab for new upholstery. Because the wood frame was so weakened by repeated tacking, we wanted to reupholster without using tacks or staples.

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Strips of cotton fabric were applied to the wood in areas where tacks had been, using hide glue, which is reversible. This stabilizes the wood and provides a surface for the attachment of Velcro, which will secure the new upholstery.

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A new seat was carved from chemically inert Ethafoam to duplicate the original profile. It rests on a platform of perforated aluminum.

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Velcro has been secured to the cotton fabric strips on the bottom of the window seat.

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The new upholstery fabric was cut and shaped, and Velcro sewn to the edges for attachment. After padding the seat and covering it with muslin, the upholstery was installed.

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We are grateful to The Americana Foundation for their support for this important work.

Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.

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