Thursday, 20 October 2016

New techniques in soft-mount making at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Recently, in the conservation lab we have been busy preparing objects for a new display. Rank and Status in the Pacific is one of the new VERVE displays, which are being installed in the Lower Gallery. The case presents a range of items, including jewelry, clothing and ceremonial sticks, representing emblems of authority and status in the Pacific.

A large number of soft mounts, mostly consisting of padded MDF boards covered in Jersey fabric, were required to support the many neck ornaments, which feature in the display. However, two particular objects, a headband 1989.28.11 and a shell necklace 1990.22.3, offered us the opportunity to be more experimental with our mounts. We decided to create a head-and-neck 3D mount, which would display the objects as they would have been worn. This mount will be the centerpiece of the case.

To create a mount of this kind we would normally use a method called buckram, which consists of covering a mould, usually a mannequin, in layers of linen strips impregnated with starch paste which, once dry, create a cast of the mould.  Although this method is very efficient and very popular among conservators and mount makers, it can be very time-consuming, especially when many layers of linen strips are required to achieve the desired shape and strenght. Each layer in fact has to be completely dry before a new layer can be applied.

However, a new material, called Fosshape (Fosshape™), is becoming more and more popular among conservators and mount makers as an alternative to buckram for making soft mounts. Fosshape has been designed and used mostly in the millinery industry and it is a thermoplastic, non-woven, synthetic fabric, which can be molded into any desired shapes using vapour and heat. Earlier this year, I used the same material to create a hand-shaped mount for a leather glove 1911.29.85 used in the masonry industry, which is now on display in the Stonework display in the Lower Gallery.

Leather glove 1911.29.85 mounted on a hand-shaped mount made of Fosshape, front (left) and back (right) 
In April, Jeremy Uden, Deputy Head of Conservation, and I also attended a one-day training session at the textile conservation lab at the V&A with Textile Conservation Display Specialists Rachael Lee.  At the V&A, Fosshape is used extensively. Due to its versatility, ease and speed of use, it is an ideal material to adapt mannequins and create desired silhouettes for costumes. Our day at the V&A textile lab, gave us a chance to practice further with Fosshape and improve our skills under Rachael’s direction, and to observe how versatile this material can be and what great potential it has for use in conservation and mount making.

Although it is great fun to work with Fosshape, it must be said that creating complex mounts out of it can be tricky. For our first attempts, the hand-shaped mount mentioned above and the head-and neck mount, we set our goals pretty high.

The first step was to select a suitable mannequin’s head to use as a mould on which to shape the Fosshape. Given the size of the headband, which we were making the mount for, we needed a fairly small head. Finding a mannequin of a suitable size can be difficult when only a few are available in a small lab.  Fortunately, the mannequin available to us was perfect for the job. 

Our mannequin head is covered in calico fabric, which has been cut into eight sections and sewn together to create a perfect fit for the head. We decided to use a similar pattern to cut the Fosshape into eight pieces, which we then sewed together. We chose to use Fosshape 600 grs for this project, as it creates stronger mounts than the Fosshape 300 grs, which is more suitable for smaller, lighter mounts, like the hand-mount shown above.

Sewing patterns
Once ready, the Fosshape was turned inside-out and fitted onto the mannequin head again ready to be shrunk with heat and vapour from an iron. To ensure that the mount could be removed from the mannequin, the back of the mount was stitched by hand. 

Fosshape sections sewn together and fitted onto the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)
A wet piece of calico was used as a barrier between the mount and the iron, partly to generate more vapour and partly to protect the mount from potential burns. We shrunk the Fosshape to a point where we felt comfortable that it was still flexible enough to be removed from the mannequin, while still being able to retain its shape. Once removed from the mannequin, which required a significant amount of teamwork in order to plan, pull and remove it without causing any damage to the mount or the mannequin, the Fosshape mount was stitched back together.

Jeremy shrinking the Fosshape 
Fosshape mount shrunken and ready to be removed from the mannequin, front (left) and back (right)

Although our mount at this stage was already quite strong, following advice from Rachael, we decided to add a layer of buckram for additional strength. The mount was left to dry overnight and the next day was ready to be covered in fabric. We used the same pattern created for the Fosshape to make a black Jersey cover to fit the mount. At this stage, it is impossible to stitch through the Fosshape as it is completely hardened. This meant that the Jersey had to be stretched out gradually onto the mount, using pins. Whereas the majority of the cover was machine sewn, the back of the mount was hand-stitched. At the base of the neck, the fabric was tucked inside and hot-glued to the mount. 

Fosshape mount covered with a layer of buckram 
Miriam sewing the Jersey fabric cover (left) and Jersey cover nearly completed (right) 

Ultimately, the headband mounted on Polyfelt covered in black jersey, was attached to the head using Velcro, and the necklace was fixed onto the mount using nylon monofilament wire.

Headband and necklace mounted onto the Fosshape mount, front (top center), side (bottom left), back (bottom right)

The results of our experimentation were highly pleasing. Aside from being a really useful, alternative, material for soft mounts, we were able to assess the huge potential that Fosshape has to aid the interpretation of objects in our displays. Rank and Status will be installed soon… Watch this space!

Miriam Orsini
VERVE Conservator

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