By Sarah Walcott
Recently, our Care and Conservation class was afforded the opportunity to study and practice fiber analysis and microscopy. Fiber microscopy in particular is an essential tool of the textile historian, as the ability to definitively identify the fiber or fibers used in a given quilt or other textile offer not only historical and cultural information, but can also be indicators of the best way to preserve the textile.
Fiber analysis may involve both non-technical and technical tests. Non-technical methods of analysis include the way the textile looks and feels. Technical tests may include burn tests on individual fibers, chemical tests, and microscopy. Not every textile is a good candidate for technical tests. In order to complete a technical test, the textile must have an area of damage, such as loose threads, split seams, fraying, abrasions, or holes, from which a tiny sample (ideally only a few fibers) may be extracted without further damage. In order to practice fiber microscopy, our class was able to work with textiles which already had large areas of fraying and other damage, such as this crazy quilt from the education collection. This textile was also ideal for study in that it included a wide variety of fibers.
The photograph above shows an area of damage from which a few fibers were able to be extracted using tweezers and small angled scissors. Once the fibers were extracted, they were carefully placed on a microscope slide which had been prepped with a few drops of distilled water.
Once the slide was ready, the fibers were examined under the microscope, where it was determined that the brown striped fabric was made of wool. This was easy to see thanks to the distinctive scales present on wool fibers, clearly visible under magnification. Other class members analyzed cotton and linen fibers from different areas of the same quilt. As our study concluded, it was clear that in the arsenal of tools available to the textile historian, fiber microscopy is incredibly valuable.
The International Quilt Study Center & Museum makes its academic home in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design in the College of Education and Human Sciences.