Conservation of a Micronesian textile

Recently I completed a two year project to conserve a unique Micronesian textile.  It was such a pleasure to get acquainted with this very rare object with distinctive features–I was amazed to see that the colour changes in the patterned end of the cloth had been created by either interlinking or knotting  warps of two colours together (photomicrograph image below), indicating a high level weaving skill.    This very fine, loom-woven garment, called a tol,  is one of a group of three in Te Papa’s collection attributed to the Eastern Caroline Islands of Pohnpei and Kosrae, which are now part of the Federated States of Micronesia.   Of the three related textiles in the collection , this one was in the poorest condition, with many tears and lost fragments.   The fringe, originally present at both ends, was almost entirely lost at the patterned end and very damaged at the other end.

The tol is part of the larger Oldman Collection, a segment of Te Papa’s collection that was obtained from an English collector in 1948.  Oldman himself never travelled to the Pacific; these items passed through various sale rooms in Britain without detailed information on their origins or historical context.  However, we can glean information from it based on evidence provided by the object itself and by archaeology.  The textile was woven  on a back-strap loom similar to that used widely in South-east Asia and Taiwan, probably using fibre processed from leaves of the banana plant.  The back-strap loom was found in some but not all parts of Micronesia as far east as Kosrae, and sporadically through Melanesia, mainly on small offshore islands as far south as the Santa Cruz group.  Archaeological evidence of impressions of loom-woven textiles on shell artefacts suggests that the loom had been present in these parts of the Pacific for at least several centuries before European contact.  This type of textile is now very rare in some parts of Micronesia. Nineteenth-century missionaries profoundly disapproved of these items of clothing and by the early twentieth century, loom weaving had disappeared from the Eastern Carolines. Today, loom weaving is still practised in some islands of the Western Carolines, such as Ulithi, where woven textiles are still valued and worn on special occasions.

The tol was assessed for treatment in the Pacific storage room, where it had been kept on a small roll.  Due to the inherent brittleness of the fibre (a result of its age and possibly the type of dye used to colour the fibres), unrolling the object for viewing and re-rolling it  was causing damage.  While little can be done to reverse the deterioration of the fibre, the good environmental conditions of the store room help to slow down further degradation.  Conservation treatment was undertaken to enable the textile to be safely housed in a frame for study and display and to limit any further damage caused by handling the object.   For aesthetic reasons,  the appearance of the many small losses was minimised to enable appreciation of the textile as a whole.

The first step in the treatment was to gently encourage the textile towards flatness–years spent on a roll imparted the tol with a tendency to curl.  Simply placing it under glass would likely cause damage because of the brittleness of the fibres.   To temporarily increase its flexibility, I humidified the textile in contact with a damp blotter and a dry Gore-tex membrane.  The Gore-tex enables water vapor to pass through it, but is a barrier to liquid water, hence the humidification happens slowly and in a controlled way, without wetting the fibres.  Once the tol had achieved a greater degree of flexibility, the Gore-tex and damp blotters were replaced with dry blotters and the tol was left under light weight for a few days.   Next, I put small adhesive repairs across the largest breaks, similar to butterfly bandages,  to enable the tol to be transferred to its frame without the tears becoming larger.  This image shows where the repairs in the most damaged section are located.    With these repairs in place, I could prepare the frame.

When framing textiles like embroidery samplers, it is common practice to stitch them to a fabric-covered archvial board or “support” and to leave a small gap of space between the glazing and the embroidery.   In this instance the condition of the textile precluded stitching it, so I used a technique known as a pressure mount that  relies in part on overall light pressure of the acrylic glazing against the surface of the work to keep the textile in position.  Before transferring the fragile Kosrae tol to its fabric-covered support, I included a visual fill layer of similarly coloured and textured fabric to rest behind it.    When the tol was laid in position over the custom dyed brown fabric, the appearance of the damage was lessened.

The last step was to sort out the very badly damaged, matted and detached fringe.  I carefully separated the detached segmments and untangled them.  Once the individual strands were humidified and straightened, they were placed on the fabric-covered support and stitched down to hold them in place.   The textile was then framed with acrylic glazing and a visually sympathetic stained wood moulding by our Object Support Preparator James Kirk.

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