I recently had occasion to test the mettle of our microscope equipment here in the lab, and I’m pleased to say it rose to the challenge. Sarah Sokolow, a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Information, asked if we could take some microphotographs of the silk textile in a wedding dress held in TSLAC’s collections. Sarah explains a bit more about her project:
This semester I am conducting a preservation needs assessment of particular historical artifacts from the collections at TSLAC. The historical artifacts that I am focusing on are costumes and accessories that belonged to Lucadia Pease (wife of former Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease) and Mirabeau Lamar. In this assessment I am focusing on the current condition of the artifacts and methods to improve this condition with recommendations for better storage. Also, I am researching different methods to exhibit these artifacts where they will not be harmed in the exhibition process.
The lab’s microphotography capabilities have been used only sparingly, so this project yielded an excellent opportunity to experiment with them. At first, I anticipated using the microscope on its boom stand to photograph the textile in situ. I sent Sarah the following test shot:
Sarah replied in that she actually needed a higher level of magnification in order to compare our photos with those in the Fiber Reference Image Library (FRIL) maintained by Ohio State University. With that reference, I realized we were seeking microphotography on the level of individual fibers. This led to an entirely different strategy.
Microphotography for fiber analysis requires making a slide from several small fibers and examining that slide with transmitted light, rather than simply the ambient light in the room (as in the photo above.) I moved the microscope back to its transmitted light stand and prepared to make a slide. When Sarah arrived, we removed a small, loose thread from the dress (approximately 5 mm long,) teased apart its fibers, and enclosed them between a microscope slide and cover with water. The resulting images are detailed enough for comparison with similar silk fibers in the FRIL.
Such close examination of individual fibers can help conservators identify the fibers’ type and origin. Sarah hopes our photos, in comparison with those in the FRIL, will help her characterize the dress’ condition in order to make future storage recommendations. We look forward to her report and hope the conservation lab can continue to provide technical support for future research projects.