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Saturday, November 30, 2019

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2019: Part III - Moving the Drawing Room Carpets

During June 2019, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the fourth year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The  Foundation for the Advancement of Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with the NYS Bureau of Historic Sites and Parks.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including Furniture Conservator David Bayne, textile conservator Kirsten Schoonmaker from Syracuse University, objects conservator Valentine Talland formerly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, paper conservator Lyudmyla Bua of the Center for Jewish History in New York, and furniture conservator Paige Schmidt from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA.

Blog Author, Josephine Ren
Blog Author, Beth Reid

Beth Reid is a museum technician at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, VA where she cleans the 1812 Wickham House and the general collections. She also interns in the conservation lab at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources treating archeological objects. Beth holds a B.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking with minors in Art History, History, Anthropology, and Italian Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and is completing an A.S. in Chemistry at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.  Josephine Ren is from the Greater Los Angeles Area and received a B.A. in Art Conservation with a minor in Art History from Scripps College. She has held pre-program internships at the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and in private practice. She also studied conservation during a semester abroad at Studio Arts College International, Florence, and has worked in collections at Pomona College Museum of Art and Scripps’ art gallery. Currently she works under private practices, and is interested in objects and painted surfaces.

Preserving the Drawing Room: Caring for a Couple of Historic Carpets


The carpets in Gilded Age mansions are essential decorative elements that complete the comprehensive interior design. Vivid dyes and intricate woven patterns extend the luxury of the furnishings onto the floor. In addition, lush floor coverings would provide a softer texture underfoot as well as dampen sound reverberation in a room. Thus, faithfully interpreting the atmosphere of the Drawing Room at Staatsburgh ideally includes the display of the two original area carpets. However, being subjected to over a century of wear and tear from human foot traffic, large furniture, and other stressors can took its toll on these vulnerable historic textiles. After several years of treatment in a conservation lab, one of the carpets was recently returned to the site and the Preventive Conservation Workshop team worked carefully to clear the Drawing Room of furniture in order to return the carpet to its original placement at the east side of the room. Conservation professionals also decided it was time for the other carpet, which remained on display for the past several years, to receive a thorough vacuuming.

The Drawing Room before total de-installation, with only one out of the two rugs installed. Photo taken by Josephine Ren.
The exact provenience of the two Drawing Room carpets is still undetermined, but it is highly likely that they are of Persian origin. Carpet-making is an ancient tradition in Asia and the Middle East, the oldest known knotted carpet having been found in Siberia from the 5th century BC (“Pile Carpet”). In Europe, importing exquisitely crafted “Oriental” carpets gained popularity in the Middle Ages. Persian rugs were the most renowned and desirable of all of these, but by the early 1700s, political and economic turmoil caused a decline in Iranian carpet production and trade. After a century long lull, European museums and collectors began acquiring antique Persian carpets in the mid 1800s and commercial interest in the craft was renewed. This, combined with a period of political stability in Iran initiated a new era of carpet production for export. Large foreign and local companies industrialized the process, incorporated non-native ingredients like cotton, Merino wool, and aniline dyes, and pumped out rugs designed specifically to appeal to a Western audience (“Carpets and History”). It is in this period of heightened Persian carpet mania that the Mills’ were furnishing their mansion and it is possible that their architect, Stanford White, or the interior decorator, Jules Allard, assisted with the acquisition.

More is known now about the carpet returning from conservation because the conservator was able to analyze the fibers with polarized light microscopy. It has a bast (a cellulosic fiber) warp, a cotton weft, and a wool pile, a less traditional blend in comparison to pre-19th century Persian carpets, which would have mostly used local wool, but would have sometimes added silk and gold and/or silver details (“Carpets and History”). For those who are not familiar with woven textile structure, the warp typically refers to the yarn held in place longitudinally on the loom while the weft is the yarn that is woven back and forth across the warp. The pile of the carpet is formed by weaving in a supplementary weft, forming knots and loops which are later cut to create the plushy texture (“What is an Oriental Carpet?”).  Often, the way a carpet is woven, the fibers and dyes used, and the artistic design can indicate the specific region where it was made (Jacobsen, 230) and whether it was produced by a commercial industry, a court weaver, or by nomadic peoples (“What is an Oriental Carpet”). Previous curators have attempted identification based on the patterning, noting a similarity to rugs from the Kashan region based on Charles Jacobsen’s guide book on oriental rugs (230), but not all of the evidence adds up and the common use of foreign materials and prescriptive designs in industrialized shops during that time complicates the search. For now, the carpet remains mysterious in its anonymity, but we can still appreciate it as a stunning work of craftsmanship and an example of global trade and cross-cultural influence.

The two carpets of the Drawing Room (post re-installation and cleaning). Photo taken by Josephine Ren

Installation and Handling

As previously mentioned, the Drawing Room contains two carpets: one which had to be vacuumed, and the recently conserved carpet which had to be reinstalled. Numerous considerations factor into handling historic textilesespecially when those in question are large-scale floor carpets. While working in the rooms, we refrained from walking on the historic rugs as much as possible. Whenever we had to walk on them, we ensured to do so with only socks on; thus, we spent a lot of time around the house shoe-less. We were advised to avoid stepping on carpet edges, since the most damage tends to occur in those areas. Handling and installing these carpets proved to be a couple of the most unwieldy and necessarily collaborative tasks. Moving one carpet while it was rolled up on its storage tube required several people: some to carry the carpet, and a couple of spotters, or individuals who ensured that the movers were clear of objects, surfaces, and any other points of contact during transit. Without people supporting the middle section of the carpet tube, it would sag due to the length and weight. Since the carpet width was almost the same as the room’s, maneuvering it through the door and into the space was a slow, careful process. Rolling out the carpet also had to be done carefully, and whenever one end had to be folded down or over a tube, it required an even distribution of hands along the edges. Having as many hands as possible is important toward keeping the structure of a large, flat textile as supported and evenly flat as possible. In order to keep a tour path clear on the west end of the room, the carpets needed to overlap in the center of the room, which further complicated the installation. This required folding one end of the first carpet over a tube while the second carpet is adjusted underneath, and then walking the first carpet’s end back downagain, all with multiple pairs of hands. Both carpets also required the insertion of carpet pads underneath, and trimming them down to size. 

Textile conservator and workshop instructor Kirsten Schoonmaker (center) leads workshop participants in rolling out the second carpet. Photo taken by Josephine Ren.

Preventive Measures

The care and preservation of historic carpets involve various measures of preventive conservation.  Over time, carpets may warp and lose structural integrity due to handling and human traffic. The placement of objects and furniture onto a carpet merits consideration. For example, stanchions may be placed away from carpet edges, and furniture legs can be supported with Plexiglas squares. Placing carpet pads underneath provides further support to the overall structure, especially since most large, historic carpets are not completely flat or even. Environmental monitoring is extremely important to ensure that these historic textiles are being maintained in adequate conditions, and to track any possible changes or fluctuations in their environment. Carpets are sensitive to ultraviolet light, visible light, temperature, and humidity; thus, conservation professionals may use data-loggers or handheld monitors to record and measure levels of all the aforementioned parameters. More intense light levels may induce fading, discoloration, and fiber damageparticularly for organic fibers. High or improper temperatures contribute toward chemical decay, and fluctuations in relative humidity may lead to mold growth or corrosion plus staining from proximity to other materials, such as metal. Pests are a huge threat to carpets, since proteinaceous fibers are a great food source and habitat for certain insects. Dust is another big agent of deterioration; particles of dirt, soot, skin cells, salts, and other foreign compounds increase risks of surface soiling, chemical reactions, and attraction of pestsall of which may lead to structural damage.   

Left: Beth Reid does an initial vacuum test with a piece of muslin cloth to observe what gets extracted from the carpet. Right: results on muslin showing particles of loose carpet fibers, dust, and other debris. Photo taken by Josephine Ren.


Dry-cleaning historic carpets is a far more arduous process than cleaning contemporary carpeting at home. Standard vacuums cannot be used because they are too aggressive for delicate textiles. Instead, a small, detail attachment with a protective screen on a museum-grade vacuum is used to gently remove dust and other particulates from the carpet surface without damaging or dislodging the original fibers. As one can imagine, vacuuming such a large area with a 2-inch diameter tool is incredibly tedious and time-consuming. However, with a team of three determined workshop participants systematically working their way across the textile throughout the day, we were able to clean the entire carpet and were rewarded with a noticeable difference. Visually, the colors appeared brighter and the patterns more crisp. When we rolled up the carpet temporarily in order to insert a carpet pad, we were surprised to find that a significant layer of dust had also accumulated underneath. The dust may have filtered through the carpet over time and might also include particles and fibers from the carpet itself. We wiped all of this debris up using microfiber rags before rolling out the carpet pad. And so, with a combination of coordination, patience, and some good old-fashioned muscle, our hefty task of reinstalling and cleaning historic carpets in this notable room was complete!

Blog authors Beth Reid and Josephine Ren vacuuming the carpet. A mesh screen is used to stabilize fragile carpet edges while vacuuming. Photo taken by Monica Stokes.

Dust layers which had accumulated underneath the carpet, in contrast to adjacent areas that were wiped with a microfiber cloth. Photo taken by Josephine Ren.
Works Cited

Bier, Carol. “Carpets and History.” Saudi Aramco World, vol. 40, no. 3, 1989, pp. 8-15.
Accessed at archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/198903/carpets.and.history.htm

Bier, Carol. "What is an Oriental Carpet?" (1993)
Accessed at works.bepress.com/carol_bier/13/ 

Jacobsen, Charles. “Kashan Rugs.” Oriental Rugs: A Complete Guide. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc, 1962.

“Pile Carpet.” The State Hermitage Museum

“Caring for Textiles and Costumes.” Canadian Conservation Institute. 14 Dec. 2018. Accessed at canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/preventive-conservation/guidelines-collections/textiles-costumes.html.

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