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Behind the Scenes in Conversation: New seats, never been sat!

by C. Obie Linn, Conservator of Textiles


textile conservation , CAMConservation , historic upholstery , colonial dames , colonial furniture

It was time for the ladderback chairs in Gallery 218 to get a refresh! The chairs’ silk upholstery wasn’t original and over the years, while on display, the fabric had grown dingy and stained. Curator of Decorative Arts & Design Amy Dehan selected some appropriate, modern fabric in consultation with me, and I recovered the seats!

The wooden seat boxes sit in their seat frames snugly but could be removed for treatment. In the lab, I pried out the upholstery tacks on the underside to release the old covers. Located underneath the upholstered covers and a layer of cotton batting, canvas protected the rest of the seat structures, so the overall shape was undisturbed by the cover refresh.

I cut new fabric covers to fit the seats and used pushpins to temporarily secure them to the frames to get the alignment and tension just right. There were old chalk marks on the wooden frames, left by a previous upholsterer who—just like me—was working to get the cover centered correctly on the seat. I reused my predecessor’s marks and didn’t have to make new ones.

When the new covers were situated perfectly, I used an electric stapler to secure them to the frame. The stapler is easier for me to use than upholstery tacks, and there won’t be any question in the future that this is a modern intervention to these chairs. I then took the recovered seats back to the gallery and reunited them with the chair frames, fitting them snugly in the seat tray.

The new upholstery is so clean and fresh, but still period-appropriate (of course!) I can also attest the new upholstery has never been sat on! Being museum objects, they should never be used as functional chairs. Is a seat still a seat if it’s never been sat? We’ll have to leave that one to the philosophers.