We are properly conserving a French-made Planter’s Chair, circa 1860,
belonging to a Portland preservationist.
Hand carved persimmon wood, European Beechwood frame,
original innards, unmolested finish.
We’ll follow the chair in detail through excavation to the new show-cover.
1: Excavation, Seat
Mitchell’s note: We begin with excavation. Excavation is the discovery process,
and I am always shocked at the thought that many people give this job to the youngest interns with little oversight. The more experienced you are the more valuable the information gleaned during these beginning stages:
where the piece may have lived;
personal predilections of the individuals using the pieces;
the environment in which the piece lived;
tracking of dates when various upholsterings took place,
the regions where various upholsterings took place.
MPFC takes more images during excavation that any other phase.
There is so much history, both original and secondary upholsterings,
to document while undoing of the piece.
Also, sometimes we want to go back and see
what our eyes did not connect as important in the first stage…
This excavation was performed in two parts, as you will see.
This is the excavation of the seat.
Mitchell’s note: Passementerie is the last item to be applied and the first to come off the chair, which is how it goes down through the layers. A bit like an archeological excavation.
Conservators are interested in preserving the history of an object.
To that end, we save samples and items as they are removed, noting their location.
When the project is completed, they are given to the client in part or whole,
and/or we keep interesting samples for ourselves.
You might not know what part of the story an item or mark informs.
This is also when we make our final assessment of our client,
and may need to tell the client if changes in the estimate are necessary.
Turning the chair over, we found a tag which tells us that this chair was
sold secondhand with this showcover, including who performed the fumigation.
This tells us it was sold before the mid 1970a, when the State of Oregon stopped
the fumigation laws for secondhand upholstered item sales.
What appear to be original ceramic wheels are in good condition.
The showcover was removed from the seat.
Mitchell finds a layer of paper-wrapped cotton (wadding), popular with
European upholsterers in the early 20th century, at the probable time of the
second generation upholstery, suggesting it took place in Europe.
The wadding is no longer obtainable in the states.
He also got his first glimpse of the bottom of the metal back frame.
Samples of passementerie and fabric are kept.
As Kate photographed the chair, she began to realize there is no way to
frame a symmetrical view, and Mitchell looked at the frame with new eyes.
The back and two legs are badly twisted.
The chair is quite sturdy, and not in danger of tipping or breaking.
Causation of the twisting in the metal back frame may be due to someone sitting oddly,
favoring their right side (much like Kate does, even when on the puter!)
Mitchell sees the first evidence of an earlier fabric,
identified as a green velvet.
Usually we see bits of earlier fabrics; this time only one.
Mitchell began to remove layers of the seat; Kate documented each step.
The first three layers are from the current upholstered showcover, most likely:
two layers of cotton toppers, and a horsehair pad.
Mitchell surmises the chair had between one to three showcovers.
Good fabric, proper foundations, and proper care can make a show cover last a long time.
All materials are cleaned and reused unless there are preventative issues.
2: Excavation, Seat Continued
Removing the second generation hair topper,
Mitchell encounters an original hair topper, properly lashed to the seat deck.
He noted the lashing pattern, then cut and lifted it.
This is protocol on each layer.
The seat deck hessian was exposed; after vacuuming he inspected it.
Mitchell wears a mask when he is excavating after encountering molds and
various types of dust and debris which can mess with your lungs!
Lashing patterns noted, and details of the fit.
We loosened the inside arms to inspect the carvings and connections.
Above, an example of the damage careless upholsterers do to frames, including carvings,
or damage when the frame maker does not include tacking foundations which allow for tacking without encroaching into decorative elements. Mitchell will change the frame slightly to include a tacking block to preserve the carving from future mistakes.
We will repair the lovely carving.
There was damage to the connection between the carving and the metal frame on both arms, also to be repaired. This may be a wear-and-tear issue, or possible a design issue.
We discussed this issue (and all other issues) with our client as we found them.
The original fiber seat pod came off, to be cleaned and conserved.
The spring deck was exposed. Over the years the hessian stretched on both
spring deck and seat deck to conform to the stresses.
Lashing patterns were noted.
Spring deck burlap was removed, and Mitchell inspects the original springs, including the dirt. MPFC finds odd bits sometimes, including coins. The debris was vacuumed.
The springs are heavy rolled steel, which we will clean and conserve.
Mitchell noted the tie pattern before removal, but did not cut the ties yet.
He usually does not cut ties until the last moment necessary.
He also counted and noted the tie hole patterns
as he lifted the tacks holding the ties to the frame.
The chair was turned over, and under the dustcover he found three layers of webbing:
Two were applied in order to save the springs.
This second layer (top) is the creamy webbing above, not lashed to the springs below.
The first webbing applied over the original in order to save the springs
was the darker herringbone webbing in a criss-cross pattern.
It was also not lashed in any manner to the springs, very odd.
As Mitchell removed webbing, he continued to note holes and tack positions. They tell the story of the number of times the chair has been upholstered and in what manner.
Mitchell was down to the original webbing, properly woven in a basketweave pattern.
He believes he knows the history of the webbing patterns, which,
along with tacks from upholstering showcovers and hessian,
and after noting and marking the spring tie tack patterns,
gave him the clues as to the number and nature of the upholsterings.
He feels secure in that the chair was reupholstered twice in its lifetime beyond the original,
and the person who performed the second upholstering did not retie the springs.
Mitchell’s musings at this point about the Planter’s Chair:
European Beech (frame) was not commonly imported in the states.
Persimmon wood (carving) is native to India, but was grown all over the south,
and even into the colonies, which offers other clues.
The original webbing and subsequent webbings were uncommon to the USA,
but found in England and Europe.
The contraction and patina of the foundational woods (European Beech),
and the excessive rusting of tacks and metal objects were consistent with exposure to very high humidity, such as might be found where there is good rainfall and relatively high temperatures, and possibly salty air. This information, coupled with what little provenance was available, led Mitchell to surmise the piece may have lived in France (where it began life) but also lived in either the tropics or a city like New York.
The fact that it is a planter’s chair, with carvings reflecting plants that grow in tropical regions (sugarcane or tobacco) makes him lean toward Latin American or the Caribbean.
The seat is fully excavated,
and we move to the inside back, next post!
(I apologize and suggest you turn off the music!)
3: Excavation, Back (Partial)
Mitchell previously loosened the inside arms around the carvings.
He turned to the outside back, beginning with the arms,
and after noting the stitching pattern used, cut the ties to the showcover.
Moving to the inside arms, showcover,
then not-original top cotton batting
was removed exposing the original buildup on the arms.
The last generation upholstery styling moved away from the traditional tufted back in favor of a slip-backed style which accentuated the lumbar section of the inside back. Mitchell cut the hand-stitching joining the lumbar section of the show cover,
which began to reveal the original styling beneath.
The showcover dropped, and he inspected the inside back for the first time.
New second generation layers of cotton batting and horse hair was exposed;
one clue now is the difference in the colors of the hair used.
The second generation cotton batting and horsehair was removed, labeled, and will be cleaned and reused as appropriate for the conservation of the inside back.
What may change our use of this generation of materials is
what was about to be revealed: a tufted back!
This is the original inside back, with the tufted buildup exposed.
The original upholsterer used a bit of horsehair
around the buttons instead of cotton.
The top horsehair removed, the final pattern for the buttons of the tufting were exposed.
This appeared to be filthy (at first glance it could be soot or carbon buildup),
but it was actually a topper of lint “flocking”.
Flock or flocking was the common name attributed to lint findings
left over from the cloth milling industry, often used during the mid to
late 19th century in stuffing seat squabs, especially in England and France.
It was also occasionally teased out
onto second stuffing surfaces to act as a soft malleable batting.
A 17 oz hessian membrane was used in the original foundation work,
stretched across the steel hoop and lashed along the edges.
The stamped letters are likely to be from the mill for the hessian burlap.
Several things happened at this juncture instead of the complete excavation, standard protocol. First, extensive patterns were taken of the original inside back, above, and will be covered in the post on Upholstery Buildup. In the meantime, Mitchell chose to temporarily encase the entire inside back within a muslin wrap until frame repairs, finish repairs, and the seat buildup was completed. This protected the historic inside back stuffings from losses in information through easing of the fibers during those
treatment procedures. Mitchell prefers to have the information from the excavation
in his head as close to the buildup/conservation time of a given part as possible…
in this case, after the seat buildup he will turn to the excavation of the inside back.
We move to the frame conservation!
4: Reparation and Finish Work
The frame’s joinery had issues in two places and one was a surprise.
Mitchell gently disassembled the legs and the front apron,
in order to clean the old hide glue from the
mortice and tenon, readying it for reparation.
Tack holes on all possible parts of the frame were conserved using
picks and warm hide glue. It looks like it takes much more time than other
viable solutions but it doesn’t; one gets into the rhythm and
the picks drop easily into the abandoned tack holes filled with hide glue.
Mitchell’s note: I do not recommend the application of epoxies, putties and/or slurries of glues (PVA or hide) made of wood flour and shavings for surface leveling,
as they will not impart structural integrity. They will not hold tacks.
Ultimately they are not reversible as they are nearly impossible to remove
from historic wood surfaces and substrates. Many epoxy-based glues
and putties will thwart future conservation efforts into perpetuity.
Modestly bruised or worn tenons, where gaps could effect efficacy of the reglued joints, were laminated with thin veneers made from similar wood species prior to regluing of joint. Warm hide glue was applied to cleaned conserved parts, and clamped to cure.
Tack holes in the carved decorative arms were also conserved.
We puzzled over the relief carved design facing the inside part of the arm,
and the flatter plain surface facing the outside arm of the chair.
At first the visual effect seemed confusing (makers have been known to make mistakes) but as Mitchell ventured further into the project he realized it was not a mistake.
Mitchell was surprised to uncover the decorative arm to metal frame connection, .
fragmented into multiple disintegrating bits.
Kate’s note: This is also to remind you that sometimes surprises happen
after assessment, during conservation processes. It is advised to work with your clients about payment, keeping clients informed as adjustments in costs are resolved.
The disintegrated parts or blown out broken parts were carefully removed
and a clean surface to attach a connecting piece of hard wood was created,
the connection fashioned and the piece assembled.
A small bit of carved decorative wood was loose and glued with warm hide glue.
All the glue used in the reconstruction was warm hide glue, clamped to cure.
Hide glue is strong and reversible when properly applied and
of good quality without bulking agents or chemical additives!
We once made all our hide glues, but now we use Old Brown Glue,
and only make fish or rabbit hide glue when necessary.
The rest of the chair frame holes were conserved.
Small cracks and chips found in the frame were also repaired
with warm hide glue, and clamped to cure.
The repaired persimmon-wood carved arm front tenons were brushed with warm hide glue and returned to original positions in the cleaned, prepped seat side rail mortice.
The historic steel hoop was reconnected using historic slot headed screws,
securing screw and hoop to the backside of the decorative arm front.
Finally, the assembled and glued chair was leveled and clamped to cure for 48 hours.
Mitchell retrofit the inside arm frame with a tacking block; previously upholsterers
toe-nailed into the frame inappropriately, which caused most of the damage.
This type of retrofit is a preservation measure.
In this case, it creates a visual design element, allowing for a structural gully
around the decorative arm foundation resulting in recessed contours around the arm which are embellished with the decorative show cover and woven braids.
The historic iron springs were in good condition;
after a thorough inspection Mitchell cleaned them of rust and
occlusions using Gamblin’s Gamsol (Odorless Mineral Spirits).
The decorative scroll was carved from walnut,
joined to the leg proper then glued and clamped to cure.
The chair was ready for finish conservation.
Stain infill was determined.
The “stain” was created by dissolving powdered pigment in isopropyl alcohol.
Mitchell applied our stain to cure until completely dry.
After, a topcoat of blonde shellac was applied to fix the infill color in place.
We used an encaustic wax finish on the entire frame’s finish in
multiple applications and viscosities until burnish-able.
MPFC created this wax by infusing bee and carnauba wax with finely powdered pigment with the addition of “drying” oils to polymerize the mixture and act as a fixative.
The frame is conserved and restored!
5: Buildup, Seat
The chair was turned over.
Upholstery conservation on the conserved frame begins underneath.
Mitchell intends to web the frame in the original basket-weave pattern,
same placement, using similar webbing to the original.
Mitchell’s note: If you remember the oddly placed webbing (last image above),
the more I considered it, the more I realized this was likely NOT the original webbing. Tack hole patterns suggest a tightly woven webbing of greater width, also European.
In this, the oldest generation found, note it is likely numerous courses are missing.
The webbing was a high quality herringbone jute, modest in width, metric, of European origin. The upholsterer chose to overlap the edges of the spring instead of supporting
the spring at center (the spring could fall through, see third image). It may have been rewebbed from underneath, as the springs were also not lashed to the webbing.
Mitchell placed his webbing in a tightly placed basket-weave with very little space
between courses of webbing, in keeping with the French style of upholstering.
We chose to rewebb and place the webbing in what appears to be the historic position. The historic position/patterning corroborates our supposition that the chair
was made in France or was created in the French style.
We keep samples of original show covers, burlaps, muslins, and webbings for our clients.
Cleaned springs were placed, still tied, into position.
Mitchell realized that to preserve the decorative arms a second, additional prosthetic
block was needed underneath the block placed in earlier (see previous post).
A double blocking system was the totality of the addition on both sides.
Mitchell noted the direction of the springs during excavation,
and places them properly into position.
Tying shown at the start. We show these ties and knots in
other reports online, and will be teaching them
in online classes in the near future.
Mitchell’s note: The wear-points found on the old iron springs indicated the piece was
originally a four-way tie. Clearly the maker crafted it with the intent of the
user dropping deeply into the seat with a low center of gravity, ergo, the four-way tie.
So much can be learned by paying close attention to details during excavation!
The springs were covered with a tight jute hessian,
creating the Spring Deck.
The hessian was tied to the springs in a four-point pattern.
Mitchell sees an unintended homage to the Holbein stitch
and wonders about the connection.
The Holbein is shown in the buildup, and will be taught in our online classes.
The historic seat deck pod was cleaned, hand-blocked,
and selectively teased and made ready for installation.
Additional coir was secured to the conserved pod,
and the pod was placed onto the Spring Deck.
A beautiful polished hemp open weave burlap
covered the original hessian, and was tacked into place.
Both the historical pod and the new topper were used.
The fiber pod was marked, readied for lashing into place using 12 ply waxed linen twine.
Three rows of lashing established a firm front edge and edgeroll,
while two courses of twine transited the seat contour keeping stuffings in place,
establishing a center of gravity for a comfortable sit.
The third front row of stitching performs double duty in this instance.
From Mitchell: It never ceases to amaze me, even after decades of performing work
on fiber pods, their ingenious design! While it is easy to comprehend how fiber
stuffed into a casing performs relative to compression and return during a sit or recline,
it is the lashing twines (simple thins strand of tightly twisted fiber) which become
the building blocks for the fiber pod’s ultimate structure and longevity.
These strings strategically placed, patterned and knotted, act like sub-floors and
stud walls in a building. They make for a cohesive structure which can flex yet remain
firm and shapely, and allows the fiber pod to last decades under consistent use.
The Seat Deck is conserved
(in this image the inside back
is revealed completely excavated);
we move to the inside back excavation!
6: Excavation, Back
With the seat buildup completed, Mitchell removed the protective covering
from the inside back (image #1, discussed why here).
He excavated the original inside back cotton topper (See excavation back —
the image with the seat was blurred so showed the image
without the seat built-up) and horsehair, above.
A thin batting of cotton flocking lint, original to the piece, was exposed;
a good deal of the color is the actual color of this flocking, though it was also dirty.
The crest (fiber filled) edgeroll and adjacent collar was lashed
to and around the perimeter of the crest to arm hoop,
over the heavy hessian foundational membrane.
After inspection, notes and patterns were created,
then the edgeroll was carefully removed.
The serpentine hair-filled crest and arm “collar” were carefully lifted
from the steel hoop frame after anchoring stitches were cut.
Mitchel retained the stitches within the hessian so he could
refer to them to replicate the original stitch patterning as necessary.
The serpentine hair-filled crest and arm “collar” was laid atop
the original inside back in the order removed.
The “cumberbund” — the lumbar filled support — was carefully
removed, patterned, cleaned and readied for reapplication.
It was also placed atop the other inside back pieces in the order removed.
The hoop frame exposed, with the
original hessian foundational membrane, above.
Finally the original hessian foundational membrane was removed, and the steel hoop (frame) was fully exposed. Notice the nice contour to the seat pod at the rear. From an upholstering engineering perspective, the roll around the seat rear and inside arms play an important function relative to a semi-firm barrier between the inside arm and inside back, keeping a tight fit between those elements. The roll also acts semi-independently from the central portion of the pod, where the primary center of gravity exists, allowing the sitter to drop into the springs without collapsing the seal between the lumbar area of the inside back and the seat. It is also easy to see the geometric flavor of the Art Nouveau style, though the chair precedes the production of that style by several decades.
The back is fully excavated!
7: Buildup, Tufted Back and Seat
The inside back completely excavated.
Note (even if you can’t see it) the frame’s steel hoop tilts to one side,
a product of repeated sideways sitting by an inhabitant.
As we move on, it will sometimes appear as if our upholstering
was “off” when it was actually the tilt of the back’s steel hoop.
14oz jute hessian was chosen as a replacement for the
original inside back and arm foundational membrane.
The symmetry of the hessian grain positions relative to the frame positioning
and lack of symmetry was calculated and transferred by graphite and chalk
to the hessian in order to insure the best positioning of the woven medium.
The hessian was stretched and pinned then lashed with
heavy 12-ply linen twine in a locking blanket stitch.
Mitchell placed double cross stitches along strategic
points of the hoop and vertical supports to
ensure the hessian did not move over time.
The seat and back now will be built together.
On the seat, arms and back, the buildup occurred in
reverse order of excavation; what came off last went on first.
Second stuffings (horsehair) was secured to
the conserved pod and additional hair added over the lashings
to replace original hairs broken over many years of use.
A new cotton topper was placed upon the hair.
A 7 oz cotton/hemp muslin was stitched to the pod,
making the surface ready for the new showcover.
Historic hair filled cummerbund (lumbar filler)
was lashed into position using linen twine and
covered with 9oz open weave hessian.
Notice how the lumbar filler wraps around the inside arms,
creating a semi-firm seal between the seat contours
and the inside back and arm base.
The serpentine hair-filled crest and arm “collar” was reinstalled,
loosely stitched with linen twine awaiting amendment.
It was amended just below using polished coir
in order to add resilience to the historic roll.
Even in well-kept upholstery, some losses occur to fibers:
they break, powder, and sift through their encasements.
The serpentine crest and arm roll
were fully lashed using linen twine.
Note the definition of the contours and sloping lines,
running down to the hair pod.
The original inside back second stuffings
(cleaned and teased), was set into the conserved form.
Mitchell left the historic flocked wadding on the hair surface
so the evidence of period materials would be available for future generations.
The second stuffings were lashed into place using linen twine.
Notice the attention paid to using the historic lashing patterns,
easily seen on the outside back of the foundational hessian.
Tufting began using a 5oz finely woven hemp hessian.
The patterns taken earlier were applied and adjusted to the conserved form.
Mitchell did not want to return the chair’s back in the form
in which our client was familiar, but rather the historic form.
(BTW our client was appraised and excited about these prospects,
but it is always advised to discuss before changing the form of a familiar chair!)
Above, the beginning stages of tufting
showing the elevations and folds defined,
but before Mitchell buttoned the tufts.
Tufts were held in place with 5ply linen twine knotted
to the back foundational membrane.
In the first image, the muslin was pulled over the crest
and a running stitch installed to secure.
In the second image, note the anchor point for buttoning
was knotted to the foundational membrane.
The inside back muslin was also secured around each arm,
and the buttons continue onto the inside arms.
The gully continued to be defined as a decorative element.
Mitchell attached the inside arm muslin to the form
defining the final arm top and final button placement.
The outside back and outside arms will be completed
after the showcover and buttoning is complete on the inside back and arms.
The outside back and outside arms, as well as the
bottom band (apron) will be completed after the showcover and buttoning
is completed on the inside back and arms.
Other than the obvious — that is, our client liked the fabric
and the colors went well in her historic home —
the showcover was chosen because Mitchell knew the velvet
was reminiscent of velvets in the 19th Century,
and so was a good choice for historic reasons.
The lovely fabric is a rayon, cotton and silk pile
on a tightly woven cotton base with a dense thread count.
The gold flecks cause a shimmering effect as you move around the chair.
Trims were also period appropriate embellishments,
especially in their modest appearance with a touch of gold
to play against the gold flecks in the velvet.
When the fabric was delivered, it was immediately unrolled,
a yardage verification was performed, and the entire roll checked for flaws.
Flaws are a common occurrence, and additional yardage must be requested
from the company and/or the fabric returned for replacement.
Patterns were created, which is a lesson onto itself.
Fabric was cut.
Buttons were made (and BTW we usually make extras for our clients.)
Cut into squares, the hand-operated machine
cuts the circles for the button, then molds it onto the metal forms.
These machines are indispensable to a serious upholstery studio.
(Note these images are from another project.)
The inside back muslin was covered with
a thin layer of felted organic 100% staple cotton.
(We buy organic whenever we can.)
The batting acts as a soft buffer between the muslin and showcover,
protecting the showcover from premature wear.
The batting also acts as a dust barrier (filter) and
softens the surfaces creating a sumptuous look and feel.
Buttons were placed as shown above on (note these images are from another project.)
A very long button needle is used to place the location of the button through many layers; the button threads are in the needle in all of the images above.
Once the needle is placed it is slowly pulled through and tied (images 5 & 6).
Cotton is used to keep the button from ripping through the foundational cloth.
Once the button is set at the right length or tension (and this is not easy to do),
the folds are placed, as they rarely “fall”into a pleasing folding pattern.
Buttons were installed; now the entire chair can be closed up.
Moving to the arms: Mitchell applied stitching and lashing methods to the intersecting
points between the inside back and inside arms (image 1-4, above). it was necessary to
cinch the back’s termination points tightly to the internal stuffings and steel frame
in order to prevent slipping and easing of the area where the inside arm begins.
The inside arm was hand-stitched which also allowed the seat-to-arm gully to define. Mitchell secured and buttoned the the inside arm show cover. Note how nicely the
arm-top squares creating a comfortable support for the forearms?
Pausing to show the entire chair at this stopping point.
Note the extra fabric pulled through the seats.
Moving to the seat, Mitchell places a light layer of organic 100% staple cotton batting
placed over the muslin prior to the showcover, for the same reasons as the
cotton batting on the inside back: protection from premature wear,
a dust barrier (filter) and softening the seat ever so slightly.
Mitchell’s notes: At first glance a pattern repeat on a design like this seems
inconsequential. It is not! This showcover had a repeat which was visible and
demanded attention to centering, balancing and matching the motif as it related
to the contours and spatial aspects of the chair. I notice pattern mismatches and
sloppy placement, and believe even laypersons (clients) will notice over time.
The bottom band was created. The modest diameter
decorative rope braid was hand-stitched below the front edging
prior to padding and final upholstering of the showcover.
Stitchings and stuffings and lashings and soft cotton toppers,
all for the front decorative banding! It is surprising to non-upholsterers what
measures are taken to ensure long-terms viability of a soft-structure object with
little rigid structure within… all hidden, all an important part of our upholstery heritage.
Decorative front banding was
tacked using #2 blue-tacks,
ready to be blind-stitched.
Yes, Mitchell spits tacks;
true upholsterers do!
The chair was turned upside down.
A layer of organic 100% staple cotton batting was followed with 400 ct percale muslin, stretched, pinned, and blind-stitched to the foundational cloth.
A final pattern of the outside back was created by Mitchell;
material was cut and machine stitched readied for application.
Another layer of organic 100% staple cotton batting
was placed over the percale, pinned to the underside
of the decorative rope braid, and blind-stitched or tacked.
Remember the steel hoop listed to one side from a regular sitter favoring a position? Notice how the inside back asymmetrical contour lists above?
This is due to the steel hoop listing.
It also effects how the button’s elevations are seen in certain photos,
though they are level — it is an optical illusion due to the tilted frame.
In person the chair rarely reveals the listing but the still shots reveal it!
The Planter’s Chair completed in our studio!
An overview of the process, from one vantage point, below.