Traditional and simple, yet beautifully constructed, the style of this Shaker bonnet may lead you to think that it is at least a hundred years old, if not more. Though reminiscent of styles popular in the mid 1800s, according to the owner, “This bonnet belonged to one of the last surviving Shaker sisters at the Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. It was sold after she passed away, many years ago.” The last Shakers at Canterbury Village might not have passed away as long ago as you think. Eldress Bertha Lindsay and Sister Ethel Hudson, the last two Shaker sisters at Canterbury Village, passed away in the early 1990s.
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, more commonly known as the Shakers, is a religious group that formed in England around 1750. Shakers practice a communal lifestyle, and at its height there were about 20 Shaker communities in the New England and Midwest regions of the United States. Canterbury Shaker Village, founded in 1792 in New Hampshire, was the seventh Shaker community formed and at its peak in the 1850s; 300 people were part of the community at Canterbury. Although Shakers believe in living simply, they also embrace innovation and the benefits of technology.
The Shaker bonnet arrived at The Center with a condition issue common to silk that predates the mid-1900s: silk shatter. The crown of the bonnet, made of straw, was in stable condition aside from small holes that appeared consistent with the use of a hatpin by the wearer. The flounce however, constructed of silk, was in a very delicate state. It was fragile and beginning to crack, an early sign of silk shatter. Commonly seen with silk manufactured in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, shattering is a result of a chemical bond created during the manufacturing process used at that time.
Shattering is very different from a tear or cut in fabric. While any fabric can sustain damage due to poor care or mishandling, silk shatter is damage that can occur even in the best circumstances. Silk manufacturers, in an attempt to make silk more weighted and therefore more desirable for purchase, bound the fibers with tin salt. In the short-term this weighted the fabric, making it more appear higher in quality and therefore expensive. However in the long-term, these salts caused a chemical reaction with the proteins of the natural silk fibers causing an inherent degradation of the textile. What results is an irreversible inherent weakness of the fabric causing the fibers to crack and shatter.
Ironically, the shattering of the silk is evidence that when the fabric was purchased, it was expensive and well manufactured. The degradation of the flounce silk was not evidence of poor materials, construction, handling or care, but since it was inherent and irreversible the focus of the conservator was in preserving the original silk by the best means possible. In this instance, it was creating separate housing and minimizing future handling. The original silk was detached from the crown, and skillfully boxed using archival, non-acidic housing materials. Proper housing will assist to delay further degradation of the original silk. In order to continue to enjoy the bonnet as a complete object, a supplemental flounce was hand-made using silk that is a comparable weight, color and sheen to the original fabric. By recreating the original appearance of the bonnet when it was use at Canterbury Shaker Village, the bonnet can be appreciated in its original appearance while on display, and the original silk can be honored and treasured as part of this historical artifact.
“Caring for Your Textiles” Victoria and Albert Museum. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/ caring-for-your-textiles/>
“Shaker History FAQs” Hancock Shaker Village. <http://hancockshakervillage.org/shaker- history-faqs/>
“The Shakers” Canterbury Shaker Village. <http://www.shakers.org/discover-learn/the-shakers/>