Infested: Conserving a Tibetan Ladahki Headdress

(Above) Before: Ladakhi Headdress made of fabric, felt, yak hair, colored wool, green and coral stones, silver, glue, and skin

(Above) Before: Ladakhi Headdress made of fabric, felt, yak hair, colored wool, green and coral stones, silver, glue, and skin

Before: Reverse

Before: Reverse

This Tibetan headdress arrived at The Center with a severe active moth infestation that had caused major surface and structural damage. The conservation of this object has been an arduous, ongoing process since it was brought to The Center. Moths consume keratin, a protein found in animal furs and wool, and subsequently can destroy anything made from animal products. Due to the moth infestation, the hair braids were weakened, there were several areas of loss, and one bundle of hair was nearly detached. Numerous adult moth bodies, casings, pellets, frass (fecal waste) and webbing were found in the headdress. Conservators found large amounts of insects and frass in wooden parts, and under the green stones and the red fabric. All of the green stones and beads appeared secure, but it was possible that even the thread had been weakened by the insects. Tarnish associated with grime and dirt was found on all silver and metal elements, and numerous stones were missing from the silver elements. The black wool was extensively damaged; it had suffered several fabric losses, broken threads, a loss of cohesion, and weakened elements. Conservators also observed missing links on the headdress’s metal banding.

Before: Detail of Insect Infestation

The headdress was immediately frozen to prevent contamination of the other objects in the lab and to kill moth activity, including all adults, larvae and eggs. After remaining in a freezer at -20˚C for one and a half months, the headdress was then acclimated at room temperature for one week under quarantine. The insect debris was gently vacuumed through a protective screen and brushed off the headdress. The tassels were combed and tidied, and the braids were carefully rearranged. Some external braids were broken into segments, and the proper left braids were detached on the wing. The external braids and main knot were lined with an archival fabric specifically selected to provide much needed structural support. Likewise, the braids were reinforced with an appropriate conservation threading. A second thorough vacuuming was undertaken following the stabilization of these braids. Minor losses to the fur elements revealed the original blue fabric lining; these small losses were not visually disruptive and therefore were not filled. The silver elements were gently brushed with a bristle brush and then lightly cleaned and coated with a layer of microcrystalline conservation wax. The two detached beads in the middle of the silver ornament were re-adhered using a conservation adhesive. Through out the process our conservators were careful to preserve ethnographic dirt and avoid over-cleaning the object.

A strainer was custom made by our furniture department. For rigidity, a piece of Gator board was attached to the strainer and acid-free corrugated cardboard was glued on the board with recessed areas to accommodate the thickness of the headdress’ red sections. Cotton muslin, cotton batting, and Belgian natural color linen were stretched over the board and adhered with conservation adhesive. In the red section, the headdress was stitched with a thick brown cotton thread and knotted on the back of the Gator board. The rest of the elements (braids and dangling silver elements) were hand-stitched with cotton thread to the linen fabric. Despite stabilization, the braids remain very fragile, as the fibers have been “eaten” by larvae.

(Above) During the mounting process

(Above) During the mounting process

(Above) During treatment: Detail of custom-built, muslin-wrapped strainer.

(Above) During treatment: Detail of custom-built, muslin-wrapped strainer.

A custom UV-filtering plexiglas vitrine was attached to encapsulate the mounted headdress and ensure its preservation for the enjoyment of future generations. The finished headdress will be hung by The Center’s professional art handlers to ensure proper display.

(Above) After treatment

(Above) After treatment

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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