The United Nations curtain restoration

Conservation Projects
The United Nations curtain restoration

In the summer of 1968 Karen organised a team of conservationists who restored a pair of woven curtains owned by the United Nations, while staying with Soli and Eva-Louise Svensson in Sweden

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Eva-Louise Svensson’s account of the restoration project

Working on the UN curtain in the loft space at Nordhem. Left to right: Naoko Futami, Margaret Louttit, Eva-Louise Svensson, Michael McGreal, Susan Grabowska, Rinske Driesens.

The following account is written by Eva‐Louise Svensson and lightly edited by Katrina Finch to accomodate additional information from the newspaper clippings, which were printed over the course of the project and are reproduced at the bottom of this page.

During the 1950s the UN HQ was under construction in New York. Each nordic country undertook to design a room and it fell upon the architect Professor Sven Markelius to create the “Swedish Room” or the United Nations Economic and Social Council Chamber.

Marianne Richter was commissioned to design a textile in the shape of two curtains, each seven meters high and fifteen meters long and with a combined weight of 300kg. They were woven at the Märta Måås‐Fjetterström AB (MMF) workshop in Båstad. The design consists of several pairs of beating wings on a red background. They are woven in tapestry technique, using linen for warp and wool as the weft.

The curtains embellished the chamber for 17 years until 1968 when it was noticed that large patches were showing signs of disintegration. The textiles were dismantled and shipped back to Sweden, hoping somebody would find a solution to restore them to their former glory. Once there, tests showed that the pH value in the wool had changed, resulting in the disintegration. This had been caused by the chemicals used in the flameproofing – which was required under New York law for all public textiles – changing from exposure to the sunlight and humidity in New York. This treatment on the curtains was particularly misguided as wool and linen are flame resistant.

Note on the damaging effect of flameproofing on a tapestry hanging
Karen Finch

March 17th 1969

A wool and linen tapestry hanging which was made about fifteen years ago for the United Nations’ conference building in New York by the Märta Måås‐Fjetterström AB workshop in Sweden showed grave signs of deterioration. The hangings were returned to the workshop for examination and repair.

The author was consulted as to the possible cause of deterioration. Knowing the high standard of craftsmanship of this workshop and the quality of the materials used, there seemed at first no reason for so sudden a deterioration in a textile composed of a linen warp and a woollen weft.

It was subsequently learned that the tapestry had been flameproofed in order to comply with the Bye Laws of New York which state that textiles hung in public buildings must be so treated. This process had been carried out by a private firm using Flamex Cls no. 110 to which had been added substances whose nature the firm felt unable to divulge.

The Swedish Research Institute1 reported that Flamex Cls no. 110 is a crystalline salt based on ammonium sulphate. It can be removed in water and has a pH of 6.5. A comparative analysis between a sample from the deteriorated hanging and a sample from the original work which showed no deterioration, was carried out by this Institute. A sample from the deteriorated hanging was sent to the author for examination. An examination of this sample2 showed also that a combination of the chemical used in the flameproofing, together with the strong light from the glass wall where the hanging was placed and the humid atmosphere in New York, had brought about chemical reactions so that strong acidic products had formed.

Many flameproofing treatments are accepted today even though they cause a lowering of durability and strength because the textiles treated are not intended for lengthy use, but would normally be used in curtains and other fabrics which have a built-in obsolescence. More work could be done on finding safe ways to flameproof valuable tapestry in hangings such as the one described.

  1. Kungl Byggnadsstyrelsen, Utrikesbyran, Box 22067, Stockholm 22
  2. Carried out by Joyce Plesters, The National Gallery, London WC2

Studies in Conservation (1969), 132–135

In the spring of 1968, when the request to tackle this problem came from Kungliga Byggnadsstyrelsen i Stockholm, I was approaching my fourth and final year of studies in textile design at Konstfackskolan in Stockholm, Sweden where I was a student of Marianne Richter’s. My experience then also included two years as a tapestry weaver apprentice under the tutelage of Barbro Nilsson. During my summer breaks I had had the great fortune of joining in the textile conservation studies and work which Karen Finch directed from her private studio in Ealing. The Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) was not founded until 1976.

Kungliga Byggnadsstyrelsen i Stockholm was to finance the project. The restoration techniques were to be decided by Karen Finch. The restorers were all students of Karen Finch’s – an enthusiastic bunch of young people from England Poland, Ireland, South Africa, The Netherlands, Japan, India, Sweden and of course Denmark. A true United Nations project! My mother Soli Svensson, who was a handicrafts teacher, offered to house and feed us all in my home in Kullabyyden in the County of Skåne. I was tasked with overseeing and co-ordinating the project.

My first task was to purchase a large sheet of heavy duty plastic, used to construct a pool on the front lawn, for the washing of the tapestries. Neighbours provided water from their wells and the team of workers (including Soli’s pupils) trampled on the curtains, creating a washing machine effect.

After first having neutralised the acid in the fibres by applying bicarbonate of soda, Karen Finch supplied a special soap for removal of remaining chemicals, soot and city dust. Thorough rinses followed and then the careful laying of the textiles onto newspaper for drying. Fortunately the weather was kind to us and the drying process was quickly completed.

Next, the specially ordered wooden frame on which the tapestries were to be stretched during restoration work, was installed in the improvised workroom, a spacious attic in the farmhouse. It was quite an undertaking to move the heavy textiles without causing further damage – hence the big wooden rollers.

I have throughout this paper used the word “restoration” rather than “conservation” as I believe the prior word indicates an intent to use the object in daily life as opposed to storing it or displaying it in a cabinet.

The method of restoration as advised by Karen Finch was to reweave the numerous areas where the weft had totally fallen away. Other areas where the weft was still in place but extremely brittle to handle, had to be fixed from the back with a specially treated netting that was fixed with heat (an iron).

This stage of the project took many weeks to complete as the tapestries were extremely delicate in places where the exposure to the sun had been relentless.

Members of the conservation team

Finally, the two textiles needed to be lined with a cotton fabric in order to give strength and protection from further exposure. This work was undertaken in the hired town hall in Hoganas, the only indoor surface big enough to lay out our seven by fifteen metres textile. Small stitches were applied in diagonal lines with approximately 50cm intervals.

Our endeavours – a mixture of knowledge and groundbreaking experiments – were finally put to the test when the tapestries were hoisted up to hang freely from the balcony of the same Town Hall.

The good people of Hoganas were on request, invited to come and view the end result before the textiles eventually were returned to New York in time for the autumn conference season on the 1st of September 1968.

I believe all parties were satisfied with the result. The youthful restorers had forged lifelong friendships, while entertaining themselves in the attic singing Beatles songs or exchanging national menus and traditions in the evenings.

Eva‐Louise Pepperall
Walberton, 2nd August 2018

Extract from oral history interview with Karen

The following is an extract from an interview with Karen conducted on July 16, 1985 by Vicki Cassman for the FAIC (Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation) Oral History project. In the extract Karen discusses the restoration of the UN curtain in the summer of 1968. The transcription is by Kathy Gillis.

Can you think of any other sort of stories of people or yourself that might be of interest?

Well, do you know about when we did the United Nations curtains?

No.

They had been woven in Sweden as a gift by the Swedish government to the United Nations.

I think I’ve seen them in New York.

You may have. Well they began to fall to pieces, we were told, about a year after they were put up. Wool and linen combined. It shouldn’t have happened. Ten years after they’d been finished they were taken back to Sweden. I think that everybody thought that in some way, the manufacturer came into it. We had a Swedish student working with us then, and she suggested that I should be asked to go to Sweden and think of what could be wrong. And I did. This was in the workrooms of Märta Måås‐Fjetterström, and they were run by Barbro Nilsson.

That’s a very famous workshop, yes.

It is, yes. And it was quite clear to me, knowing about the workshop the way that I did, that there could never be any question of them having caused damage of that order. So it had to be something else. Anyway, I arrived in Sweden to stay in the most marvellous house, called Nordhem on the coast, near the coast.

On the west coast?

Yes, near the workroom. With Eva-Louise and her mother, who now lives in England, both of them.

We got up in the morning at five o’clock and worked for four hours. Spent the middle of the day on the beach, and then another stint later in the day. And Eva-Louise’s mother did all the cooking and it was fantastic. It was a really amazing experience.

Eva-Louise…?

Svensson, she was. She’s now Eva‐Louise Pepperall. And she was the one who put together the courses that Stephen Cousens and Caroline Clark were trained at in tapestry weaving at West Dean College. I’ll tell you about that afterward. Anyway, to come back to the thing in Sweden. So I went to this beautiful beautiful house and they had spread the tapestry out for me to look at. And it’s very big. Two curtains. Seven metres by fifteen metres each.

And these were done in tapestry technique?

Yes, yes.

How unusual.

Yes. They were quite quite beautiful, even in the sad state they were in, they were still very beautiful.

How were they… were they…

They were just simply falling apart, everywhere. Not just one colour.

Not just the warp, the weft also?

Yes but in particular, the wool. And in order to touch it at all I had to get close to it, of course, and it was so big I had to crawl on it to get onto it. And it didn’t take more than a few minutes before big red bumps came out on my arms. I’m not very susceptible to that kind of thing, so that was a bit strange. So I thought it has to be something… it has to be a chemical reaction or something. I suggested that we get it tested by the Swedish Textile Research Department – I think it’s a government organisation. And at the National Gallery, where Joyce Pleisters tested it. The pH was below one. So why? Why would that be? And the answer came practically immediately. All textiles hung in public buildings in New York must be flameproofed. And works of art appeared not to be exempted. I got mad about this and said “why didn’t anybody find out that wool does not need flameproofing because it can’t sustain burning?” Ah, it’s stupid, you know, I mean those things are not handled by people who know their… it’s a clerk somewhere, I suppose, who’s given the job, and calls in a firm who does flameproofing for theatres or something like that. And that is what had happened. I put together, in my rage and impotence, I put together an article for Studies [in Conservation, the IIC journal] and sent it to Garry Thompson who was then the editor of Studies and he was on the phone immediately on receipt and said “we can’t do that, we’ll be sued”. I said “I haven’t said anything but the truth”. And he said “no, but that doesn’t really matter, if it’s true or not. Would you like me to rewrite it?” I said yes, and then he did. And then a little piece appeared just so that people’s attention could be drawn to the fact that flameproofing might not be the best treatment for any textile of cultural importance, or historic importance. That was one thing, so this was discovered. The next thing was trying to do something about it.

There was some money made available by the Swedish government for this, and Eva-Louise and her mother and I put together a sort of operation to save the tapestries, which involved doing the work in this beautiful house in Nordhem and the gardens and everything, and getting people from everywhere to come and work on it. So we began by washing it. It was in June and it was raining. And we had to get the water from the well, and it was very very cold, and the only way that we could deal with it was making a large bath on the lawn. And then we had to try to neutralise the acid before anything else at all. We did that by rubbing in an enormous amount of bicarbonate of soda and then swilling that out as fast as you can, really having a lot of water in preparation. And I’m glad to say that we got it to neutral after the first introduction to cleaning. We then washed it and it was dried. And the people who helped with that came from India, South Africa, Holland, England and America. We’ve always had American students I’m glad to say (laughs). The next thing was getting together on finding a way of doing the repair. We decided there to use resin-coated net because we had a frame made for the tapestry in the loft of the farmhouse.

Fifteen metres?

It had been woven in two parts – they had both been woven in two parts and we were able to take them apart to do this. The thing was that we could only put this net on in sections, overlapping sections we thought, and then do it as we went along, in order to have something to secure the tapestry onto. It took three months to do that by a team from absolutely all over the world, and now including a Japanese student. Did I say South Africa? Yes, and from South Africa. Japanese, South Africa.

Were they supplied by the United Nations (laughs)?

No, it was students who had worked with me over the years, all of them. Except for the Indian boy. He was a colleague from art school, a fellow student from art school – from Eva-Louise’s art school in Stockholm. But otherwise they had worked with me before, so they all knew what it was about. And were willing to pitch in and do everything. We got up in the morning at five o’clock and worked for four hours. Spent the middle of the day on the beach, and then another stint later in the day. And Eva-Louise’s mother did all the cooking and it was fantastic. It was, you know, a really amazing experience.

How long did this take?

It took the whole of the summer. Unfortunately of course it changed the dimensions of the tapestry.

The washing or the netting or all of it?

Both, all of it.

And the fire retardant, probably.

Yes. I mean all of it helped. So I believe that they are now a little bit too short for the windows. We suggested they shouldn’t hang them at the windows anymore, but that didn’t…

They are still hanging there, are they?

Yes. I believe so.

And what year was this? Do you remember?

Yes, that was in 1968, because that was when we moved into our new house in Ealing to get more room for the work. Oh, the Indian boy, at night he would be telling our fortunes. Of course we had great parties. It was wonderful. And when it was finished we had to line it, and this time we really had to have it out flat – each one of them, seven metres by fifteen. And the only place that could be done was in the bottom of the swimming pool in the nearby town, which was emptied especially for our purposes. And the townspeople came in and stood round the swimming pool looking down at us.

Why the swimming pool?

It was a question of getting space that was large enough.

That was enclosed?

That was enclosed, yes.

I see. Are there pictures from this?

Yes, we’ve got some quite good ones. All the girls were in bikinis, of course. There’s one that includes Eva-Louise and Rinske from Holland, who now lives in Australia, and Naoko from Japan. And another one with Susan and Mick who had been working with me for an awful long time in Ealing.

So this is Noboko Kajatani?

No, Naoko.

Naoko? Excuse me.

Yes, that’s right. And she was [inaudible]. All were good, marvellous company. It was great fun, and of course all of us staying there and sharing the bedrooms and outhouses. And Eva-Louise’s mother had had one of the outhouses specially made into a guest apartment for us too.

Sounds like quite a production.

Oh, it was, it was. I think it was worth doing, even thought the condition is really [inaudible]. They won’t last very long.

Do you think that the washing actually removed the fire retardant?

As far as we could tell. Of course, we didn’t have quite as many facilities then as we have now. But as far as we could tell. We certainly knew that it was neutral after the washing.

Newspaper clippings from the local papers

The restoration and conservation of the United Nations curtain was given a great deal of news coverage by the local newspaper Nordvästra Skånes Tidningar (North West Skåne News) as shown by the following cuttings. The articles were written over the summer of 1968 and tended to repeat much of the same information.

Throughout the articles different words are used for the treatment applied to the curtains: conservation; renovation; reparation; restoration. At this stage the Textile Conservation Centre was just an idea so without a recognised qualification in conservation there wasn’t a strict definition of the work undertaken.







Further reading

All colour photographs courtesy of Eva-Louise Svensson. Black & white photos © Nordvästra Skånes Tidningar.