On hair again: Conservation of a flocked papier-maché bulldog toy

Memoria Technica is a private conservation studio based in Seattle and owned by Brittany Nicole Cox, antiquarian horologist and conservator of dynamic objects. Amongst the usual clocks and automatas, mechanical toys sometimes come into her studio, like this bulldog pull-toy that walked in with an urgent need to hop on the bench.

The little fellow was a nineteenth-century papier-mâché pull-along toy on castor wheels, in the shape of a British bulldog, that barks on command via a mechanism hidden in the leash and collar. The collar itself, once extravagant, was only partially intact, as long horse hair that was supposed to imitate a mane had fallen off of it. The papier-mâché body was coated with paint, on top of which flocking ‘fur’ — much of it worn off — was adhered with a water-based adhesive.

The papier-mâché pull-toy bulldog before conservation at Memoria Technica Seattle
© Brittany Nicole Cox

I was travelling to Houston for the 2018 AIC Symposium when Brittany put out a call on social media for a paper conservator to assist her, so I ended up taking an unexpected side trip. We combined our efforts on the much- altered object, to stabilize it and hopefully give it a better chance to withstand the mechanical pressure that creates tension on its fragile papier-mâché structure. This is described in an article on Memoria Technica’s blog; but even after a month of work, one question hung in the air: how do we conserve organic flocking?

There is little to nothing written about the conservation of flocking. We were pleased to see that hair conservation topics have recently made inroads into the literature; however, experimentation in that field remains fairly new, and none of it is fully applicable to flocking conservation. Indeed, flocking is very different to hair since it does not have any inherent bond to its support. Flocking consists of shortly cut wool sprinkled onto a sticky surface. Consequently, it has not got much ‘hold’ to it and detached flocking can hardly be put back into place; whereas artefacts with hair, as we understand it, usually rely on the fact that hair is naturally pinned to a surface in the first place, which secures it with a better grip. Therefore, we needed to find both a stable imitation to flocking, as well as a way to secure it onto the surface.

With only a limited amount of time before I returned home to France, we needed to quickly devise a removable treatment that could be fixed, in very small patches, onto the original surface of the object via an intermediary. It would need to be quick and easy to apply, as Brittany would actually be carrying out the treatment herself, after I had left her with my findings.

Looking beyond the paper conservation workshop

Paper conservators borrow scalpels and nitrile gloves from surgeons, bathophénanthroline and laponite from pharmacists, agar-agar and gellan gum from the food industry, paper tissue from Asian paper mills, not to mention domestic air humidifiers, pans, wooden spoons… the list goes on! Borrowing items from other industries is nothing new to conservators, as our field is still niche enough that we need to get creative when it comes to the hand tools we use daily — or wish we had on certain occasions.

Dental tool found to be useful for conservation during controlled cleaning of the head with a HEPA filter vacuum © Brittany Nicole Cox

However, where conservation materials are concerned, it happens sometimes that there is no solution yet found that is stable or handy enough for some out-of-the-ordinary treatments. Conservation has been around for such a short time that some objects issued from lost or rare craftsmanship are sometimes too particular to appear in any specialized conservation publications, like books and paper or paintings do. And this is what happened with this mechanical toy.

In this article we present one idea on how to easily replace hair with materials available in other fields of conservation. We hope to open up discussion on this subject and find out whether other conservators have encountered this type of degradation and loss and what solutions they have come up with.

Diverting a technique from its original purpose

In conservation you will sometimes look for a solution for months. But sometimes an idea starts with something as simple as the cords you are threading for bookbinding. In the case of our little dog we did not ‘split hairs’, as we had had something in mind for a while that we had been waiting for just the right occasion to experiment with.

Threading cords to replace the missing parts of raised cords on a nineteenth-century volume from the National Library of the Czech Republic © Ségolène Girard

If you are familiar with the process of threading cords, you must have noticed the lush and fine result obtained from picking each individual thread from a cord with a needle point. While conserving books in the past, I often wondered whether this result could possibly be applied to the conservation of leathers, and perhaps even to taxidermy or ethnic collections. The toy bulldog’s need for new flocking made him the perfect candidate to experiment with hair inclusions using cord.

Threaded cords (parts below) extending raised cords on a nineteenth-century volume in areas where there has been loss © Ségolène Girard

The procedure that we developed at Memoria Technica requires a seven-thread linen cord that has been boiled, to get rid of dust and sizing, and then dried.

  • The thread was tied into a knot, which was nailed to a support to facilitate the threading and hold the linen fibers in place during preparation.
  • The thread was then coated with Klucel G. This allowed the separation and straightening of each linen fiber with a needle.
  • The thread was left to dry until the Klucel G had set.
Fibers coated with Klucel G and, on the left, in the process of being straightened
© Ségolène Girard
  • After the fibers were removed from the support with a pair of scissors, they were cut to the desired length. They were returned to the support in small groups and pasted along half their length with wheat starch paste (or Klucel G).
  • One end of the fibers was fluffed so that the fibers would appear less stiff when in place. The other end was kept coated to facilitate manipulation as a group of fibers — like false eyelashes, one can imagine.
  • The fibers were positioned as a group — but could also be handled one by one — onto the papier-mâché areas needing infilling, which had been previously toned and retouched with Klucel G and dry pigments.
  • The pre-coated fibers’ adhesive was lightly reactivated with water or ethanol, depending on the preparation of Klucel G, then were gently pressed down with a brush (fluffed) or a bone-folder (flat), depending on the final aesthetic needs.
During consolidation, and before experimentation with the linen fiber infills: flocking loss is visible above the left eye of the dog (right in the picture), in contrast to surviving flocking on the dog’s right eyelid (left in the picture) © Ségolène Girard

Since we were limited in time, as I had to fly back to France, we only intended this as an experiment. Therefore fibers were not dyed beforehand, but we think that dying them half-way with shading of dark to light, from the base to the tip, could have nicely matched with the flocking already present in that area. For this reason, we chose to remove our test fibers. Removing them was achieved very easily with a little bit of moisture and tweezers. We found that the general retouches without flocking that we had done earlier were satisfying enough in the meantime, as they were not too disruptive to the general look of the object. However, matching the fibers to the flocking would certainly have helped them to mingle with the retouched infills by adding some volume and visual depth. We left the instructions from our little experiment with Brittany, for further trials.

Two different attempts at reducing the visibility of the missing flocking: on the forehead and the top of the skull, mended tears have been retouched with Klucel G and dry pigments, while on the dog’s left eyelid, areas with fiber infills appear lighter © Ségolène Girard

The linen fiber infills are more distinctive because of their fair color © Ségolène Girard

Highlighted squares indicate areas of infill; all of the rest is original flocking © Ségolène Girard

Conclusion

This method is very easy to use in any conservation laboratory. It needs patience to put the linen fibers into place, but once the method is mastered it quickly produces a satisfying visual result. It gives the fibers thickness, straightness and a shiny appearance that characterizes hair, while providing an intermediary with the original support to ease removal.

This method is very easy to use in any conservation laboratory. It needs patience to put the linen fibers into place, but once the method is mastered it quickly produces a satisfying visual result. It gives the fibers thickness, straightness and a shiny appearance that characterizes hair, while providing an intermediary with the original support to ease removal. Using a microscope, the added flocking can be distinguished from the original wooden flocking by its vegetal origin and pulled out one by one with a little humidity and tweezers.

As mentioned earlier, the fibers could be dyed beforehand for larger projects or conservation fields that need it most, as in textile or taxidermy conservation. In our case, the missing areas were very small, so our infills had to be very small groups of fibers. Based on Charlotte Ridley’s article on “creating paper fur” for a damaged taxidermy leopard, we could imagine setting up pre-made ribbons of Japanese tissue with fibers from thread pasted on one side. This would be a good way to make the infill removable, because unless the fibers were toned some shades lighter they might be hard to differentiate from the original flocking when applied individually or in small groups. The Japanese paper used as a base could overlap sections of missing flocking and be sprinkled beforehand with thread fibers to imitate the at times heterogeneous aspect of flocking versus “paper fur” that has a direction.

Even if only used occasionally by a paper conservator, this project —borrowed nicely from book conservation — offers promising results as to what is achievable on objects involving paper and hair, without diminishing conservation standards in the face of an unprecedented dilemma.

As for charming Alphonsine (believe it or not, that is the bulldog’s real name, as found on a tag in the head), she went back to a happy owner barking safely — a remarkable result if we consider that when she first came into the studio, she was in no position to bark so boldly without severely damaging her papier-mâché head.

Thank you to Brittany Nicole Cox for this wonderful experience and to The Book & Paper Gathering for sharing it.

Before and after conservation of the head © Ségolène Girard

Author’s note about flocking

I was not actually able to make references in the text to the literature mentioned in the bibliography below, because there was not much I could link flocking conservation to.

Through my research, though, I ended up gathering together a small bibliography about hair conservation, with books I was not able to consult at the time of treatment — because of short timing in Seattle and because I was navigating from the United States to France, where I did not find a lot of accessible literature on the topic.

I ended up writing this article within the scope of sharing both my experiment, as a paper conservator facing a topic that has not been much discussed in literature, and what happened when faced with the eventuality of having to improvise with my own past experience and general knowledge in paper conservation.

The bibliography below is more of an invitation for readers to share references or interesting experiences that could help others understand hair and flocking, as I was not able to find references that had knowledge on how to conserve the latter. If you have references or have made experiments on flocking, please reach out! I would love to send a bibliography on the topic to the Conservation Wiki. Thank you in advance for your kind help!

Bibliography and Webography

Please make sure to see the last two links! I promise you a good and informative laugh.

Ségolène Girard, 2018. Conservation treatment of a bulldog pull-toy. Papier-mâché that barks : Woof ! Crack ! Woops…

Vidéo of the bulldog pull-toy in action: https://www.instagram.com/p/BpxbefxH5CG/

Louise Bacon, Vicky Purewal, Emilia Kingham & Deborah Phipps (eds), 2015. The conservation of hair, Papers from the 2014 ‘Conservation of Hair’ conference hosted by the Horniman Museum, ICON and the Natural Sciences Collections Association, vii, London: Archetype Publications, ISBN: 9781909492349, 120 pp.

Elizabeth Brown, 2001. An evaluation of quillwork and hair stabilization methods used at the National Museum of the American Indian, Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume Eight, Pages: 166-180 Compilers: Virginia Greene and Lisa Bruno © The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, 1156 15th Street NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20005. (202) 452-954 http://resources.conservation-us.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2015/02/osg008-011.pdf

Keira Miller & Sam Gatley, Spring 2011. Textile Display Specialists, Keep Your Hair On – The development of conservation friendly wigs, V&A, Conservation Journal, Issue 59.

Amélie Pirotte, 2017. Human hair in contemporary art: conservation issues and solutions, CeROArt [Online], HS | 2017, Online since 30 May 2017. http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5071

Charlotte Ridley, April 6th 2017. Conserving with Japanese tissue: beyond books and paper, Part 1: Japanese tissue paper casting, The Book and Paper Gathering, The Wellcome Library, London.

Charlotte Ridley, April 20th 2017. Conserving with Japanese tissue: beyond books and paper, Part 2: Creating “paper fur”, The Book and Paper Gathering, The Wellcome Library, London.

Rebecca M. Sager, May 2008. Hair today, gone tomorrow: The degradation and conservation of archeological hair fibers, A thesis submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MASTER OF ARTS.

Tracey Seddon, 2016. The Conservation of Hair, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 39:1, 75-77, DOI: 10.1080/19455224.2016.1143262

Gwen Spicer, September 9th 2014. Conservation of Victorian hair art. http://insidetheconservatorsstudio.blogspot.com/2014/09/hair.html

Spilhaus, Athelstan et Kathleen, 1989. Mechanical Toys (How old toys work), Washington : Library of Congress.

Other links :

A history of flocking from flocking making company Schuster: https://www.schuster-beflockung.de/en/flocking/history

Julie A. Brown from the consdistlist forwarded this link : http://artofmourning.com/2015/03/16/hairwork-an-introduction/

19 June 2014 Conference on conservation of hair, by The Horniman Museum in collaboration with the ICON Ethnography Conservation Group, ICON Textile group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA)

This is a little Easter egg because of the hilarious 1932’s Dracula bat prop, slide 6: https://nhm.org/stories/museum-made-monsters

Another Easter egg is this video from the Western Association of Art Conservation Annual Meeting, September 25-28th 2017, Gould Auditorium, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City: Kimberleigh Collins-Peynaud, The conservation-restoration of two human hair wigs belonging to a late 17th century Holy Child from Spain/Naples(?) and an 18th century Holy Child from Spain, sculptures from the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Chaumont, France. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2P61Jj4R9A (jump to 21:00 for the conservation process)

Ségolène Girard is a paper conservator in private practice in Versailles and Paris. She specializes in paper degradation in relation to cross-materials. She focuses especially on the interaction of paper and leather for now, and has been developing an alternative material – SINTEVA – for leather binding infills since 2016. More information on http://loperatorium.fr

© Brittany Nicole Cox

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