Composite objects are objects made of more than one category of material. They include objects such as fabric shoes with rubber soles, bodices with whalebone or baleen stays, clothing with zippers, gowns with beads, saris with metallic embroidery, or a linen shift with a silk collar, etc.
They are of particular concern to a Collections Manager because each material may require different conditions and handling, and therefore these objects present a care and storage challenge. We will go into this in more detail later, but meanwhile, try to think of situations where one might encounter a meeting of disparate materials.
In another collection I worked with with, there is a 19th century gown with glass beads around the collar. The textile which is dyed a lovely shade of blue is discolored where the beads have been in contact with the dress, otherwise the dress is in excellent condition. The discoloration has taken the form of a lightening of the textile. Now, it is important to note here that glass made from sodium or potassium silica is alkaline (lead glass is not), and the scientist at the institution reasonably hypothesized that because dye is PH sensitive, the alkalinity of the glass was causing the textile to react with the glass, and discoloration was the result.
After running some tests this was confirmed, but it was also discovered that acidifying the textile where it had lightened would not correct it as one might presume, because there was more than one color of dye that made up that lovely shade of blue – blue and yellow dye were present; and while the blue dye could be returned to its former glory by acidifying it, the yellow dye being already acidic would become a third color.
The moral of the story is that Collections Managers need to know their materials so that they can spot and fend off potential issues with composite objects. If that dress had been stored with an acid free material between the textile and the glass beads, the textile would be intact today.
Germany, Berlin, 1920-1925
Cotton velvet, plastic (Bakelite), metal, cotton twill
7 1/2 x 10 x 1 in. (19.1 x 25.4 x 2.5 cm)
Purchased with funds provided by James A. and Mary Jaene Edmonds (M.90.41)
Costume and Textiles