BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program
Here in the conservation lab, we’ve been busily preparing for the upcoming exhibition Ancient/Modern: The Design of Everyday Things. One of the objects in the exhibition is this child’s garment, excavated from the site of Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s and ’30s. The dry Egyptian desert creates excellent preservation conditions — so much so that even fragile organic materials like this textile can survive for 2,000 years.
Last month, Kate Carras wrote about her favorite textile fragment from Karanis. Her favorite fragment was made differently from the garment shown above, but the materials are the same: wool yarns. You might wonder, how do we know for sure what kind of yarn it is? How do we know that it’s not linen or cotton?
In the case of this garment, there was a meticulous analysis of the weave pattern and yarn structure in the object’s records but no identification of the fibers present. Knowing the fiber type is important for conservators because it helps us make good decisions about how to care for the textile. When we want to identify the fibers that make up a yarn, we carefully take a tiny sample of the fiber to examine with a microscope.
We mount the sample on a glass microscope slide by placing a drop of water over it and a glass coverslip atop the water. The water serves both to improve the optical properties during examination and to hold the fiber in place.
What are we looking for? Different types of fibers have different surface clues, or morphological features, that tell us whether they are wool or hair (from an animal), cotton, linen (from the flax plant), or another type of bast fiber (also from plants). In this case, it looks like the samples are all wool.
The first clues that the fibers are wool are the small, jagged lines (called scales) visible on the surface. The second clue is a feature called the medulla — the central air space that travels the length of the fiber shaft.
Though time did not permit us to investigate further, other methods can be used to narrow down the source even further, to a class of animals — for example, goats or camelids.
Identifying the fibers used in a textile contributes to archaeological research, determines what conditions are best for a textile’s preservation, and helps direct future conservation treatments.