Cleaning & Restoration Association News

Restoring Smoke-Damaged Tapestries

May 18, 2006
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Tapestries are nothing more than fabric pictures. They are made with pictures artistically interwoven or hand knotted using colored yarns or threads in flat or pile weaves. Similarly, fabric wall hangings have become quite popular, especially when used as decoration or wall art in commercial buildings.



Similarly, fabric wall hangings have become quite popular, especially when used as decoration or wall art in commercial buildings.

Because tapestries and other fabrics are hanging in elevated positions, they may be well above the heat line in a fire-damaged structure, and they may be subject to heavy smoke and heat damage. Of course, this may severely impact your ability to achieve satisfactory cleaning. To compound the problem, these items may be somewhat delicate due to their construction or age. Clean them with extreme caution to avoid fiber or fabric distortion, dye bleeding or simply disintegration.

Evaluation

Carefully inspect and evaluate the condition of the fabric. Use a magnifying glass or lighted microscope to inspect the condition of individual yarns. Follow up with a pinch-tear test similar to the procedure used to inspect draperies. Also, use a dry solvent and a mild alkaline detergent applied to a white cloth, and test each chemical separately for colorfastness along the edge of the tapestry. Don't hesitate to ask insureds about the age and value of the piece. If it's extremely old and valuable, this job should be best handled by highly trained art restoration specialists.

Dry Soil Removal

Assuming that the tapestry's age and value are within reason, begin the restoration process by removing as much soil as possible by dry vacuuming, before applying cleaning agents. It's a good idea to use a perforated, drapery-cleaning tool for this job, since it exerts minimum pressure on loose weaves. Follow up with dry sponge cleaning for additional dry soil removal.

Cleaning

With light smoke damage, spray on dry solvent, agitate lightly and delicately with a towel, then vacuum out excess solvent and suspended soil with a drapery cleaning tool (perforated vacuum slot) and an upholstery and drapery extraction unit. These steps may be all that are necessary for complete restoration.

In moderate-to-heavy smoke situations, apply a dry solvent pre-conditioner (with dry solvent compatible detergent), and agitate cautiously with a white, terry cloth towel or horsehair bristled brush. Allow a few minutes of dwell time; then, rinse the fabric with a dry solvent rinse and compatible deodorant that is injected and extracted with a standard upholstery and drapery dry solvent extraction cleaning unit.

If smoke residues are so heavy that dry solvent-based cleaners simply won't achieve acceptable results on tapestries, consider two additional options: First, after briefing insureds or adjusters on available options and obtaining appropriate authorization, consider use of in-plant immersion dry cleaning that is more aggressive and may be expected to produce better results than on-location dry cleaning. Just be sure to inform your dry cleaning subcontractor of the item's delicacy and specify that they clean the tapestry - size permitting - in a nylon net. This practice minimizes the agitation that may cause the tapestry to fray or distort. Additionally, dry cleaners should reduce cleaning cycles to a bare minimum.

Ultimately, wet side cleaning may be necessary. Again, test for dye bleeding and fabric durability carefully. Even at that, use wet cleaning with caution, and consider it salvage cleaning, with insurance company representatives and insureds being informed of potential problems and other options (replacement), before you begin restoration work. Pre-conditioner strength varies based on fiber content and color stability, but usually, its pH is close to neutral, maybe even slightly acid, to stabilize color and protect natural fibers. Agitate with a soft, horsehair bristled brush, and minimize dwell time. Extracting suspended soils from tapestries with a drapery tool (perforated slot) is highly recommended, to lessen the possibility of fabric damage.

Drying

As with any questionable fabric (due to fibers or dyes), rapid drying is essential to prevent shrinkage, puckering, dye migration, browning, or other potential problems. Additional vacuum strokes, forced air, and sunlight contribute to minimum drying time.

Occasionally, when wet or dry cleaning delicate tapestries, and especially loosely woven fabric wall hangings, it may be necessary to build a frame over which a durable white sheet or polyester screening material is stretched tightly. Then lay the tapestry or wall hanging on top of the sheet. After carefully removing all dry soils with meticulous vacuuming procedures, and using a low pressure gun-jet "soaker" tool, spray a pre-tested dry solvent or neutral, water-based cleaning solution into the top of the tapestry, while vacuuming the underside of the sheet being used to stabilize the loose or delicate weave. The idea is to suspend the soil and flush it downward, through the sheet and into the cleaning unit's vacuum recovery system. In this manner many delicate fabrics may be cleaned safely and effectively.

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